Backstage with Matthew

Backstage with Matthew: Inside the Mind of Orlando

It’s a very exciting time at San Francisco Opera. This summer we welcome three beautiful, impactful productions to the stage, and in this edition of Backstage with Matthew I wanted to delve into the dramatic world of Handel’s Orlando, the particularly forward-looking Baroque opera that we are bringing back to San Francisco after 34 years. I spent some time with the British director of Orlando, Harry Fehr, and asked him how he came to set this production in a London hospital during the Blitz in World War II.


Director Harry Fehr (center) working with the cast of Handel’s Orlando in the Wilsey Center for Opera.

Baroque operas work so beautifully in our house. Although we have a large theater, the warmth of the acoustic allows baroque titles to retain a wonderful intimacy. Pieces like Orlando are such insightful explorations of human emotion. Each aria is a microcosm of a specific emotional world, exquisitely framed, and the approach that Harry Fehr is taking with this production unlocks this journey in a very resonant way. If you don’t already have tickets, I really encourage you to come and immerse yourself in this glorious music and drama.

Baroque operas often had a much more fluid genesis than the very specific processes of libretto-writing and composition we think of for 19th-century operas and beyond. Libretti were often repurposed from other operas, and composers were not averse to reusing their own material across a number of pieces. Handel’s libretto for Orlando was adapted from a pre-existing libretto by Carlo Sigismondo Capece with recitative reduced and roles removed based on the singers Handel had available. The character of Zoroastro, the magician, was added – he doesn’t appear in the Ariosto poem Orlando Furioso. There is a fundamental dramaturgical fluidity inherent in baroque opera, and of all genres of opera, a dramatic updating can actually help add focus and clarity to the story-telling. I think that is very much the case here.

Harry’s production began at Scottish Opera in 2011 before going on to Welsh National Opera and then coming here to San Francisco. Harry tells me that he and production designer Yannis Thavoris began by immersing themselves in the piece, both the libretto and music. They distilled the characters down to fundamental types that needed to be reflected in the production concept: there are two soldiers (Orlando and Medoro); there’s a man who is very interested in Orlando’s psychological state (Zoroastro); there is a character rooted in caring for others (Dorinda); and a woman who has a deep allure and independence (Angelica).

Out of this distillation came the idea of Dorinda being a nurse, and Zoroastro a doctor, both caring for the soldiers. Next came the question of the setting. Harry and Yannis first looked at 18th century medical settings, keeping it in the period of composition, but it didn’t feel satisfying – the science of the mind was just not advanced enough to make something tangible out of Zoroastro. So they turned to the twentieth century. Because Orlando and Medoro are soldiers, the decision came down to WWI or WWII, with both conflicts having visual signifiers that allow the audience quickly into the drama.

Harry and Yannis settled on WWII in the psychiatric ward of a hospital: a place where Zoroastro (here a psychiatrist) is treating Orlando (here a Royal Air Force pilot) for what we would today refer to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There is a very pointed analogy that they take advantage of at the start of the opera. As Zoroastro encourages Orlando to embrace the duty of war, forsaking the amorous fantasies he has for an American socialite, Angelica, Zoroastro makes Orlando watch a slide-show of King Edward VIII and Wallace Simpson and Edward’s forsaking of country for love.


A particularly poignant moment as Orlando is prepared for treatment.

Harry is very interested in real spaces as frames for his story-telling, and, in a book about 1940s architecture and style, he came across the Royal Masonic Hospital in Hammersmith, London. It began as a Freemasons’ hospital with this particular building dating back to 1933. It served almost 9,000 servicepeople during World War II, remaining a private hospital until it was acquired by the National Health Service in 1992. In both its design and its finishes, it is a particularly elegant example of Art Deco architecture, creating a beautiful lens for this production.

art deco

The Art Deco architecture of the Royal Masonic Hospital in London, the basis for this production.

Unfortunately the Hospital was closed to the public at the time that Harry and Yannis were putting the designs together, and so they had to rely on research imagery. They knew they needed four spaces: a clinic, a ward, a reception area, and a more vague additional space, which eventually became a corridor.

art deco

Architectural detail from the Royal Masonic Hospital (note the chandelier reference below).

They initially tried to make four distinct spaces but that didn’t work budgetarily, and so they pared down the concepts of each space to essentials. They settled on a wall of glass that existed in the hospital, a reception area on one side, a ward on the other. With the wall rotating, they could change spaces quickly and elegantly, adding in a few scenic twists along the way. By using period hospital beds, furniture and medical equipment, along with wonderful period costuming, they created a series of spaces within the hospital that allow us into Orlando’s psychological journey. And the glass wall then became a fabulous canvas for a series of projections that take us into the inner psychology of that journey: real space and imagined emotions colliding in a powerful way.

Royal Masonic Hospital

Royal Masonic Hospital

A glass wall and the reception area in the Royal Masonic Hospital.

orlando backdrop

The glass wall becomes the backdrop for the production.


The glass wall also functions as a canvas for projections that take us into the psychological world of Orlando, here seen in the dress rehearsal.

Harry talked with me about his approach in the rehearsal room. Once the scenic frame is set, he begins the rehearsal process with a clear conception of the specific staging, but he then works with the cast to adapt that staging based on their perspectives. When the production went on to Welsh National Opera in 2015, he morphed various parts of the staging. In this iteration in San Francisco, he tells me that the piece hasn’t changed much from 2015, with the exception of Angelica’s plaintive aria in Act II, “Verdi piante.” Harry wanted to better align the naturalism in the text of this aria with the interior setting in the hospital and, in working with Heidi Stober who plays Angelica, they found a way to do this in a non-literal way, making the aria more about Angelica’s journey with nature more as a metaphor than a reality.


World War II period details in the production.

Harry came from a creative family – his father was a music teacher and his mother was heavily involved in amateur dramatics. At school he sang in the chorus and played cello, and it was actually his sister who was pursuing a theatrical career as an actor. But Harry ended up involved in a lot of student dramatic productions at university and decided to give himself two years working in theatre after leaving university. He ended up spending a year in drama school, and then freelanced for three years, assistant directing for Opera North, English National Opera and other companies, before joining the Royal Opera House in their young artist program. He found himself getting deeper and deeper into operatic theatre, focusing his career aspirations on opera as his experience grew in that area. He also realized that he could travel more with operatic direction than theatre direction. Although he did revive a Così production in Seattle last year, he very much sees this as his American debut, as this is his own production.

We’re very proud to be showcasing his debut, and I'm really excited for the insightful and heartbreaking perspective that he has found with this production. It’s an updating that really works, and allows us a very poignant relationship with the cast and the emotions of the story. I can’t wait to share it with you!


Harry working onstage with the cast during final rehearsals for Orlando.


Orlando as an RAF pilot (Sasha Cooke) undergoing treatment from the psychiatrist Zoroastro (Christian van Horn).

With warmest wishes for a very happy summer season.

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