A new opera reconsiders the myth of Orpheus

    "Orpheus," a new opera by Evan Lawson. Photo by Kate J Baker.

    The tragic love story of Orpheus and Eurydice has been celebrated by musicians in many a musical form.

    But what about Orpheus’s affair with fellow argonaut, Caläis? It’s a little-know episode in Greek mythology and one upon which Australian composer Evan Lawson builds his opera “Orpheus.” The three-character hour-long chamber opera features a libretto devised by Lawson who combined text from the libretti of Gluck’s 18th-century Orfeo ed Euridice by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi; Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo by Alessandro Striggio, and words by Phemocles and William Shakespeare.

    Austin new music ensemble Density512 presents the U.S. premiere of Lawson’s opera, a co-production with the Prismatx Ensemble which plays June 5 and 6 at Imagine Art.

    Lawson will be in Austin to conduct the production.

    Composer Evan Lawson
    Composer Evan Lawson. Photo by Meghan Scerri

    “Since the Victorian era, many ancient Greek myths have been hijacked and altered to have any references to same-sex relationships or gender fluidity removed,” Lawson writes in his introduction to the production.


    “Many people aren’t aware of the diversity in ancient myths that explore varying types of human sexuality and gender. In my exploration of the lesser known parts to the Orpheus myth, I was fascinated to find out about Orpheus’ relationship with fellow argonaut Caläis. In some sources, Orpheus’ love for the young man was deeper than his love for Eurydice. It provided me with a fascinating viewpoint on the love triangle at the core of the myth, and a fascinating love triangle to explore onstage.”

    We had a few more questions for Lawson, and he answered via email from Melbourne.

    Sightlines: Tell us a little bit more about your re-consideration of the character of Eurydice?

    Evan Lawson: I wanted to approach Eurydice with caution in this new retelling. My two reasons for this was an attack on a young women in Melbourne last year, whose name was Eurydice. This received a huge amount of press in Melbourne and I wanted to be cautious in intoning this name in Melbourne.

    My next consideration was the place of female-identifying characters in opera. Opera has long been a misogynistic, male-dominated field. Not only are female characters in opera are generally killed, abused or mistreated, but the industry suffers from hundreds of years of male composers, directors, conductors, producers and librettists. I wanted to make it clear that I am male-identifying composer, asking a female character, and in turn a female singer, to represent the pain and anguish of a character that goes from two deaths to sexual abuse.

    In many previous operas dealing with this myth — and with myth-based opera in general — most of the time the male character dominates the narrative and the narrative trajectory, and so I wanted to give space to Eurydice to speak her mind and not be a pawn to the decisions of the men. This is most clearly illustrated in her death aria, which has a layered meaning of her breath leaving her body, but also the sounds and experience of physical abuse. It is also apparent in her rebirth in the underworld, where  I use words from the Gluck opera, What life is this now am I about to lead? 

    This discussion is growing in Australia at the moment, with a recent call for more female representation in our major opera companies

    S: What kind of feedback and reaction to the opera have you received so far? What do people say to you about it?

    EL: Critical responses were very positive and I was immensely proud of the Melbourne season. Audience reactions were really positive and the whole season sold out and made a profit, which I think it an amazing thing not only for new music but for new opera!  I had a lot of audience feedback around the more confronting elements of the story — Eurydice’s two deaths, her rape scene and the connotations toward the sexual advantages taken by Orpheus over Calais. I had comments that said I treated this in a way that displayed the pain and harm, without getting to confronting. And I think many people appreciated my acknowledgement of me as a male-white artists making these statements.

    “Orpheus” will be performed June 5 and 6 at Imagine Art. See density512.org/new-events

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