As The Orpheus Centre prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary with a concert at The Other Palace, Sir Richard Stilgoe reflects on the charity he founded, the disabled children it has helped, and how they are both surprising and inspiring others along the way.
The story of Orpheus – his love for Euridice, her sudden death and his attempt to rescue her from Hades – has intrigued great composers from Monteverdi and Gluck to Offenbach and Harrison Birtwhistle.
I thought that if they can have a go, so can I.
Children don’t seem to learn the Greek myths as much anymore, but Orpheus is involved with a lot of them. He went off with Jason and the Argonauts to find the Golden Fleece then on the way encountered Sirens, the Clashing Rocks, and Theseus (of Minotaur fame). Orpheus’ job was to be the first to go ashore on any new land they came to and calm down the angry population by singing to them. He was, in effect, the first ever singer to be employed on a Greek cruise ship. Singing was what he did best: when he sang the whole world stopped and listened.
The same thing happens when the disabled students of the Orpheus Centre sing – the world stops and listens. On the first day of rehearsals when they sang to the students of Arts Educational, they all stopped and listened. So will audiences and I will hear the same thing I’ve heard over and over for the last twenty years: “I didn’t know they could do that!”
I founded the Orpheus Centre with the neurologist Dr Michael Swallow at my then-family home in Godstone, Surrey with the intention of starting a place where disabled people could work to change their own and other people’s lives by creating new music and performing in public. From our humble beginnings with just five students, the charity has continued to grow. The Orpheus students have performed at Buckingham Palace, Glastonbury, the Royal Opera House and other fancy places. But, to be honest, the performances that stick in my mind are those where four or five students have gone into a prison and worked with young prisoners to write songs. The inmates look at our students and think: “If they can write songs, maybe so can I”.
Every one of our cast has a story but for the Mythical they put their own stories aside to tell the legend of Orpheus. Descending to Hades with instructions not to look at Euridice until they were both out in the sunlight, he made the fateful mistake of looking round too early and lost her forever. Because he looked back.
“Never look back” has been the motto of the Orpheus Centre for the last twenty years. When audiences look back at Orpheus the Mythical, they may not put it in the same league musically as Monteverdi or Offenbach but after seeing what the Orpheus and ArtsEd students can do together, they will never look at the world in quite the same way again.
It is because their work is so remarkable that the cream of British show business are coming along to be their Greek Chorus. On different nights the prologue will be read live onstage, by Martin Jarvis, Rob Brydon, Patricia Hodge, Jane Asher, Charles Collingwood, Judy Bennett, Samuel West, Bertie Carvel, Barry Cryer and Jim Carter and Imelda Staunton. I thank all of them, and my friend and colleague Andrew Lloyd Webber for lending us his wonderful theatre. I also wish him a very happy birthday!