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Redefining a Classic Story

Jean Raoux, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Even in retirement, I intend to continue my work as a composer. Coming in February 2022: a Heidelberg Theater production of Sara Ruhl’s contemporary play, Eurydice from 2003. This new project brings any of a number of challenges, which is what my line of work is all about…….

Classic love stories abound, but for centuries, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice has captured the imaginations of artists, for generations, including composers. For those who are unfamiliar with the basic plot: Orfeo and Eurydice are in love. Fate interferes with the lovers through the sudden death of Eurydice. Orfeo follows his lover into the Underworld and pleads to have her fate reversed. His eloquent plea produces considerable sympathy: Orfeo is allowed to lead Eurydice out of the Underworld to return to the world of the living. The catch: Orfeo must not look back at his lover as he leads her on the path. Is this going to lead to a happy ending? Of course not.

Romantic tales usually do not interest me, but this story is an exception. The story just begs for a musical treatment, go for it! On the other hand, there is an essential problem: the list of significant versions for this property is long and significant. Among the highlights:

· Claudio Monteverdi composed one of the world’s first truly significant operas with his production of “L’Orfeo, way back in 1607. Even at this early date, he was NOT the first composer to take on this story…..

· Christoph Willibald Gluck presented his version, Orfeo ed Euridice in 1762. It is described as one of the composer’s “reform operas,” intended to simplify the earlier complexities of opera in the interests of greater simplicity and directness. Good goal…..

· Jacques Offenbach took the Orfeo story and essentially roasted it with his production, Orpheus in the Underworld. Was a comedic approach viable? Very much so, as it popularity continues to this day.

· Phillip Glass studied filmmaker Jean Cocteau’s film presentation of the Orfeo story and created a chamber opera, called Orphée, first produced in 1993. For those of you who are attracted to minimalist influenced work of this famous composer, this effort might prove to be interesting….

· Mattew Aucoin is the latest (and perhaps youngest) composer to take on this story. His new opera, Eurydice is based on a 2003 play by Sarah Ruhl that explores the story from the viewpoint of Eurydice, rather than Orfeo. Ruhl has supplied the libretto

· Anaïs Mitchel provided music and lyrics for Hadestown, a new Broadway musical which is based on the Orfeo legend. Has it been successful? Yes, it won Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Musical Score, among other honors. Now that Broadway is back, it will be a hot ticket.

So where does this leave my hopes to compose by own version of the Orfeo story? Dead and buried, at least for now.

But perhaps this is a way to achieve my goal, which brings us to February and Heidelberg…….productions of Sarah Ruhl’s original play are still produced. The script is very open-ended and invites all sorts of creativity for those who which to give this property a try. A literal reading and presentation of this play will be dry as toast; you must use your imagination.

Director Stephen Svoboda has asked me to provide incidental music for his upcoming production and I went for it without a moment’s hesitation.

When I design music for a theatrical production, I must seriously consider how much music is advisable or even practical. A Shakespeare play, with its marvelous language does not need a lot of help from me; I certainly do not wish to get in the way of the immortal Bard. But some plays, including contemporary ones like A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Eurydice require a different, more “wet” approach. They challenge me to flood the production with music. There is a lot more to do than mere “scene-change” music, thank goodness! There are moments where careful underscoring can enhance a selected amount of dialogue, or certain scenes that feature longer, more extensive sections stage action. Eurydice’s script also encourages one to take an eclectic approach to musical style, rather than relying on a single approach. There is still a need for coherence and unity, of course, and this expectation provides numerous challenges too.

So am I discouraged? No, not a bit! I may not realize my Orfeo opera dream, but I can have fun with this upcoming production. But I must hurry; Matthew Aucoin’s new operatic treatment of Sarah Ruhl’s play is on the Metropolitan Opera’s season of performances this season. If you can’t go to New York check out the Metropolitan Opera’s broadcast in early December:

I want my own musical vision for this production to be well in hand before I enjoy Aucoin’s version at my local movie theater. Stay tuned: I’ll let you know how this project is shaping up for February.



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