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‘Orpheus’ Re-imagined: Composer Jasdeep Singh Degun talks about bringing together Eastern and Western music for Opera North production…

‘Orpheus’ Re-imagined: Composer Jasdeep Singh Degun talks about bringing together Eastern and Western music for Opera North  production…

17th century classic early opera gets Indian classical music ‘make-over’ from rising talent…

IN WHAT seems like a bold move, Opera North and Indian classical singers and musicians will combine to reinterpret an early opera classic – ‘Orpheus’ by Monteverdi.

Jasdeep Singh Degun, a well-established sitar player and composer and Opera North Artist in Residence, has written a version of ‘Orpheus‘ that is born from Indian classical traditions – both vocals and instrumental – adapting Monteverdi’s 1607 early baroque opera.

The original is a tale of about the poet Orpheus, a great lyre player who loses his young bride to death and wants to retrieve her from the underworld following her passing. It is tale of bereavement, yearning and longing.

Jasdeep Singh Degun and Laurence Cummings

This production premieres on Friday (October 14) before going on tour to Newcastle, Nottingham and The Lowry in Salford, near Manchester.

Opera North (ON) describes this production: “Set in a leafy garden bursting with colour, be mesmerised as the trumpet and theorbo (an ancient pluck string instrument created for baroque opera) meets the sitar and the santoor in a moving musical encounter between East and West.”

Degun, who worked a lot with Leeds based South Asian Arts UK and released his first album this year titled, ‘Anomaly‘, took on the project after Opera North’s baroque specialist Laurence Cummings, and musical director for this production, had some early workshops with ON musicians and Degun’s teacher Dharambir Singh – a leading light and former director of South Asian Arts UK, a musical group.

Degun told “I knew the workshops were happening but I wasn’t involved myself.

“There was a feeling it could be done and I had done a composition, ‘Arya’ (a concerto for sitar and an orchestra).”

Claire Lees (Spirit), Sanchita Pal (Nymph) and
Francis Gregpry (Spirit) Pic: Tom Arber

Degun had worked on ‘Arya’ with Opera North and it had been in the early stages of a tour in 2020, when lockdown scuppered its future. Degun has only been artist-in-residence at ON since May this year.

“They (Opera North) asked if I wanted to come on board for ‘Orpheus’, it was a bit of a thunderbolt and nothing had been organised at that point.

“I said from the outset, unless it’s a proper equal coming together, there’s no point in doing it.

“I don’t want to just play Monteverdi on my sitar, I am not trained to do that,” he told acv.

He has been regularly attending Opera North’s concerts and had worked with the orchestra on ‘Arya’, so he had some idea of what the collaboration would entail.

A significant part was writing and recruiting the Indian singers and finding classical musicians to do justice to the work.

“I had to wait for the translations and they are in the original languages of the singers; at first it was Hindi and Urdu but then it had to be translated into the other singer’s languages as well: Punjabi, Bengali, Tamil and Malayalam.”

Director Anna Himali Howard Pic: Tom Arber

He auditioned and recruited the singers who are more used to doing traditional Indian classical solos.

“They are all at the top of their game – the crème de la crème of Indian classical singing in the UK.

“Some of them are quite senior, and I did have to really twist their arms.

“It’s a big commitment and they all have their own projects.

“But it’s nice in that some have known each other for 20 odd years, but they have never had the opportunity of working together.”

He hasn’t had a long lead time and once he had recruited the Asian singers and musicians, he knew the next challenge was making it all work.

“Everyone is out of their comfort zone. I said: ‘If we are going to do it, we must do it properly and fully respectfully’.

“We don’t wear shoes and the performing area has to be very clean. There are no concessions.”

There are 18 actor-singers (and some also play instruments) and nearly the same number of musicians, mostly western.

Managing such a large number of creative people has its challenges, even if it’s a more conventional piece.

Production rehearsal at Leeds Grand Theatre Pic: Tom Arber

“The hardest thing isn’t the music itself, it’s getting everybody to learn and play it together,” he reflected.

Culturally, the performers are quite different, he pointed out.

“The western musicians will arrive bang on 10am and play to the dot to lunch at 1pm and will put their instruments down.

“Our guys are not like that. Once you get them performing, they can go six hours at a stretch and you can get the job done.

Jasdeep Singh Degun Pic: Adam Lyon

“The Western musicians will follow the notation, everything is written down. But the Indian classical musicians don’t work like that. Our music works by ear, learning and improvising.”

He said sometimes the Asian musicians will vary their music (Indian classical music plays a lot of attention to mood and feeling and energy).

“Someone in the production said it needs to be the same all the time, but I am not going to compromise. This is how our music works.”

Nevertheless, there has been considerable mutual cultural exchange for the representatives of two traditions that have developed centuries and continents apart.

“The western musicians are enjoying the Indian hospitality. It’s a really nice environment. Everyone’s really learning from it – we had everyone in the room the other day, and it just sounded incredible and joyful!”


Orpheus’ reimagined by Jasdeep Singh Degun from the original ‘Orfeo’ by Claudio Monteverdi
Friday, October 7pm 14, 15 and 18 & 20 and 22 (2.30pm).
Leeds Grand Theatre, 46, New Briggate, Leeds LS1 6NU

Saturday, November 5
7pm Theatre Royal Newcastle
100 Grey Street, Newcastle Upon Tyne NE1 6BR

7pm Nottingham
Saturday November 12 Theatre Royal, Theatre Square, Nottingham NG1 5ND

7pm Salford
The Lowry, The Quays, Salford M50 3AZ
Running time – approximately two hours and forty-five minutes

*One of the largest festivals of its kind, Darbar, an Indian classical music festival, begins on Thursday (October 13-22). Among the highlights is Bharathi Prathap and Rajrupa Chowdhury playing on Saturday (October 15) at the Barbican Centre in London, where most of the concerts are hosted. Check listings –

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture