Director KJ Dahlaw Discusses a Queer Orfeo
From General Director Mark Streshinsky:
Once we had decided to program Gluck’s Orfeo & Euridice, we began talking about how we wanted to present the opera - the decision to cast a mezzo instead of a countertenor meant all principal parts would be sung by women, which lead to the idea to produce the production with women at the helm. All the on-stage performers, the director/choreographer, conductor and designers would be women. We also decided that if the director we chose was interested, we would be open to the character of Orfeo being a woman and the love story being a queer one. Once we began to talk with the wonderful KJ Dahlaw about the possibility of directing and choreographing, it was clear that this is the direction we would go and we became more and more excited about the idea. Since KJ is gender non-binary, the ideas expanded even more. No longer was this production a female only production, some of the dancers KJ has cast are also non-binary. And then came the idea that the character of Orfeo would also be non-binary. And, while we will not change the Italian gender in the text, the surtitles will reflect a gender neutral style.
Here, KJ writes their thoughts on the idea of telling this story from this perspective.
I am directing and choreographing Orfeo & Euridice for the West Edge Opera Company’s 2019 summer festival. As a queer, non-binary dance artist, I am beyond thrilled to co-create this work that will place women and non-binary artists front and center. Representation matters. The stories we tell are important signifiers of who we are and who we want to be, as a human community. Whose stories we tell, how we tell these stories and to whom we are orienting our stories toward, reflects the values of the community.
We are living in a time of great cultural upheaval. Dominant culture, oriented towards white hetero-patriarchy is being challenged by all of those whom white hetero-patriarchy marginalizes and oppresses. The battle for equity and inclusion can be seen everywhere from the courthouses to popular television, from the ballot box to the bedroom, from schools to prisons to offices to churches to dance studios to the streets. Whose stories are we telling now? Whose stories are we silencing/erasing? In a time when LGBTQIA, specifically transgender rights are under attack, women’s rights under attack, creating work that centers non-binary and women artists is important.
As I have been steeping myself into this story, in this particular time and place, I connect with the deep emotive resonance of the operatic tradition. This mythology of Orfeo is a story that has fascinated people for centuries. For me, it’s a queer underworld journey. It’s a story of love, loss, grief, learning to let go when the time for letting go is at hand, and a journey into facing the ‘shadows’ and ‘demons’ of one’s own psyche. I think most humans can relate to this sort of a journey into self discovery. Looking through the piece with the entire team, we all felt that Gluck’s departure from the original story at the end rang false. But to instead tell the original story by Ovid which is full of violence and death was equally upsetting. I refuse to tell another story of queer suicide or trans violence. So we have orchestrated a new ending, using Gluck’s own music, planned by conductor, Christine Brandes. An ending that you will have to come to the show to see.
Reframing the Orfeo myth through a queer lens is exciting and important work! This is a new story, emerging out of the bones of an ancient one. This is a story of queer love and belonging to self. It is a story that I personally identify with a great deal. In my own queer underworld journey, I have faced the demons of internalized homophobia, and the shadows of shame and fear as I began to embrace my queerness. I resonate with the depth of longing, desire and agony inside of grief. The struggle to let go of what needs letting go is at the heart of how I perceive the Orfeo tale. It is somewhere inside of the letting go that we open ourselves to the possibility of becoming a truer version of ourselves, of belonging to ourselves. Culture too, seems to be in the process of letting go of old, oppressive ideas, patterns, and systems. This story takes on extra significance when the letting go and shedding of aspects of self are coming from those whose non-heteronormative bodies are doing so in the face of danger, stigma, alienation, and rejection. Then, this transformation becomes an act of courage, a radical act of love, faith and hope. This is a story for our time, for our place, for our belonging.