Inside the Astonishing World of Michael Curry’s Persephone

Photo by Brud Giles, Courtesy of Oregon Symphony

Through puppetry and mesmerizing stage design, Michael Curry vividly animates Stravinsky’s Persephone in a new production coming to the Seattle Symphony this April.

By Andrew Stiefel

When the Seattle Symphony presents Stravinsky’s Persephone on April 26 and 28, the orchestra and chorale will be joined by some larger-than-life characters — puppets created by esteemed director and designer Michael Curry.

Produced in his studio outside Portland, Oregon, Curry’s work has been seen around the world in productions for Disney, Cirque du Soleil, the Olympics and even the Super Bowl. Yet, until last year, he had not had a performance in the Northwest for more than 15 years.

So the self-described “Stravinsky maniac” was eager to take on the project, which was premiered by the Oregon Symphony last May. “I love Stravinsky and I think this piece is under presented,” says Curry. “Persephone is sort of the ugly cousin of Stravinsky’s oeuvre because it tells a complicated story.”

"Persephone was the ultimate puppet because she was so manipulated by the Gods. But one thing we decided is that we wanted to empower Persephone in our version. She wasn’t going to be a victim."

Persephone is a retelling of an ancient Greek myth about sacrifice and renewal. The legend begins when Hades, god of the underworld, kidnaps Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, goddess of the harvest. Hades imprisons Persephone in the underworld, leaving Earth frozen in perpetual winter. In classical mythology, the abduction of Persephone and her subsequent rescue explain the rotation of winter and spring.

But in Stravinsky’s version, with a libretto by André Gide, Persephone descends to the underworld as an act of compassion after she gazes into a narcissus flower and sees the trapped souls. Eventually, a deal is struck between Hades and Zeuss, ruler of the Greek gods, and Persephone agrees to spend a third of the year in the underworld, bringing winter to the world above.

“Persephone was the ultimate puppet because she was so manipulated by the Gods,” Curry muses. “But one thing we decided is that we wanted to empower Persephone in our version. She wasn’t going to be a victim.”

Curry’s production interchanges puppets and humans in a way that plays with the illusion of two worlds. Persephone, for example, is played by both a dancer and a puppet. (Photo Courtesy of Michael Curry Designs)

Curry’s production interchanges puppets and humans in a way that plays with the illusion of two worlds. Persephone, for example, is played by both a dancer and a puppet. To play up the duality of the character, Curry built the puppet to be an exact likeness of the dancer, who in turns wears a mask of the puppet’s face. “I guess it’s a backward compliment, but many people told me that they didn’t realize there was a puppet Persephone when we did the production in Oregon,” he laughs.

He is making some alterations for the performances with the Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall, including introducing an additional dancer to play Pluto. “I’m very intrigued by Pluto and I want to give him some depth,” he explains. “I want to emphasize this notion of the loneliness and the need of the underworld to be recognized.”

The production involves multiple puppets and handlers in addition to the Seattle Symphony Chorale and the Northwest Boychoir. “The chorus is a staging element that helps frame the action, making it clear that this is a human story,” he adds. At one point during the show, Persephone engages in a beautiful aerial ballet high above the orchestra. “The staging becomes another instrument, another character.”

The final result is stunning. Curry’s designs are saturated with bright colors that stand out against the black of the orchestra: blue and violet for the underworld and verdant green filled with orange and yellow flowers for the earth. And the puppetry adds a magical, timeless atmosphere to the story. “My goal is to not get in the way of the music, which is beautiful, but to help tell this story,” he says. “It modernizes what concert presentations can be.”

“I want to emphasize this notion of the loneliness and the need of the underworld to be recognized,” explains Michael Curry. (Photo by Brud Giles, Courtesy of Oregon Symphony)

To deepen our experience with Stravinsky, Morlot has programmed a full evening of his music, including the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments with pianist Marc-André Hamelin and Les Noces.  Throughout his life, Stravinsky turned to Russian folk music for inspiration and, in Les Noces, he sets lyrics from traditional Russian wedding songs. To highlight these early Russian influences, Morlot as has invited the historic Dmitry Pokrovsky Ensemble to perform the original four piano and percussion version of Les Noces.

Founded in 1973, the Dmitry Pokrovsky Ensemble was the first group of professional musicians devoted to the performance and preservation of traditional Russian music. The musicians have traveled the length and breadth of Russia, documenting and performing these rapidly disappearing traditions.

Morlot adds, “Stravinsky really tried everything and creates all these different jewels for us to discover. We’ve grown so fond of Stravinsky, but sometimes we stop at his ballets when we should continue the exploration of his music.”

Star soloists, dancers, puppeteers, three choirs, four grand pianos — don’t miss a spectacular evening of music at Stravinsky’s Persephone on April 26 and 28!

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Marc-André Hamelin’s performances are generously underwritten by Muriel Van Housen and Tom McQuaid. Support for Stravinsky’s Persephone is generously provided by the Judith Fong Music Director’s Fund.

Posted on February 27, 2018

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