Folk Opera Casts Legend Of Orpheus In American Mold

Anais Mitchell is in the H Seat (Jay Sansone)
Anaïs Mitchell first released ‘Hadestown’ as a CD in 2010. New York Theatre Workshop will bring it to the stage.
(Photo by Jay Sansone)
By Anne E. Johnson

NEW YORK — Since 1600, when Jacopo Peri presented L’Euridice at a Medici wedding in Florence, opera lovers have happily followed Orpheus into the Underworld as he attempts to rescue his wife from the arms of Hades. Beginning May 6, audiences can make that journey down a path with a distinctly American twist, thanks to Anaïs Mitchell’s folk opera Hadestown at the New York Theatre Workshop.

record jacket
Mitchell’s Orpheus tale takes an American twist. (Righteous Babe)

Mitchell, who recently won a BBC Radio 2 Folk Award for Child Ballads, her album of traditional British story-songs, is not an obvious conduit for Peri’s legacy. As it turns out, Hadestown was inspired less by opera than by films such as Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus and Jean Cocteau’s Orphée. American history played an essential role as well.

Hadestown takes a lot of cues from the American Depression era because of certain themes,” Mitchell said, “such as wealth and poverty, the railroad, the company town, the man-made natural disaster of the dustbowl, etc. And because there’s a community storytelling aspect to the piece — that kind of old-school, call-and-response style music feels very right for the culture.”

In Mitchell’s reimagining, Hades’ realm is “an industrialized world of mindless labor and full stomachs,” as the official synopsis puts it. Mitchell describes Hades himself as “a king of industry, the man-made world, work, wealth, walls, defense.” It sounds like a vision destined for the stage. However, most of Mitchell’s fans know Hadestown as a purely musical work.

The folk opera was released as a CD on Righteous Babe Records in 2010, with Mitchell singing the role of Eurydice, folk icon Greg Brown as Orpheus, and indie-rocker Ani DiFranco (who owns Righteous Babe) as Persephone.

Mitchell originally envisioned Hadestown for the stage. Its first incarnation was as a community theater piece in Vermont, co-created with Ben t. Matchstick. That production had orchestrations by Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose, who are also working on the new production. The Vermont show was a brief experiment, but the opera’s music was kept alive separately.

“For a few years the piece just lived in the music world — we toured it as a concert, no staging, no acting,” Mitchell said. “But I always wanted to see it on stage again, and for there to be a theatrical incarnation of it that was fuller and clearer, a generous act of storytelling.” Bringing Hadestown back to the boards has been a journey as meandering as that of Orpheus himself.

Rachel Chavkin, director
Director Rachel Chavkin

It was meeting director Rachel Chavkin that inspired Mitchell to attempt a new physical production. “I knew she was a director who could help me take the piece to the next level,” the composer said. “She really intuitively gets the line between concert and theatrical event and how to straddle it.”

Chavkin, a two-time Obie-winning director whose acclaimed production of Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is heading to Broadway, found Mitchell’s music particularly stimulating.

“I think of the songs as these emotional postage stamps framing characters at different moments,” Chavkin said. With funding from the The Broad Stage at the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, Chavkin, Mitchell, and company began work on Hadestown through the NYTW’s Artist Workshop.

'Lazarus,' by David Bowie and Enda Walsh. (NYTW)
NYTW also developed ‘Lazarus’ by David Bowie and Enda Walsh.

For NYTW artistic director James C. Nicola, there was an obvious reason to take on the show — “the startlingly fresh voice of Anaïs Mitchell.” That eagerness for innovation had a precedent. Earlier in the 2015-16 season, NYTW had a major popular success with Lazarus, a musical utilizing songs by David Bowie. (The rock star, who did not perform in the show, died during its run.) Hadestown fits into NYTW’s vision. “We have always been interested in the intersection of theater and music, and with trying to move the American musical theater forward into the 21st century,” said Nicola.

Yet Hadestown has always been billed as a folk opera, not as a musical. It is sung through, with musical scenes “connected with recitative tissue,” as Chavkin described it. Besides a few orchestral instruments, the original recording uses sounds more typical of American folk traditions, including acoustic guitar, harmonica, and banjo. Chorney’s new orchestrations rely on the same ensemble with additional piano.

One might expect a mix of operatic, folk, or musical-theater styles to be preeminent in the arrangements; if they are, it was not a conscious decision on Chorney’s part.

“My choices were not influenced much by these traditions beyond osmosis,” he said. “I am self-taught and a bit of a mutt as to influences and inspirations.” He also acknowledged his fondness for jazz greats Fletcher Henderson and Gil Evans as well as composers Kurt Weill and Paul Bowles.

While the orchestrations might have remained nearly the same, much about Hadestown had to be rethought as it moved from concept album to stage show. That was a challenge Chavkin relished. An important element in her production is the use of space. Appropriately, she decided to redesign NYTW’s East Village venue into a Greek amphitheater. (Sets are by Rachel Hauck.)

Amber Gray will play Persephone (Susan Shachter)
Amber Gray is to sing Persephone.

“I’d say the central approach was about a warm space that feels half barn, half outdoor campfire gathering spot,” said Chavkin. “We want to give the audience the permission to meet the story on both theater and musical/concert grounds, because this piece lives quite equally in both worlds.”

Among Chavkin’s biggest struggles has been in making an ancient tale seem alive or, in Chavkin’s words, “infusing home and giddiness and disbelief into a story you know the ending of.” Fortunately, the libretto of Hadestown has a built-in element of newness, Mitchell’s unique emphasis on the character of Persephone.

In Greek mythology, Persephone is the daughter of the grain-goddess, Demeter. Hades desires her, tempting her with a pomegranate, the consumption of which would imprison her forever in the Underworld. Demeter, her grief causing a blight on the earth, tries to retrieve her daughter. But Persephone has swallowed a few pomegranate seeds, enough to sentence her to stay at Hades’ side for six months of the year.

Eurydice (Nabiyah Be) and Orpheus (Damon Daunno)
Nabiyah Be is taking the role of  Eurydice, with Damon Daunno as Orpheus.

“It’s Persephone who is first moved by Orpheus’ music, so much so that she appeals to her husband on his behalf,” said Mitchell. She enlarged the Persephone role because she found her to be a “powerful, subversive character, literally a ‘force of nature,’ who happens to be married to Hades. Sort of a match made in hell, but sometimes love works that way!”

The prominence of Persephone’s character gives Hadestown a center of female strength missing in the operatic tradition exemplified by Peri, Monteverdi, and Gluck. To Mitchell, it offers an intriguing perspective on the mythology: “I love the dance of balance that her time below and above ground represents.”

Hadestown at New York Theatre Workshop features Nabiyah Be as Eurydice, Damon Daunno as Orpheus, Patrick Page as Hades, and Amber Gray as Persephone, with choreography by David Neumann. Performances run from May 6 through July 3. For more information and to buy tickets, click here.

Anne E. Johnson is a writer based in Brooklyn. She has degrees in classical languages and medieval musicology, and she taught music history and theory for many years. Her essays on music and theater have appeared in The New York Times, Stagebill, and Chicago On the Aisle. She also writes novels and short stories. Learn more on her website.