(poster image by Carmen-Helena Téllez, ©2009)


A Production Concept by Carmen-Helena Téllez

Performance Information:
September 2 and 3, 2009, University of Sao Paulo
Concept and Music Direction: Carmen Helena Tellez
Scenic Direction: Roberto Borges
Visual Images and Supertitles:  Designed by Carmen Helena Tellez, realized digitally by Mark Doerries and Cinthia Alireti:
The Composer:  Howard Swyers
The Swan:  Daniel Bubeck
Sophia: Abigail Mitchell
Chorus of ECA and Studio Coral, Marcoantonio da Silva Ramos, chorus director
Eloisa and Amilcar Zani, piano duo
Percussion Group of ECA

1. The General Concept

2. The Scenario and Its Symbols

3. Representative Images


This production concept for Carmina Burana can be defined as an allegorical illustrated presentation of a popular yet mysterious composition. Carmina Burana is the best-known work of the controversial German composer Carl Orff. With its famous opening theme “O Fortuna”—used in films and commercials everywhere– and its exciting rhythms about sex and gambling, Carmina Burana is performed several days of every week in some part of the world to enthusiastic audiences. Still, the composer characterized this composition as his most obscure and enigmatic. This comment by the composer opens the possibility of a new interpretation, where Carmina Burana may act as the colorful and entertaining mask of an underlying and deliberately hidden message.

The texts and inspiration of Carmina Burana arise form the medieval manuscript of the same name, found in the Benediktbeuern Abbey in Bavaria. It is a collection of poems and songs written between the 11th and 13th centuries in Latin, German, French and other languages by Golliards–wandering students of the time. Today, the medieval Carmina Burana has arisen to the level of a symbol of the European union, given that it represents a time when scholars easily traveled from region to region, all speaking Latin, but also preserving and disseminating diverse vernacular cultures. However, it is unlikely that Orff was animated by this idea in 1937, when the work was composed and premiered. Instead, this project reflected his interest in early music, myths and ritualized drama.

Orff classified Carmina Burana as a collection of “Secular songs for singers and choruses to be sung together with instruments and magic images.” This subtitle has led to many scenic productions of Carmina Burana, most frequently as a ballet. The present production concept would not be staged as such. Instead, it should be considered a concert that displays, in the manner of a Tarot reading, the symbols and allegories suggested by research on Orff and by the composer’s own comments. It does not represent Orff’s life, but using his experiences as a trigger for reflection, it meditates on the terrible destiny of artists living in a Fascist regime. The cruelty of this fate may be, not that the artist may be exiled, ostracized, or worse, but also that a necessity for acquiescence may destroy the artist’s soul.

Carl Orff states in Tony Palmer’s 1995 film “O Fortuna” that “Where you are born, and when you are born is everything.” In other statements quoted by scholars studying his life and work, he also revealed his belief that the World is all that exists, and that after this life, there is nothing. These ideas are very consistent with esoteric interpretations of the meaning of Fortuna, as one of the Tarot cards, and as a pervasive emblem in manuscripts from the Middle Ages, including the original Carmina Burana. Indiana University professor John Woodcock commented to me in conversation that the lesson to be learned is that we are all riding the Wheel of Fortune, which rises and falls inexorably, and we dance on top of it as best we can. Moreover, medieval emblems consistently taught that Fortune is blind, and the man that follows it will be led astray. From these experiential concepts about Fortuna we can proceed to more metaphysical meanings, such as Fortuna standing for the cycles of the Universe at large, and by extension, as equivalent to the Eastern idea of Karma. These interpretations may explain why the famous Exordium and Epilogue in Orff’s Carmina Burana, the chorus “O Fortuna” has a dark and foreboding affect, in contrast to the orgiastic sensuality displayed in the rest of the piece.

Carl Orff considered himself an heir of mankind’s myths and the archetypal messages of Greek tragedy. He set versions of Oedypus and Antigone, as well as a tale by the brothers Grimm, Der Mond (The Moon). In fact, of all the archetypes present in his work, the Moon is the most pervasive. His Carmina Burana opens with a direct reference to the Moon, and consequently, both Fortuna and the Moon will become interchangeable in this production. In archetypal interpretations, as well as in the esoteric Tarot, the Moon represents the feminine, the unconscious, the relationship to fame and the masses, and deception.

Even though this production is not a biography of Carl Orff, a short reference to his personal experience is inserted in the Second Tableau as a morality play within a play. Musicologist Kurt Huber is believed to have assisted Orff in his composition and in his research for Carmina Burana. His sacrifice as the leader of the White Rose resistance movement against the Nazis, along with that of his student Sophie Scholl, is offered here as a temporal representation of the sacrifice of all those who fought for the rescue of the true German spirit, and to all those who suffer under authoritarian regimes of all political persuasions. We are grateful to scholar Jud Newborn for his thorough research on this tragic stage in European history.

© 2009 Carmen-Helena Téllez