NEW YORK, NY.-
In 2015, the composer Matthew Aucoin emailed the playwright Sarah Ruhl to ask whether she would be interested in working with him on a new opera inspired by the Orpheus myth.
Instead they ended up adapting her 2003 play Eurydice a yearning, fanciful treatment of the Orpheus story in which Eurydice is reunited with her dead father in the underworld. The result premiered at Los Angeles Opera in February 2020, and arrives at the Metropolitan Opera on Tuesday, directed by Mary Zimmerman and conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Aucoin and Ruhl wrote to each other for several years about turning the poetry of her play into a libretto, building character through music, and understanding the strengths and limitations of opera. They recently looked back at those messages and discussed them in a joint interview. These are edited excerpts from their correspondence and their present-day reflections.
SEPT. 29, 2015, 10:45 A.M.
Hi my names Matt Aucoin. Your plays Eurydice and The Clean House recently reduced me to a blubbering awe-struck wreck. And then I happened to read an interview with you in which you said, Everyone has a great, horrible opera inside him. I thought, I really want to make a great, horrible opera with this person.
Pardon my forwardness and my ignorance, for not knowing your work until now! but Im overwhelmed by your lucid musicality. I sensed instantly that youre a poet not in any highfalutin sense, but in a more practical one: Its clear that you wrote (and write) poetry, and that poetry is a native tongue for you.
Oh, about longing looks back: I have the same gene as every composer EVER, and I need to write an Orpheus opera.
Might you be interested in creating one together?
SEPT. 29, 2015, 11:59 A.M.
Thank you so much for the kind words about my plays. I also read an article about you and was struck by a phrase someone wrote about you language becoming music, and music becoming language. Im interested in that nexus, too. Its true I used to write and still dabble in poetry, and its true Id love to collaborate on an opera sometime. I listened to a very small clip of your music on your website and found it quite beautiful; Id love to listen to more.
I feel it might be awkward for me to retread the Orpheus territory from his point of view having already written Eurydice. My gut is that Im more interested in adapting Eurydice into a musical piece. But its silly for me to make any pronouncements in an email without first talking. So lets meet and talk.
MATTHEW AUCOIN: I had a separate Orpheus opera in mind that was entirely different, that was in a way an expansion of my piece The Orphic Moment much darker, much more twisted. It took a meeting or two for me to be like, you know what, adapting Eurydice makes more sense. I tried to inject a bunch of my ideas into Eurydice; then I felt that the skeleton of the play was so strong that it resisted the foreign energy. So I very quickly decided that we could create a more unified world if we stuck to the play.
SARAH RUHL: I dont remember it taking you very long to say, Yes, lets do that. Always you were trying to make Orpheus more complex, since that was your way in. But Eurydice was so present for me as a character, and it wouldnt make sense to retread the material from his perspective.
AUCOIN: I think the core of this piece, for me, is: What would you say to someone you lost if you could meet them again in this other space?
RUHL: Its myth as container, as vehicle rather than myth for myths sake.
OCT. 15, 2015
Opera as magical realism: I think we should indulge our every magical-realist impulse in this piece. I tend to think opera works better when its creators embrace this quality, since its probably inescapable: If opera is real, its realism is magical. (It just doesnt work when people try to house train it or to convince the audience that opera is no weirder or scarier or more surreal than, like, a sitcom.) Matt
AUCOIN: In opera, all speech is dream speech. Thats a law of nature on Planet Opera. Simply because everything is sung, whats communicated will tend to have a dreamlike or surreal quality, no matter how much you might want it to sound like Seinfeld.
RUHL: I love what you say about dream speech. Ive been wanting to write a piece about the idea that art is a dream we have together. When were sleeping, we dream alone at night. Art becomes an incredible vehicle in which we can have the same dream at the same time, while awake.
APRIL 29, 2016
It occurs to me that Orpheus has no parents; his lineage is disputed and totally confusing. Im sensing that one difference between O + E is that even though Eurydices father is dead, she was deeply close to him, whereas Orpheus was always an orphan.
