It all started with 250 poems, written in the 13th century by monks and rediscovered in the 19th century.
Roughly 700 years after these poems were created, German composer Carl Orff turned 25 of them into a tour de force that has become one of the more popular and unusual staged entertainments of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Orff’s Carmina Burana will be presented today and Sunday thanks to an unprecedented alliance of local arts groups – the Fort Wayne Ballet, the Heartland Chamber Chorale and the Fort Wayne Children’s Choir.
These were obviously no ordinary poems written by monks, not that most of us could begin to define what ordinary might mean in this context.
It’s safe to say that whatever your conception of monk-penned poems is, these are likely to contradict it.
The poems are more bawdy than lofty. They did not celebrate the ethereal, they chronicled the earthly.
These were itinerant monks, says Bob Nance, president and artistic director of the Heartland Chamber Chorale. They were not as keen on keeping vows as they were on working in the world. They kind of got down and dirty with humanity.
These poems are about life as it was lived and, as it turns out, life as it is still lived.
Nance likens the discovery of these poems to a scientist finding an ancient microorganism frozen in ice. The scientist would have reason to be surprised and he would have reason to be reassured.
It is a different paradigm (for life), but life is still life, Nance says.
The monks chronicled life at its most robust, life at its most tainted, life at its most regal, and life at its most pure, says Karen Gibbons-Brown, executive director of the Fort Wayne Ballet.
The poems do not describe a world in which a benevolent God gently steers human exertions toward just conclusions. They instead describe life as a wheel of fortune, Nance says, where one person is rewarded for no reason and then that reward is just as inexplicably taken away.
It almost goes without stating that this is not a typical project for the Fort Wayne Ballet to have taken on.
There are no tutus and there are no pretty, pretty princesses, Gibbons-Brown says.
Parental guidance is suggested, although Gibbons-Brown says nothing inappropriate happens.
Everyone is fully clothed, she says.
Lucia Rogers, the Fort Wayne Ballet dancer and faculty member who has danced the role of Giselle, Cinderella, the Sugar Plum Fairy and Princess Aurora, portrays a harlot in Carmina Burana.
This role has really been wonderful to rehearse and it is always a pleasure working with David Ingram, who I will be partnering with, Rogers writes in an email.
The music and dancing is full of passion and excitement. Just as all of my roles have included a mixture of acting, technique and style, this does the same with a spicy twist.
Any bawdiness in the songs will not be instantly graspable by anyone who does not have a working knowledge of Latin, High German and Medieval French, the languages used by the monks and Orff, according to Nance.
The music is among the most instantly recognizable in the repertoires of American ballets and orchestras.
Orff’s O Fortuna! has been employed to enhance scenes of myth and magic in Excalibur and to lend some legitimacy to a reckless shopping cart-riding sequence in Jackass.
This production of Carmina Burana marks a number of firsts for the arts organizations involved and for the Fort Wayne performing arts community in general: It is the first time that three performing arts groups have opened their seasons simultaneously with a single event and it is the first time in at least 30 years that a full production of Carmina Burana has been staged, Gibbons-Brown says.
Gibbons-Brown says Carmina Burana is an unbelievable arts feast.
Nance says it is so distinctive and provides such a rare live entertainment opportunity that it would be a shame for anyone to miss it.
These days, everything is prepackaged, he says, We all have the same iPhone, we all go home and watch at the same cable, and we can go to a McDonald’s anywhere and get the same thing. But there’s only one Fort Wayne Ballet, there’s only one Heartland Chamber Chorale and there’s only one Fort Wayne Children’s Choir.
And it’s rare, rare, rare to see this thing done.