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

Poets and Opera

It has been so intellectually and artistically interesting to collaborate with composer Beth Wiemann on this chamber opera. Unlike poets, composers are reliant on musicians and singers to perform their works. A brief ten-minute scene of this opera was performed at the Hartford Opera Theatre last November. Now we’ll get to hear excerpts from three different scenes right on the University of Maine campus.

Until the War is Over Poster

Naropa Summer Writing Program

Other Cultures Panel  (with Janet Hamill and Maik Nwosu)
Other Cultures Panel (with Janet Hamill and Maik Nwosu)

Just catching my breath following a stint (June 21-28) at the Summer Writing Program of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. The week’s theme, inspired by Kyoo Lee, was “Whom Am I When I Dream?: Philo-poetics.” Stressing the “philo-poetics,” more than the dream, Steve Evans and I co-taught a course titled, “I Never Said I Loved You: Poetry, Philosophy, and the Language of the Break Up.” With a motivated and sharp group of about eight students we read and discussed works by Emily Dickinson, Plato, Robert Creeley, Christina Davis, Roland Barthes, Alain Badiou, and others. This was my third time as a visiting faculty member (previous years: 2007; 2010). In addition to teaching, I spoke about my interest in Lightnin’ Hopkins, Robert Herrick, and the “Other Culture” that is the past during a panel discussion. I also debuted several new poems during my evening reading. I shared the stage that night with James Sherry, Eleni Sikelianos, and Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge.

Being at the  The Summer Writing Program is like suddenly waking up in a magical place where poets and poetry matter, and one can speak candidly about literary passions without raising suspicions. Anne Waldman, as guiding spirit, inspires with her energy, enthusiasm, and warmth. The summer-camp-like atmosphere of a group of visiting faculty, light-headed from the thin Boulder air and joyously exhausted by a dense schedule of teaching, panels, and readings, makes for an easy and memorable camaraderie. The interesting conversations I had with my students and fellow faculty members—including Vincent KatzSarah Riggs, Omar Berrada, C. S. Giscombe, Janet Hamill, Joanne Kyger, and Eileen Myles) will sustain me for a long while.

At the Podium
At the Podium

That Obscure Object

“Thumbed from below we bend at the knees in an ugly
Soulless wobble . . .”

Giraffe_portraitThese lines comes from my poem “The Various Silences Lie in Shadow.” I chose to include this poem as part of my reading in Farmington, Maine—though it is difficult to read—because of this collapsing giraffe, whom I shall call “Wobbly” (in light of my recent post). I had noticed Wobbly when reconnoitering the venue: a local bookstore filled with kids’ books, toys, puzzles, rubber dinosaurs, and other cool stuff. Wobbly Giraffe is a representative of the exact object I had in mind when I wrote “Thumbed from below we bend at the knees in an ugly / Soulless wobble . . .”  To see Wobbly do just this, view his star turn here.

When I wrote these lines I believed I was creating a clear image, and that the reference to “thumbing from below” was enough to lead any reader to a memory of this common, strangely cruel, toy. But, when driving back to Orono from Farmington, Steve told me that, until he saw me use Wobbly as a prop during my reading (adding humor to a distinctly unfunny poem) he had no idea what I was getting at. The image was obscure. Which leads me to wonder, how many other “clear images” have I written with nary more than a nod to some past sense-experience with an object now totally obscure?

Without the experience of this object, how might a reader understand what it means to be “thumbed from below”? Could it be read as making reference to Hart Crane’s lines in “Chaplinesque”?

Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb
That slowly chafes its puckered index toward us,

Why do we locate social acceptance and aesthetic judgment in the thumb? Thumbs up, thumbs down. To thumb one’s nose at something or someone. Why are our opposable thumbs also oppositional?

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At Devaney Doak and Garrett Booksellers.

 

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!

Rituals and Respects

Tucked among my juvenilia is a poem titled “Leave Me Alone with This Dead Man.” It recounts an unfortunate bit of policing I was subjected to while I was sitting on the clean grave of Charles Baudelaire in the Cimetière Montparnasse. The gendarme disrupted my two-fold aim: to pay my respects to a poet I loved, and to place myself in a propitious setting in the hopes of receiving a bit of poetic genius “by osmosis.” A recent return to this, my favorite Parisian cemetery, along with my upcoming appearance in Jason Mitchell’s reading series, Frank O’Hara’s Last Lover, got me to thinking about the rituals and respects some of us practice around the accoutrements, objects, birthplaces, and death sites of the poets we love. The liturgies of poetry, one might call them: pilgrimages, offerings, silence, ceremonious readings in significant places, benedictions and genuflections. The material book, from codex to paperback, seems to encourage ritualistic behavior: the slow unrolling or turning of pages, a treasure of magical knowledge waiting to be released.

