Orpheus and Opera, a Love Story

imgres-2When I discovered my love for opera, I never thought to wonder how this strange form of “musical drama” came into being. I fell hard and instantly, and, as with any coup de foudre worthy the name, rather than put my passion under scrutiny, I marveled at its previous absence: a kind of “where have you been all my life” followed by the censure of all who knew about the existence of such sublimity and yet had kept me in the dark! I would come to understand my love for opera as connected to my proclivity for high artifice and the kind of performed femininity (the diva) most appreciated by a certain kind of gay man. Indeed, my early education in the form was largely conducted by gay male friends. Years after Carmen—the first opera I saw—bewitched me, I discovered myself to be a poet, but I made no connection between the word art I practiced and the musical drama I consumed. But this was a mistake. For poetry and opera have, as Pound wrote of himself and Whitman, “one sap and one root.” The ancient tree from which they both grew was incited to the “movement of meaning through time”[1] by the figure of Orpheus.

gustave_moreau__1865-orfeo-gustave-moreau-1865Orpheus was there at the birth of lyric poetry, the demi-god whose severed head washed up on the banks of Lesbos and set Sappho to singing. He was also there at the birth of opera. Written in Italy during the first decade of the seventeenth century, the first three musical dramas (later called operas) were all based on his story. Orpheus the lover and Orpheus the musician certainly proved attractive to Renaissance composers, yet I believe that they were also drawn to his identity as poet. For the birth of opera heralded a new respect for words in the musical world. Emerging in the midst of the dominance of forms written for several voices layered one over the other, such as the madrigal, this “new monadic musical style” was invented to showcase the “single vocal line.”[2] Instrumentation, no longer the star, would accompany, enhance, and emphasize the words. This was necessary for the success of opera not only as a musical composition, but as drama. A story was being told. A story which, through music, could utilize emotion more affectingly than spoken drama.

imagesIn the past, the raw singularity of an individual’s emotional life had been represented most compellingly by lyric poetry (see what Longinus has to say about Sappho). In antiquity lyrics—as the way we still use the term betrays—were performed with music. But this music sounded nothing like opera, nor like contemporary popular song. Because classical prosody was quantitative, that is to say, written in a fixed pattern of long and short syllables, musical accompaniment did not effect the rhythm of such poetic compositions. [3] Thus in Sappho’s time, poems were not set to music, but rather the other way around. When we see those images of her and Alcaeus holding the lyre or barbitos, we shouldn’t imagine them bending their vocal lines or crooning a couplet like the guitar-wielding singer-songwriter of today. Instead we should hear, behind the dominant rhythm of the poetic line, a gentle strum, a breeze of inspiration. The music’s duty was to “augment the clarity of the sung words.”[4] Something like this same goal, along with a theory that, though all the music was lost, Greek drama had been sung, inspired those Florentine and Mantuan Renaissance musicians and poets to create, almost by accident, the alchemical goldmine of music and poetry we now call opera.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that when I set about writing my first libretto, I too would be led back to the myth of Orpheus? It was spring of 2012. Composer, and now friend, Beth Wiemann approached me about working together on a chamber opera. After I recovered from the initial swoon of being invited to work in an art form I had so long loved, I began mulling over possible subject matter. My first idea was to write about the love affair between John Ruskin and Rose La Touche, but at this suggestion Beth looked dismayed (it turns out, there already is an opera about this Victorian episode!). An adaption of H. D.’s novel Bid Me To Live—which tells the story of H. D.’s near-romance with D. H. Lawrence—swam up as idea number two. Beth, whose musical allegiances are modernist-influenced, was more amenable to H. D.’s melancholy tale of bohemian writers caught up in the trauma of WWI. Green lighted, I set about redacting Bid Me To Live, a roughly 200-page roman à clef, into a 25-page libretto (which, after all, means “little book”). I did not think about Orpheus. But he showed up. Poetry, I’ve learned, takes a devilish pleasure in eclipsing our intentions. Orpheus appears in Bid Me To Live as the subject of a piece of writing that Julia (H.D.’s avatar) has shared in a letter to Rico (D. H. Lawrence). Julia’s long Orphic text ends with a plea from Eurydice: “Let me taste no blood-red seed, no, let me say this last, last word to make the severance complete. Go, Orpheus, look not back.” The hyperbaton of “look not back” becomes a point of contention for Rafe (Aldington), who finds the syntax too Victorian. The text functions as a plot point, a clue in a drama of jealously. Rico, for whom it was written in a spirit of identification and affection, critiques Julia for writing about a man. “How can you know what Orpheus feels? It’s your part to be woman, the woman vibration, Eurydice should be enough.” His criticism eerily rhymes with our times’ suspicion of the possibility of empathic representation across somatic borders—but in this historical instance the power is going in the wrong direction. Today it would be Julia’s right to critique Rico, not the other way around. Yet in H. D.’s novel her character comes, by her own accord, to agree with Rico’s critique. Dropping the male perspective entirely, the voice in H. D.’s poem “Eurydice” channels female rage. Is this why it still feels relevant, especially to young female readers? In the face of gender inequity the ability to think analogically, to remember that we are all ontologically connected,[5] seems as remote as it did in the 1970s when people spoke of the “battle of the sexes.”

imgresYet the Orpheus of Renaissance opera is not only spared Eurydice’s rage, he gets to have her back. Their coupledom is completed and happy. The first opera, Jacobo Peri’s Euridice (1600), with libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini, was composed to celebrate Maria de’ Medici’s marriage to King Henry IV of France. It was performed with “limited scenery for a small audience” in some private rooms within Florence’s Pitti Palace. In order to make the story suitable to a happy occasion, Rinuccini removed Hades’s prohibition on the backward glance. Without a taboo to break, Orpheus was allowed to “male gaze” on his love to his heart’s delight while leading her out of the underworld. They live happily ever after. Guilio Caccini’s Euridice (1600) used the same libretto, and thus the couple found the same happiness. The third opera to be written, Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607) is the most successful of the three, and thanks to the Early Music revival, still in repertory. The libretto, by Alessandro Striggio, also arranges for a happy ending. In this version, however, Orpheus does lose his beloved for a second time because of a backward glance, but then, in classic deus ex machina fashion, Apollo intervenes and lifts Orpheus to heaven to be with his Eurydice.[6] The Greek Orpheus is rewarded with Christian rhetoric: “for he obtains grace in heaven / who down below braved the inferno / and he who sows in sorrow / reaps the fruits of grace.” Though arguably a celebration in heaven is easier staged than the myth’s more typical ending (brutal dismemberment of the poet by angry Bacchantes) these operatic reworkings, far from perverting the myth, may have unconsciously returned to an earlier version of it. Evidence suggests Orpheus’s failure to retrieve of Eurydice, so important in the story as it has come down to us, so emblematic of our belief that men and women can never understand each other or be happy together, may have been a later development created in order to remove Orpheus’s powers as prophet and psychopomp.

IMG_0692Alas, no happy ending or love reunions are in store for the characters in Until the War Is Over, the name of the chamber opera Beth and I based on H. D.’s Bid Me To Live. It is a modernist account of a woman becoming an artist, and as a result the seams between her and the men in her life begin to fray. Not long after the period the book covers H. D. will be making a new life, with her longtime female partner, Bryher. A chamber opera is a merely a shorter opera written for a small ensemble. In this case: flute, piano, alto sax, double bass, and electronic sounds. In my libretto I unlocked H. D.’s roman à clef, restoring the names of the historical personages the characters were based on. In addition to language and scenes from her novel, I also used language from several of her poems, including “Hermes of the Ways” and “Eurydice.” Many modern operatic works are similar to the early musical dramas mentioned above in that the composition is not separated so neatly into aria (the emotional song) and recitative (the talky narrative bits) but instead follows a continuous melodic flow of the vocal line. This is most suitable to the words of a writer like H. D., written with a great subtlety of rhythm, without rhyme or meter. It is notable to those of us committed to the tradition of “speech-based” poetries, that the composers of the first three operas were hoping, with their new techniques, to come closer to representing natural speech, the result however, like the poems of even the most ardent of “speech-based” poets, is unquestionably art.

“limited scenery for a small audience”

Selections from Until the War is Over are scheduled to be performed with “limited scenery for a small audience” in the public rooms of University of Maine’s black box theatre this coming Thursday.

Listen:

End of scene 1
“If he comes back” from scene 3
Scene 4 excerpt

 

[1] This is Derek Attridge’s definition of meter. See Poetic Rhythm

[2] John Warden, Ed. Orpheus, The Metamorphosis of a Myth, 168-169

[3] W. R. Johnson, The Idea of the Lyric, 27

[4] Ibid

[5] Kaja Silverman, Flesh of My Flesh 10-12. In a reading of Ovid’s version of the myth Silverman argues that “Orpheus’s repudiation of Eurydice dramatizes man’s inability to love women; his retreat to a remote location symbolizes the latter’s increasing solitude; the dismemberment of his body signifies the salutary disintegration of the male ego; and his descent to Hades and reunion with Eurydice stands for the arrival of the heterosexual couple” (10)

[6] Warden, 164-165

Cell #103

I read last December at the Poetry Project, and now a portion of that reading, with Lee Ann Brown’s introduction, is available for listening as part of the Project’s new podcast initiative. Reviewing the sound file, I was startled to hear that I began that evening with “Cell #103.” This short poem, from Imagination Verses, is dedicated to “Vladimir Mayakovsky & Fred Moxley.” Listening back to this December reading in June, but a few weeks after my brother Fred’s sudden death, an eerie feeling came over me. In preparing my set list, I knew I wanted to read something to honor Tender Buttons Press and its forthcoming omnibus edition, which will include Imagination Verses in its entirety. But why did I choose “Cell #103”? It has never been one of my “go to” poems, those that you voice again and again because they read well and you know how to sound them in your sleep.

Bonne_Terre_Visitor_BadgeWas I thinking back to my visit to Missouri’s Bonne Terre maximum security correctional center? In fall of 2013, I had been a guest of the Inside Out Prison Arts and Education Program run by Devin Johnston and Mary Gould. Before my visit, prisoners were invited to read my book There Are Things We Live Among. Those who wanted to were invited to write essays on objects they valued. When I went into the prison, myself and three of the incarcerated men read our writings and led a discussion. Then, asking their indulgence, I read “Cell #103.” “That gets it pretty close,” one man said, and then, “How could you know what it’s like in here?” My answer: from reading the writings of revolutionaries (or revolutionary poets) and from my brother’s letters.

Reading alongside the incarcerated men
Reading alongside the incarcerated men

103 was the number of Mayakovsky’s cell at the Butryka prison, where he was locked up for several months when just a teenager. The poem “As a Youth” recounts his experience seeking the light outside, only to see a mortuary, “I / fell in love / with the Office of Funeral Processions / through the keyhole of cell 103.”* My brother, whose hopes of a different life were much curtailed by the so-called crack down on crime and California’s “three strikes” law, described to me, in one a letter from the “Gila unit” of the Arizona State Prison complex, how his body had been changed by incarceration: weight gain from working out, tattoos, piercings, and TB (then much associated with HIV). But, he assured me, “I am not into all the white supremacy bullshit here, but I also have to adhere to my surroundings. . . .” Trying to connect my world to his, I would send him Etheridge Knight’s Poems from Prison, which he thought described a milder situation than he found himself in, having recently participated in “two riots,” and “three fights,” but “not the stabbing.” When I had my first poems published in Ben Friedlander’s Dark Ages Clasp the Daisy Root, Fred, now in a California facility, was sweetly impressed: “Published! You’re my little braguette item — my sister the poet”! Criminals really respect you—as I’m sure you know a lot of inmates themselves are poets . . .” Yes, I know, I thought at the time. And though I may have forgotten it, my visit to the Bonne Terre facility reminded me anew.

*translation James H. McGavran III

 

 

 

A Night to Remember!

With_Killian_and_ConradA video of my January 31 Philadelphia reading with Kevin Killian and CA Conrad has been uploaded to my PennSound page. Here I am, flanked by my fellow readers, in the Rose Room at Snockey’s Oyster and Crab House. Behind us  you can see the “sprite on a seahorse” mascot who watches over this magical place. How wonderful to finally get to read in Jason Mitchell‘s Frank O’Hara’s Last Lover reading series!

Backyard Carmen

Not long ago, Steve and I were invited to join a taskforce charged with growing the audience for the Metropolitan Live in HD opera broadcasts at the Collins Center for the Arts, UMaine’s largest performing arts venue. We are, sadly, the youngest members of this taskforce by some years. In addition to being primarily drawn from the senior set, the typical audience for the Met Live in HD amounts to about a hundred people, which not only looks scant in an auditorium of 1,500 seats, but has the director threatening to cancel the broadcasts altogether—a worrisome prospect to those of us who regularly attend. The largest audience was 270, for a broadcast of Carmen with Elīna Garanča in 2010.

Callas_CarmenSaturday November first the Met is broadcasting Carmen again, this time with the Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili. Steve, in hopes of interesting the students taking his course on the Lover’s Discourse, spent some time finding alluring YouTube clips from Carmen, including a wonderful Muppet’s sound-poem version of the Habenera. From his report, few students seemed moved to interrupt nursing Halloween hangovers with initiation into this alien art form. All this Carmen talk reminded of my own history with Georges Bizet’s classic, which was my first exposure to opera, enhanced by a Maria Callas recording given to me by my mother. As I wrote in The Middle Room: [Read more…]