Tag Archives: Orpheus

American Gods

photo by T. Charles Erickson

It’s an old song

It’s a sad song

We sing it anyway

            Hermes, Hadestown

by Jeff Grygny

There’s no three-headed dog, no ferryman on the Styx. But make no mistake, Hadestown is the real thing: its creator, the supernaturally gifted Anaïs Mitchell, has obviously lived, dreamed, and traveled in the myths of Orpheus and Persephone, and she’s distilled their essence into a fable that speaks to parts of us that we might not have even known we have. It’s no wonder this raucous, rowdy, and deeply moving show won eight Tony awards and played on Broadway for over a thousand performances. Now it’s come here, in a touring production currently playing at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

Mitchell sets her cosmic opera in a fairy-tale America, somewhere in the South, perhaps New Orleans. It’s a mythic, honky-tonk landscape reminiscent of Max Fleischer cartoons or Cohen Brothers movies. It doesn’t sound like highly processed Broadway Entertainment Product; it’s musical vocabulary is old-timey, with  jazz, folk, and Cajun flavors. You wouldn’t be surprised to see Tom Waits slouching in the corner. The remarkable orchestration by Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose deploys strange combinations of fiddle, cello, accordion, glockenspiel, and double bass, ably led by Eric Kang on stand-up piano, to create uncanny harmonies and haunting dissonances that echo a universe in constant precarity and go straight to our hearts, like the magical chords of Renaissance magic.

And like the first true opera, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the show is entirely sung. It tells its story through feelings—and those feelings are mighty. There’s no back story for Orpheus and Eurydice, and no need for any. He’s a struggling singer/songwriter with a vision of restoring the world through art; she’s a young woman down on her luck who catches his eye. The capable touring cast performs with professionalism and flashes of brilliance. Hannah Whitley communicates Eurydice’s hardscrabble biography with her body language.  J. Antonio Rodriguez, with a falsetto like struck crystal, makes us believe that Orpheus can charm love even into the king of death.

Maria-Christina Oliveras brings abundant sass to her role as party girl/nature goddess Persephone (she’s the one they sing about when they sing “she’s comin’ around the mountain”). Nathan Lee Graham plays Hermes, the prince of magicians and salesman, with great panache, and, playing Hades, Matthew Patrick Quinn’s intimidating basso voice rumbles itself right into your chest. As the Fates, feared by both men and gods, Dominique Kempf, Belén Moyano, and Nyla Watson play their own instruments, making a sinister chorus of the sisters who know everything and smile as you go to your doom.

photo by T. Charles Erickson

The production glitters with all the technical arts of Broadway, including a revolving stage that’s very effectively incorporated into the choreography. The rock-concert lighting, underscoring every dramatic beat and mood shift, seems designed to make sure that even the drowsiest patron stays awake.

In this 19th century myth, the underworld is a factory town. While Persephone is up in the land of sunlight, the brooding Hades mines coal and forges steel; he builds engines and generators, and surrounds his realm with a great wall, convincing his slaves that it’s for their own security. Persephone is less than impressed: “it ‘aint natural.” she sings. When Orpheus arrives to help Eurydice break her desperate contract, he becomes something of a union organizer for the dead souls condemned to endlessly stoking Hades’ furnaces. It’s a powerful metaphor for the degrading effects of industrial capitalism, both on the natural world and on the human heart.

Orpheus’s songs awaken the spirit of love—but in the end he can’t defeat the Fates. Unlike Monteverdi, Mitchell leaves the tragic ending of the original myth intact. But she’s kind enough to let us down gently, and, after the curtain call, the players sing a final song as they raise their wineglasses in a salute to the eternal artist, seeing a vision of a world of love, and brought low by the cruelty of The Way Things Are, only to try again and again. Who knows—maybe next time will be different.

Broadway Across America presents


Music, lyrics and book by Anaïs Mitchell

playing through May 7

A Glimpse of Eternity

photo by Mark Frohna

by Jeff Grygny

The ensemble, clad in blue jeans and black T shirts, barefoot and glittering with gold jewelry, stands in a circle around the grief-struck hero. As the last sunlight filters through the stained glass windows of Calvary Presbyterian Church, ancient instruments play solemn music. One player pours water from a ceramic bowl into their neighbor’s bowl, and so on, until the water has completed its way around. It is a powerful embodiment of shared sorrow.