We might see him first happily singing to himself, and then expressing his pre-wedding anxieties: Hes torn between his love for Eurydice and his overwhelming need to make music; hes not sure where he came from; hes never felt 100% human; and hes unsure if he can give and accept the love he feels so powerfully for Eurydice. Matt
AUCOIN: I think there are two implied love triangles in the Eurydice dramaturgy. Eurydice is torn between her connection to her father and her relationship to Orpheus. And Orpheus is also kind of torn between Eurydice and music itself. I think thats where the idea of the double [adding a countertenors halo of sound to the baritone role] came from.
JULY 19, 2016, 7:43 P.M.
Ive been doing a lot of thinking about Hades. The main thing, from my perspective, is that hes a sociopath. He has a total lack of interiority and yet he is alone. Sounds like hell to me. So he feeds off Orpheus and Eurydice, both of whom have (if anything) too much interior life; theyre too likely to withdraw into their own worlds, and he knows that. Hes a parasite who sinks his teeth into Eurydices intellect and Orpheus music.
I think its important that Hades lines are simple and direct and emotionally wrong, awkward and unnatural, but in a way thats unsettling rather than comical. I think the repetitions of interesting risk being a little too funny, especially when theyre sung. Matt
JULY 19, 2016, 8:51 P.M.
Do we care that we somewhat lose his absurdity (It was delivered to my elegant high-rise apartment by mistake)? The question about humor is maybe a larger question tonally about the piece. I use humor in the play to deflect and deepen the tragedy it could be that doesnt play the same in an operatic piece. I dont want to totally excise the humor, but in the nasty man it just might not be singable. Sarah
JULY 20, 2016, 4:20 P.M.
I definitely want to keep the humor!!! I just think Hades needs to be dangerous dangerously deadpan, at first. Which could be funny in its own right. For me the absurdity emerges when we see his gigantic empty loft. But at first, Id love him to be eerily nondescript. Matt
RUHL: Im so happy that Matt has been able to rhythmicize lines and retain their humor.
AUCOIN: The challenge with Hades is that it lies at an extreme of the male voice, but he should also sound quite deadpan. The music is absurdly high, but I wanted to create the sense that for him its completely normal.
RUHL: I love this idea that Hades is impersonating a person. And I think its wonderful how you figured that out in the singing of it.
AUCOIN: Its a matter of rhythm and range. Hades music is the exact opposite of proper, correct text setting. When he says How interesting, he sings the word how on a high D flat for an entire bar. And in certain sections, every syllable is accented in this horrible way. Its not human.
JAN. 31, 2017
I think what we are going for is condensing stage time, while distending mythic time
if that makes ANY sense! Sarah
RUHL: It takes longer to sing than to speak, so everything has to be shorter. But you want the mythic scope of it to still feel big. Its a bit of a puzzle. How much can you feel like time is moving slowly in the underworld without actually subjecting the audience to a kind of slowness that they dont want to be subjected to?
AUG. 8, 2019
FATHEREurydice is gone.This is a second death for me.
I wonder about cutting This is a second death for me. Its a little self-pitying. Might be more moving just: Eurydice is gone. How do you remember to forget? Sarah
AUCOIN: This is part of a longer scene where Eurydices father remembers the directions to his childhood home. In an early version of the score, he sang those directions very slowly, and it felt totally wrong like moving through molasses. Sarah, Mary and I all independently came to the conclusion that he had to speak these lines, not sing them. The words carry so much emotion that, unusually for opera, song proved superfluous.
RUHL: I had the experience in writing the play as well. I had written a soliloquy that I would describe as an operatic soliloquy; it was poeticized and emotional. And it felt all wrong for who he was as a person.
AUCOIN: I think the shape of the drama is so devastating.
RUHL: The ending is very sad. I hope it gives people catharsis after this two years of not being able to grieve with others. Ive watched two funerals on Zoom. Its hard for me to have a good cry on Zoom; Im not with other people, and I feel self-conscious with people watching me cry on video. Its not that Im inviting people to come and cry at Eurydice but in a way, I am.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times