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Jason Mitchell

When Jason Mitchell arrived at the University of Maine to do graduate study he was already possessed of a reverential, though not obsequious, relationship to poetry. I learned quickly of his value for literary ephemera: limited edition chapbooks and broadsides. Before moving away, Jason helped Steve and I bring some order to our overflowing chapbook collection. Watching him hold little stapled nothings I had all but forgotten about as if they were precious gems I felt I’d grown callous, no longer able to see their true value amidst the glut. On the fortieth anniversary of Paul Blackburn’s death Jason organized a living-room reading of that neglected poet’s works. A small group sipped wine and read from the Collected. The poems sounded especially good that night. Jason continues to remind me of things I have forgotten, and he always does so by going back to the poems. In a recent letter he wrote: [Read more…]

Poetry Project

I’ll be reading with Will Alexander at the Poetry Project in New York City this coming Wednesday, December 10, at 8PM. I first met and heard Will read over twenty years ago, at the Writing from the New Coast conference at University of Buffalo in 1993. It will be very nice to see him again.

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Odette holds the Poetry Project’s annual fundraising letter

Reading at the Project feels kind of like going home for the holidays: the return to a familiar place. Familiar, or family-like, comes from the Latin famulus, meaning, not all together surprisingly, “servant,” or even “slave.” (Does anyone remember that Tama Janowitz book Slaves of New York? It was very 80s). Whenever I go to the Project, I expect to run into friends and acquaintances who have been dutifully serving poetry for many years, and who also feel that the Project is a kind of home. I read there for the first time with Mark McMorris in 1997, the year after my first book came out. In 2003, Anselm Berrigan invited me to read with Robert Creeley. I recall a humid torrent of November rain splashing me on the way in, and a woman’s cell phone—playing Mozart’s Overture to Le Nozze di Figaro—going off while I read a poem about death. In 2010 I read with Miles Champion, who brought his newborn. I’m looking forward to Wednesday’s reading, to returning once again to this familiar home for lost and wayward poems.

Montana bound

I’m looking forward to going to Missoula this week as part of the President’s Writers-in-Residence series at the University of Montana. I’ve heard such good things about the MFA there.

My associations with Montana are few. When I was about seven years old my family drove to Helena, Montana to visit my great aunt Hetty, widow of Dow Moxley. It was said that I resembled Hetty, which is strange now that I realize she wasn’t a blood relative. Did this journey to Helena predispose me toward Helena Bennett? My other association with Montana is that chilling scene in Twin Peaks when Leland suggests Mattie “go back to Missoula.” Did he punch a painting?

There are so many interesting poets teaching in Missoula: I know fellow Brown alum Prageeta Sharma, and Karen Volkman a bit, and I’ll be meeting Joanna Klink for the first time. And then there’s Professor Robert Baker, author of books on modernism and philosophy, and on Oppen and Char. His pedagogical influence is pervasive. Or at least that’s the way it seems. When poet Josh Corey came to the University of Maine, the subject of Prof. Baker arose. Josh had been as impressed with him as had a new colleague of mine, Sarah Harlan-Haughey. She’s a Medievalist who studied at Montana and Cornell before joining the faculty here in Maine a few years ago. It turns out she’d taken multiple courses with Baker, and gone to Cornell at his encouragement. Last spring I read at Case Western University. While there I met yet another person who had been transformed by Baker’s classroom, poet Sarah Gridley.

Could this be the same Bob Baker Steve and I met in the early 90s? [Read more…]

Tender Buttons Press

Tender Buttons celebration recording

This coming Friday, October 17 at 7pm, the Poetry Project will host an event celebrating Tender Buttons Press marked with a 25th Anniversary Edition of Bernadette Mayer’s Sonnets and a new book by Katy Bohinc, titled Dear Alain. I couldn’t make it to Manhattan, but will be there in voice. Heurtebise helped me make a recording of some poems from Imagination Verses, which cellist Serena Jost will set to music. Here’s the recording, sans cellist.