Thus Orfeo resolves to go to the land of the dead to rescue his lost lover Euridice, in a daringly unconventional performance of L’Orfeo, the world’s first great opera, composed by Claudio Monteverdi and first performed in 1607.  The enterprising folks of Milwaukee Opera Theatre have gathered a consort of Renaissance instrument players, collaborated with local sacred music collective Aperi Animam, and created a new English translation of the Italian libretto. The result is an original and conceptually daring work; a pure aesthetic experience unsullied by the demands of commercial entertainment.

Opera was originally conceived as a re-creation of Greek tragedy as described in Aristotle’s Poetics. L’Orfeo is clearly an early effort in what was later to bloom into the glorious emotional excess of grand opera. Musically, there is only one recognizable “hook,” and though the story involves high tragedy and supernatural adventure, the score consistently rings with the cheery pomp of a baroque court. Director/translator Daniel Brylow stages the opera as an initiation into the mystery of Orpheus. The action is stylized, with the feeling of a ceremony enacting a story that has been re-enacted for countless generations. The singers move with stately steps and slow, symbolic gestures. Their faces are passive masks, revealing only the most universal emotions. It’s like looking at a series of ancient friezes: the Elgin Marbles depicting the blinged-up patrons of a biker bar.

photo by Mark Frohna

As is customary with MOT, some of the characters are gender-switched. Jackie Willis sings the title role of Orfeo (pronouns: he, his) with dignity and subtle feeling, exerting all his musical power to win entry into Pluto’s realm. As Apollo, Nicole McCarty’s voice bursts in like sunlight suddenly flooding a dark room. But this is a staged recital, not musical theater, and music takes precedence over characterization and drama.

There’s deep history behind the the show’s culty vibe (which is similar to MOT’s last collaboration with AA, the goth/gnostic spectacle Utterance).  The figure of Orpheus, the musician with magical powers, has always been connected to mystery religions with secret rites and heterodox metaphysics. Some scholars trace their origins to orgiastic cults of Thrace that involved an obscure deity named Zagreus and predate recorded history. That cult evolved into the bacchanalian worship of Dionysus, where it became associated with Orpheus because of its themes of death and rebirth. Later, in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, the rites were reassigned to the god Apollo and linked to Neoplatonist mystical concepts of reincarnation and immortality. Then, in the Renaissance, after Cosimo de Medici commissioned the first European translations of Plato, Neoplatonism and Greek mythology became all the rage once more, inspiring countless artists, musicians and poets. So yeah, that’s a lot of history. And from that we get L’Orfeo.

The new English translation by Daniel Brylow and Joseph Krohlow (which was helpfully projected on the walls to facilitate our understanding),  reveals just how much the libretto invokes Renaissance philosophy. Without getting too deep into the weeds, Neoplatonists taught that the body is the prison of the soul, and through purification and virtue, we can return to our true eternal source in the One beyond the world of change. In this version of the story, Orfeo, just as in the mythic account, turns, sees Euridice, and loses her. But soon after he returns in sorrow to the world of daylight, the god Apollo appears and rewards him with eternal life among the gods, along with Euridice—just as the ancient Orphic cult promised its initiates.

Ritual is one thing for the believer and quite another for the casual audience. At its best, this production illuminates the transcendental metaphysics of its source material and, while it is too stylized to evoke any deep emotional catharsis, it could very conceivably serve as a kind of meditative therapy for the grief that fills our world. But despite all the love and labor that it clearly displays, it begins to feel like a staid church pageant after about the two-hour mark. Nietzsche wrote of the aesthetic struggle between Apollonian rational order and chaotic, visceral Dionysian energy. This L’Orfeo takes Apollo’s side with great integrity—but it’s hard not to wish for just a hint of Thracian revelry to spice the dish.

Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Aperi Animam present


Music by Claudio Monteverdi

Libretto by Alessandro Striggio

English translation by Daniel Brylow and Joseph Krohlow

Stage Director: Daniel Brylow

Music Director: Jackie Willis