For centuries the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice has been one of fiction’s great tragedies. As the story goes, the newlyweds are torn apart when Eurydice dies and the great musician Orpheus ventures into the underworld to rescue her. Given the order not to look back until they’re back in the mortal realm, he fails and she is doomed to the afterlife. At least, that’s how the story has been told.
This week the L.A. Opera offers a different approach to the myth, with the world premiere of Eurydice. Written by L.A. Opera’s Artist in Residence Matthew Aucoin with a libretto by Sarah Ruhl, the new work is an adaptation of Ruhl’s 2003 play of the same name. It was co-commissioned by the L.A. Opera and the Metropolitan Opera. There will be six performances of the opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, starting Saturday, Feb. 1 and running through Feb. 23.
As with the myth, the opera follows the short marriage of Orpheus and Eurydice (played by soprano Danielle de Niese) and the bride’s death, but rather than follow the groom, it chronicles Eurydice’s journey into the afterlife where she is reunited with her father (Rod Gilfry).
“Nobody’s ever questioned if there’s a tragedy for Eurydice. What’s her life like before she died?” de Niese told Los Angeles Downtown News. “What happened when she ventured to the underworld, and began to accept her fate only to have Orpheus reappear and say ‘we’re going back?’”
In the opera, the titular heroine rediscovers memories of her youth, before she met Orpheus. The musician has his own journey, but the focus of the piece is on Eurydice, and her relationship with her lost father.
“It unintentionally becomes a love triangle, not romantically, but one that’s split between romantic and nourishing love,” she said.
Aucoin said that unlike a lot of play-to-opera adaptations, most of Ruhl’s text was maintained, given the poetic nature of the original play.
The other half of the show is Aucoin’s music. De Niese said that Aucoin writes in technically challenging ways, with complicated rhythms that are not as common in opera. Aucoin for his part said he wanted to show a “danger and dynamism” in the score, mixing sweetness with more discordant sounds.
“There are moments that turn into the most hardcore, heavy metal noise,” he said. “Part of what I’m trying to do is show that those are not actually at odds. They exist on the same spectrum — tenderness and lyricism can dissolve into something frightening and dissonant. That quality in the music reflects the polarities of the play.”
He said that given the importance that Orpheus has in myth as a gifted musician, finding a unique sound and portrayal for a famous figure was essential. Part of how that is achieved is by having two actors play Orpheus. There’s Orpheus himself, played by Joshua Hopkins, and his double, played by John Holiday. Hopkins is a baritone, while Holiday is a counter-tenor, with a more androgynous, falsetto register, akin to a mezzo-soprano. Aucoin said the two registers are meant to show Orpheus’ split nature, being part human and part god, with superhuman singing skills.
“The baritone for me is Orpheus as a regular guy,” Aucoin said. “The counter-tenor creates this halo of sound, it’s this other presence. It makes for an interesting theatrical challenge — we have this other presence, the double is on stage, but Eurydice cannot see the double.”
Director Mary Zimmerman is overseeing the production, which is using some mixed media tricks for the show. Part of that includes integrating the projecting text into the show. Rather than shown above the stage, as is common for most operas, they will be projected onto the set pieces and background.
Since its inception, Ruhl’s play has toyed with its staging and aesthetics, mixing eras and influences rather than leaning to a traditionally Hellenistic design. Zimmerman’s direction follows a similar path.
“Sarah’s play takes place in a kind of upside-down world, it’s a bit like the world of Alice in Wonderland, it’s quite a surreal world,” Aucoin said. “[The opera] is like that. It’s not the Greek underworld, but more of a dream world that feels contemporary.”
Costumes range from 1960s-inspired swimwear to modern suits and dresses, and the show mixes an elevator to the underworld with gloomy flowers to depict the afterlife. Aucoin said there are also allusions to other Greek myths — keep an eye out for Sisyphus pushing a boulder in the background of scenes.
That blend helps get the opera’s range across. Aucoin said that for Eurydice, he used every musical trick and “color in the musical rainbow” to capture something both personal in the heroine’s story and sweeping in its setting. De Niese said that Eurydice is a “haunting and dark and romantic” show that will get under audiences’ skin.
Eurydice runs Saturday, Feb.1-23 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. (213) 972-8001 or laopera.com.