Orpheus takes a journey into the unknown

Acclaimed tenor Ronald Samm describes Orpheus, in which he plays the lead role, as “a loving and stately opera”.

Orpheus takes a journey into the unknown

This co-production from the Cork Operatic Society and the Everyman is made up of much of the same team that staged the award-winning Pagliacci at the venue last year. Directed, conducted and re-orchestrated by John O’Brien, this production reinterprets Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurydice for a contemporary audience. London-based Samm, the first black actor in the UK to play Othello in Verdi’s opera, was the memorable leader of the clowns in Pagliacci. He says Orpheus is a challenging opera. First performed by an alto contralto, Samm is trying to create an impressive sound with his strong tenor voice. “As well as that challenge, I haven’t had to learn off so many recitation pieces since college. But it’s great. The opera has such lovely music and I’m delighted to be back in Cork.

“Orpheus is very much a classical opera with a few modern tints. It’s about a man who is grieving over his wife, Eurydice, who has just died. It’s about Orpheus’s journey which involves going into the underworld to get his wife back. There’s a real twist in this production.”

With the assistance of Amore, the goddess of love (sung by Majella Cullagh), Orpheus meets the terrifying Furies and the destiny-defining Fates. “He has to beguile them so they’ll open the gates of the underworld to him.” But, reflecting the Biblical story of Lot’s wife trying to escape Sodom, Orpheus is warned that he can’t look at Eurydice (played by Tara Brandel) or talk to her until they come back from the underworld. Samm says that the production “is very much a journey into the mind of Orpheus. He can’t deal with the grief he feels so he creates this underworld. He is completely depressed and out of his head.”

Orpheus is also presented “as the greatest musician that ever lived.” His instrument is the harp. His pursuit is art. “To be a true artist, Orpheus had to go through a terrible trial so he’d be so deeply affected that he’d succeed in swaying people’s emotions. He has to suffer for his art.”

Samm explains that Orpheus, which features the popular aria, ‘Che Faro’, “is not the kind of thing I usually do, although I have done some classical opera in the past. I really like the journey my character has to go on. At one point, he’s grieving. Then he’s angry. He goes through the whole gamut of emotions.”

The cast of virtuosic actor/musicians is extremely versatile. They play the saxophone, the French horn, two harps and everybody takes turns at playing percussion instruments. “Three or four people play so many different instruments. It’s very impressive.”

Originally from Port of Spain in Trinidad, Samm didn’t decide to become a singer until he was 19. “I used to sing a lot as a child and was in choirs and amateur productions. A very famous Irish composer and conductor, Dr Havelock Nelson, used to come to Trinidad to adjudicate at the biennial music festival. He met so many great singers that he started up an opera company in Trinidad, producing an opera ever year. Geraldine O’Grady (violinist) and her daughter used to come along as well. I got to know these Irish people while I was in the various operas.”

One year, a leading voice coach from England came to Trinidad to coach the young singers. “She sat three of us down in a room one day and said that any one of us could be an opera singer. I thought, ‘could I actually make a living from this?’. But my parents didn’t want me to pursue singing. They were head teachers and they felt singing was too insecure. I was serious about it and had to find a way of funding myself. I worked in a bank for three years and did amateur operas and was in a pop band. I was saving money in Trinidad. Eventually, my mother saw how determined I was and she made my father swear, on her death bed, to help me. She died when I was 21. After that, my father was my best supporter. He really understood what I was doing.”

When Samm left Trinidad for the UK, his main goal was to have his voice trained. “I had an open mind. I wanted my voice to show me the way, so I trained for four years in the Guildhall in the Barbican Centre. I learnt all the techniques as best I could, singing in Italian, German, English, Russian, French and Spanish (which is Samm’s second language). At the end of that, I could sing a little bit. I was in the West End for three years and did three shows there while still doing my classical training on the side. I was lucky to get a scholarship to the Royal Northern College in Manchester. My voice really accelerated there. I think age did that as well as a willingness to take in information. I was also exposed to the right singing teacher.”

Samm completed his studies at the National Opera Studio in London. He now travels all over Europe and eases the business of living out of a suitcase by meditating regularly. The highlight of his career was singing Othello for Birmingham Opera three years ago, garnering strong reviews. He reprised the role in Leeds earlier this year. Another highlight was singing for Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace in June at a charity function in aid of the Royal Opera House.

Oddly, Samm only recently discovered that his mother had been an accomplished singer. “My godfather told me that she used to sing for visiting dignitaries in Trinidad. She knew singing was a precarious career but it’s strange she never told me she used to sing.”

She would have been very proud of her son’s success, just as Samm is very proud to be working with the Cork Operatic Society. “The company is really spearheading something very special. They’re very brave and deserve support.”

* Orpheus is at Cork’s Everyman from September 22-28 (excluding September 23 and 26).

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