Thursday, August 09, 2007

2007: The Year of Orpheus

Last summer, when I attended a performance at the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, NY, I saw that the opera's 2007 season featured four versions of the Orpheus myth: the greatest mortal musician who travels to the underworld to retrieve his beloved, Eurydice, only to make an error that banishes her from his side forever. The Glimmerglass selections come from four very different eras of music history: Monteverdi's L'Orfeo from the early 17th century, Gluck's 18th century Orfeo ed Euridice, Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld from the 19th, and Philip Glass' Orphee from 1993. The NY Times' Anthony Tommasini's wrap-up review covers performances of all four operas very nicely.

Before the Glimmerglass season began, though, I took note of the operatic adaptation of Salman Rushdie's "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," itself an adaptation of the Orpheus myth, at the Manchester Festival. The first review I read, by the LA Times' Mark Swed, was just short of scathing, but the idea of making Orpheus and Eurydice into international rock superstars fascinated me enough to find a copy of the novel—which I'd first encountered during a visit to a college to which I applied but did not attend—and promptly devour it. It's far-flung and perhaps over-long, but a colorful, elaborate work nonetheless. The operatic review wasn't the only thing that spurred me to read it; an article I discovered on ArtsJournal lamented the lack of a great rock-and-roll novel and brushed Rushdie off (rather unfairly, I thought) for failing to capture the spirit of the music in his book. His writing on concert performances seems a bit weak (where are the drum solos? the pyrotechnics?), but he captures the songwriting process especially well when Ormus Cama, the stand-in for Orpheus, must balance inspiration from beyond with the conventions of the verse-chorus-bridge formula.

Only weeks later, I discovered yet another Orpheus-themed operatic project, this one by one of my former teachers and musical mentors. William Duckworth, professor of music at Bucknell University and noted post-minimalist luminary, has created iOrpheus, a street opera to be performed in Brisbane, Australia using iPods, laptones, cell phones and other digital media. It's not clear to me how iOrpheus will tease out the myth, but the overall spirit of the performance seems to be one of collaboration, creativity, and seemingly boundless technological platforms (presences on MySpace, YouTube, Second Life, et al).

The continued attraction of this myth for composers and musicians both confuses and enthralls me, especially because the myth reinforces human fallibility and illustrates the ultimate failure of art, and specifically of music, to bring joy and happiness into its practitioners' lives. Perhaps the iOrpheus project might show that technology, advances devised by humans, are the way over the hump, the way of pushing music beyond our unenhanced, mortal offerings. In Duckworth's modern retelling, the outcome of the myth—Orpheus' fateful glance back and Eurydice's disappearance back into the void—might remain the same, but perhaps Orpheus might capture some essence of her on a camera phone before she departs from his side for good.