Partway through composing Eurydice, I had an unexpected realization. I thought I was composing an opera based on a story I knew and loved. But a couple of years into the project, I realized that Sarah Ruhl’s beautiful libretto, adapted from her play of the same name, does not just invert the myth on which it’s based; it transcends that myth. The vivid, memorable characters that populate her libretto – Hades, Lord of the Underworld in the guise of a skeezy middle-aged businessman; the obnoxious Stones who maintain order in the underworld; and of course Eurydice herself – are entirely original, even if their names might sound suspiciously Greek. And as you’ll see, though the opera begins roughly where the myth does, it then departs radically from the original narrative. You are about to embark on a very different journey.
Eurydice herself is the opera’s beating heart. We meet her as a very intelligent but quite unworldly young woman; she’s a little insecure with herself, and she’s helplessly in love. She is also still grieving her father’s recent death, and the rawness of her grief makes her vulnerable to Hades’s manipulations. We see her die multiple deaths, and yet we also see her grow. The opera is, in a curious way, a coming-of-age story, even if Eurydice becomes most fully herself in the underworld, after her own death.
Eurydice’s husband Orpheus has a double nature: he’s part human and part divine, part regular guy and part superhuman singer. That doubleness is present in most versions of the myth, but in this opera, he’s not just human; he’s also fairly immature. He resembles plenty of real-life musicians that I’ve known: he has an astonishing artistic gift, but he’s otherwise pretty uncommunicative. He can come off as sullen or narcissistic. It can be hard to know what he’s thinking.
I wanted to musicalize this contradictory double nature. So, in Eurydice, the role of Orpheus is embodied by two singers: a baritone and a countertenor. The baritone is Orpheus as a human being; when he’s behaving more or less normally, only the baritone sings. But when he goes into his musical trance, or shows flashes of his superhuman ability, he is joined by his Double, a countertenor. (I quickly grew addicted to the musical effect of adding a halo of countertenor sound to the rich, velvety texture of the baritone voice. Together they create a kind of forked tongue of sound.)
Sarah and I have left open-ended the question of whether Orpheus’s Double is visible at all; that is up to the stage director of any given production. Certainly Eurydice does not see him, though she is constantly aware that there is something Orpheus is hiding from her. I’m reminded of a haunting passage from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you…
Needless to say, if you feel this way in a relationship, I would advise you to get out while you can.
Sarah’s libretto has a breathtaking emotional transparency. An actress who performed the title role of Eurydice as a play said something to the effect that “there are no columns to hide behind” in Sarah’s writing. What a perfect image. Sure, there’s literally nothing to hide behind in the watery barrenness of our underworld, but there is also nothing to hide behind in the language; there is no posturing, no ironic distancing. I have done my best to match that emotional honesty and specificity in the music. Oh, I forgot one thing. Sarah also has a fantastic sense of humor. There is an Alice in Wonderland–esque sense of the absurd in Eurydice, especially in the sections featuring Hades and the Stones. This aspect of the story was endlessly fun to set to music. Opera is surreal and anti-realistic by its very nature, and if you embrace its absurdity, you can unleash some really wild energies.
I hope you enjoy the piece. It was written with love.