Lost and Found

by Joshua Jones

In 1803, in a dusty monastery in Bavaria, a librarian re-discovered a manuscript not seen since the 13th century. Later named the Carmina Burana, the manuscript contained 254 poems and dramatic texts. Believed to be the works of student and clergy, researchers date some of the texts back to the 11th century. Curators who started to transcribe the Latin, German, and French works were surprised to find irreverent, satirical, and sometimes risqué themes, abounding throughout the Carmina Burana.

In 1936, Carl Orff set 24 of the poems to music, quickly turning it into a popular piece of classical repertoire. Just over an hour long, the composition, has been featured in film, television, video games, and covered or sampled by Michael Jackson, and even Ozzy Osbourne. During World War II, Orff remained in Germany and continued writing music until his death in 1982, but he never found success again as he had with Carmina Burana.

When John Butler first set Carmina Burana on dancers at the New York City Opera in 1959, it became an instant success, although it was sometimes controversial. Ballet West Founder Willam Christensen, first staged Butler’s Carmina Burana in 1974. Some audience members walked out, but those who stayed gave the piece a prolonged standing ovation. “When we went for the bow, the audience was going wild.  It was intense, emotion and very powerful,” said Caldwell, Ballet Master and Archivist. Now, 43 years later, Bruce says Carmina Burana has been performed by Ballet West more than 100 times, making it one of the most popular pieces in the Company’s repertoire.

Artistic Director Adam Sklute sat down to answer a few questions about Carmina Burana, and what audiences can expect from Nicolo Fonte’s new creation.

What is the legacy of our current production of Carmina Burana

Of the many ballet versions of Carmina Burana, our most recent production, choreographed by John Butler, is probably the most-staged and well-known version. Mr. C brought it into the Ballet West repertoire in 1974. At that time, it was a very daring thing for him to do, because the subject matter is rather complicated. It is about monks slipping out of the monastery and leaving behind their sacred duties and reveling in a very human and profane way. During this production, the choir was placed throughout the box seats in the theater. They could then look down at the orchestra and the maestro conducting. It was quite a spectacle.

But, in the 70’s, this subject matter was a bit scandalous. Nevertheless, Mr. C, who was born and raised in Brigham City, Utah, understood the importance of this piece of art. He also understood the magnitude, excitement, and drama of the music and choreography of Carl Orff’s score. It is Ballet West’s  most often-requested non full-length work. It is also the piece about which I receive the most complaints.

What makes Carmina Burana so beloved in Utah?

Just listen to the music. It is so dynamic and exciting.  Those first strains of Carl Orff’s O Fortuna with the chorus—they knock your socks off—you are ready to fall out of your chair within seconds of the first note. The score goes from extreme power and drama to extreme delicacy, purity, and simplicity. It takes many cues from early Stravinsky, while adding unique harmonies that are beautiful and bombastic. I think the drama of music, the drive of orchestral sound, and the excitement of dance are the reasons audiences are excited and inspired by it.

Since you are staging Carmina Burana during your 10th Anniversary Season, what personal connection do you have to this piece?

Mr. C received both incredible praise and backlash when he presented Carmina Burana. I thought, “What better way to begin my 10th Anniversary than with a piece that is so regularly requested?” I’m interested in inspiring audiences, giving them something they love, but also challenging them… I hope this production will do all three.

I also love and admire our Resident Choreographer Nicolo Fonte’s work. One of his great gifts, in my opinion, is his ability to reimagine the great classics. Few choreographers can re-envision the great dramatic works as Nicolo can. We’ve done many works with him now: his electrifying Rite of Spring, his fascinating Almost Tango, his brilliant Bolero. Each one shows his unique brand of musicality and movement. This will be very different, as Nicolo’s idea is to have a strong battle between the sacred and profane. It will not be obvious and nothing is literal, but that is what I love about his work… it is both unexpected and inevitable.

Why pair this with George Balanchine’s Serenade?

The intensity, power, and profane–at times–subject matter needed to be paired with something that would both complement it, and be completely different. George Balanchine’s Serenade is one of the most serene, elegant, and classic works that we have in our repertoire, and I felt it was a perfect pairing.