Mark Morris might be the best-known dancer in Brooklyn — his name is always in lights on the Lafayette Avenue building that houses his eponymous dance troupe — but when discussing his latest project, even this seasoned choreographer and director seems slightly nervous.
“What a giant organization the Met is!” the 50-year-old founder of the Mark Morris Dance Group exclaimed in an exclusive interview with GO Brooklyn. “That’s the biggest pressure: it’s so gigantic that they even have a department of departments!”
Morris was taking a rare day off from working on the premiere of his new staging of Christoph Wilibald Gluck’s Baroque opera, “Orfeo ed Eurydice,” opening on May 2 at the Metropolitan Opera. Morris’s production, his Met debut, marks the first time in 50 years that a choreographer has directed a production at the famed opera house.
“Seriously, it’s sometimes hard to know what’s going on all the time,” he said. “We’re rehearsing in the third sub-basement of the Opera House, so there could be a nuclear event outside and you would never know that it happened.”
But in a good way.
“[The Met] is really an amazing sort of opera factory. I’m used to craziness when I’m staging and choreographing, but working at the Met really takes it to another level.”
Morris’s debut as both director and choreographer has been in the planning stages for a number of seasons, and has overcome difficulties that included last year’s death of one of its stars, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.
“I was asked by [Met artistic director and conductor] Jimmy Levine a couple of years ago to stage this opera,” Morris said, “and originally it was me, Jimmy and Lorraine working together. Then a lot of things changed with Lorraine’s death. After we lost her, [countertenor] David Daniels replaced her as Orfeo, and luckily for me the notions that I had for that character didn’t change at all.”
Gluck’s opera — which Morris has staged in different versions, first in 1988 and again in 1996 — is a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus, who journeys to the underworld to reclaim his beloved wife, Eurydice, after her death. There is, however, one condition: he must not look back at her until they have returned to earth or he will lose her again — this time forever. “Orfeo” is filled with some of Gluck’s greatest music, including several wonderful dance interludes.
As excited as Morris is to be at the helm, the Met is just as happy to have him.
“Mark’s debut at the Met is notable in many ways,” Met General Manager Peter Gelb told GO Brooklyn. “It’s the first time a choreographer has directed an opera in more than 50 years — but to label Mark Morris a ‘choreographer’ is to not fully understand the range of Mark as an artist or his approach to his work.”
Living up to such high expectations, however, can be exhausting.
“This is my last production of a very busy, very tiring year, and I’ve tried to make it lively and interesting so that it’s not difficult to work on and perform it,” Morris said.
“At least it’s quite short — I think it’s one of the few operas that’s the right length,” Morris added about the 90-minute show. “Also, I’ve tried to stage it very simply and, I hope, beautifully. It’s a gorgeous story with gorgeous music for the solo singers, the chorus of 100 and the dancers.”
Morris will be in his element with the dancers since “there’s a great deal of dancing in the piece. I have 22 dancers, and they play everybody in the work aside from the three leads: they dance in the divertissements, they dance in the many choruses, and they’re doing the same thing as the chorus throughout the opera. The dancers are both the friends [of Orfeo and Euridice] and the Furies.”
Although his collaborators, set designer Allen Moyer and costume designer Isaac Mizrahi, are also making their Met debuts, Morris has had long professional relationships with both men.
Mizrahi, despite his own celebrity, has no problem following Morris’s lead. “I think we collaborate well because I know that, in the end, it’s Mark’s show and the costumes are only there to serve his vision,” he told GO Brooklyn. “I have tons of input, but when Mark says something, it’s got to be the last word.”
And he isn’t just following orders because he’s scared of his old friend. “What inspires me about Mark’s work is his unerring sense of music. More than a choreographer, I think he’s the best musician I know.”
“Orfeo ed Euridice” is being performed at the Metropolitan Opera (150 West 65th St. between Amsterdam and Columbus avenues in Manhattan) from May 2 through May 9. Standing room tickets are available day of for $35. For information, call (212) 362-6000 or visit www.metopera.org.