Neuwirth's "Orlando" premiered at the Wiener Staatsoper

„Hybrid Grand Opera“ (Süddeutsche Zeitung)

On 8 December, Olga Neuwirth’s Orlando received its world premiere at Wiener Staatsoper, becoming the first opera composed by a woman in 150 years to have been commissioned and staged at the illustrious Austrian house. Further interest in the premiere, already highly anticipated throughout last year, was kindled when Rei Kawakubo, renowned designer and founder of the brand Comme des Garçons, announced that she would create the production’s costumes.

The libretto, a collaboration between the composer and French playwright Catherine Filloux, takes the audience beyond Virginia Woolf’s famous novel, allowing them to follow the main character in different periods and places, from Elizabethan England to present-day America. Together with Orlando and Orlando’s child, played by glorious singers Kate Lindsey and Justin Vivian Bond, the audience was invited to witness the confounding paradox of human history: how much has happened, and yet how little has changed. Guided by narrator Anna Clementi and the orchestra conducted by Matthias Pintscher, the Vienna spectators travelled through time, space and, of course, musical styles.

Orlando (2017-2019)

– eine fiktive musikalische Biografie –
Libretto by Catherine Filloux and Olga Neuwirth
based on Virginia Woolf
Singers: 2S.3Ms.Ct.3Bar.3B - 2Act - 4Chr (male, female and children’s chorus with each 24 voices and children’s chorus with 16 voices)
Orchestra: 2.2.3.asax.2 - - 3perc - - - - 12 stage musicians
World Premiere: 08.12.2019, Vienna
Duration: full length

Picture of world premiere of Orlando
WP of Orlando, Vienna 2019


The story begins in 16th-century England. Queen Elizabeth I bestows a fortune upon her charming favourite Orlando and makes him promise to stay young forever. Following his patroness’s advice, Orlando never ages, though his life cannot be described as an easy one: heartbreaks, a falling-out with fellow poets, loneliness, cruelty of people and disappointment in himself eventually lead Orlando into a trance from which no-one can rouse him. Orlando awakens from his long, deep slumber to discover that he has become a woman. Years have passed, yet the world around has remained the same: the wars of the 20th century cost millions of lives, causing Orlando to doubt the possibility of a bright future for humankind. The new millennium brings new technologies meant to free minds from prejudice. Instead, new challenges arise. In spite of everything, Orlando ultimately gives her child – now also confronted by the same problems as she herself was – the hope for a better future: one need only be fearless and, at times, reckless enough to remain true to oneself.

Behind the curtains of Orlando

Press quotes

"[…] a triumph of orchestral writing. Conducted by Matthias Pintscher with a mastery of Ms. Neuwirth’s organized chaos, the score is a wry and sweeping musical analogue to Woolf’s novel, a journey through time with references so fleeting you can rarely locate them with complete confidence. […] In a program note and interviews, Ms. Neuwirth has described aiming for a kind of androgyny in sound. She dissolves the line between what’s acoustic and digital, what’s onstage and off. Unsettlingly, the second violins are tuned ever so slightly lower than the firsts. A choir singing from a loft above the auditorium chandelier creates a cognitive dissonance, with another performing simultaneously onstage."
The New York Times, 09 December 2019

"Olga Neuwirth’s music is truly great. Her aural imagination is simply overwhelming. The orchestra gurgles and buzzes; the sounds rotate and slither; the historical periods telescope into each other: Renaissance madrigals are washed over by glissando whirlpools; mistuned harpsichords lie crosswise with bizarre noisemakers ranging from car brakes to a thunder sheet."
BR Klassik, 9 December 2019

"Neuwirth has basically created a style-cosmos of parallel musical spheres that collide, paint over one another and at times produce a complex simultaneity. Because the story – unlike Woolf’s novel – does not end in 1928, there is ample opportunity for stylistic coloration: orchestral late Romanticism as well as complex rhythmic repetitive patterns shine through this journey across the centuries."
Der Standard, 10 December 2019

"Just as periods and sexes blur in this storyline, styles overlap in Neuwirth’s music... The title character must also latch on to all of these styles, something that Kate Lindsey accomplishes with phenomenal agility... Confirming Neuwirth’s compositional subtlety, all the references to diverse genres never seem eclectic but, more or less alienated, they remain melded into an idiom that always sounds unmistakably like Neuwirth."
Süddeutsche Zeitung, 10 December 2019

"And the orchestral playing is appropriately raunchy: Olga Neuwirth’s opera Orlando based on Virginia Woolf has had its spectacular premiere... It is this mix of critical seriousness and biting irony that makes the evening so exciting, including theatrically."

"By means of this fluctuation between satire and deeper meaning, the scenario’s excesses perfectly complement Neuwirth’s music. And they lead to the real core of the narrative: swapping genders allows Orlando suddenly to grasp the disastrous course of human history resulting from patriarchal power structures."

"An exciting evening that opens up important room for reflection as seldom before in Dominique Meyer’s era at Wiener Staatsoper, now coming to an end. He rightly gave Neuwirth along with the whole team a standing ovation."
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 10 December 2019

"So Orlando is a hybrid in every respect – between play and opera, between epic and dramatic, between post-modern and avant-garde, between the most diverse vocal and musical styles. The work itself, like its protagonist, defies every established category and puts its queerness into practice on every level. Neuwirth is impressively consistent in this regard. Whether or not the opera marks a new milestone only the future can show. But the Staatsoper as a house has certainly grown from this collective effort."
Die Presse, 10 December 2019

"[...] its ambitious weaving of music in every style, from opera to cabaret to rock, with live electronics, literature, video and fashion, stands apart in its bracing disregard for convention."
The Guardian, 14 December 2019

“In her sixth and largest stage work to date — only the second opera by a female composer to be staged by this company — Neuwirth makes a cry for tolerance and solidarity. But as if it weren’t radical enough to rewrite Woolf’s gender-flexing novel, this Orlando also takes on populism, capitalist exploitation, dehumanisation in the digital age and even child sexual abuse.”
Financial Times, 16 December 2019

"Neuwirth’s “Orlando,” a radical feminist adaptation of Virginia Woolf ’s novel, recently had its première at the Vienna State Opera. It stands in contrast to a Viennese season that features women dying of consumption, singing themselves off buildings, and riding horses into funeral pyres."
New Yorker, 30 December 2019

Piano score of Orlando

Photos: Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn