A Young Composer Takes On Opera’s Oldest Myth

LOS ANGELES — It wouldn’t be a new opera without a little drama.

In the days leading up to the premiere of “Eurydice,” Matthew Aucoin’s operatic adaptation of Sarah Ruhl’s play, the lead soprano couldn’t sing. (Doctor’s orders.) The baritone playing her father was getting over a cough.

Even Orpheus called in sick.

As if there weren’t enough pressure on this production already. Opening at Los Angeles Opera on Saturday, “Eurydice” is a big work, with a big cast and chorus, and the baggage of big expectations: It will head to the Metropolitan Opera next year.

Given the circumstances, Mr. Aucoin — the opera’s 29-year-old composer and conductor — was surprisingly cool. Adjusting his best-laid plans with each opening-week surprise, he seemed more at ease than ever before in his young yet prodigious career. You got the sense that, in the years he’s been working on “Eurydice,” he’s grown up.

Sure, there’s still youthful brashness in the very idea of producing a new version of the Orpheus story — the subject of the oldest surviving opera as well as the earliest one still regularly performed. (And also the Broadway hit “Hadestown.”) But “Eurydice” reduces the myth to intimate scale for a spare, poetic, magic-tinged meditation on loss and remembrance, told primarily from the perspective of Orpheus’s wife.

ImageMatthew Aucoin, the 29-year-old composer of “Eurydice,” also conducts the production.
Credit…Emily Berl for The New York Times
Credit…Emily Berl for The New York Times
Credit…Emily Berl for The New York Times

That work was composed during Mr. Aucoin’s college years, and finished when he was 24. “I love ‘Crossing,’” he said in an interview, “but it’s such an archaeological dig from student to adult composer.”

It shows: Mr. Aucoin confessed that the piece had moments “that lack a certain kind of unity.” Its musical influences are varied; his libretto, an imagined story about Walt Whitman during the Civil War, seemed more in search of drama than in control of it.

But it was by no means an unimpressive debut; Anthony Tommasini, reviewing the premiere for The New York Times, described it as “taut, teeming and inspired.” The baritone Rod Gilfry, who starred as Whitman and has returned to play the heroine’s father in “Eurydice,” said he admired that Mr. Aucoin was already “keenly tuned to what a voice can do.”

And it taught Mr. Aucoin a lot about himself.

“It’s quite challenging to be your own librettist,” he said. “You have to be your own harshest critic and enemy, and you really have to bisect your brain: You work as a playwright first to create something that has a bone structure, and then return to it with a composer’s eyes. And I learned over the course of creating ‘Crossing,’ I have an instinct for musical form and poetic form. But I’m not a playwright.”

That feeling changed the course of his next opera. He knew he wanted to expand on his Orpheus-theme cantata, “The Orphic Moment.” But that 17-minute piece, with his own text, is a dark consideration of whether Orpheus looks back at Eurydice — and damns her to a second death — because it might be fruitful inspiration for his music. The full operatic version was shaping up to be just as cynical.

“It’s a quite twisted view of their relationship, and it felt like a difficult place to live in for two hours,” he said. “Also, the tortured-male-artist perspective became more depressing for me.”

Then Mr. Aucoin read Ms. Ruhl’s “Eurydice,” first performed in 2003. He didn’t think it would take much to turn it into a libretto: The script is plain-spoken, concise and naturally musical. (In an interview, Ms. Ruhl recalled a phrase she once wrote in a poem: “small words with purpose.”)

“When you think whether something can be set to music,” Mr. Aucoin said, you “tap” it to test its acoustics. “That has to do with the emotion behind it and what happens in the silences, and Sarah’s text has the acoustic of a cathedral. You tap almost any word, and there are wells of emotion underneath it. It’s aware of what it can’t say, and that invites music to complete the sentence.”

Mr. Aucoin and Ms. Ruhl met through André Bishop, the artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater (the Met’s partner in a program that developed “Eurydice”), and quickly decided to collaborate. She appreciated that he was roughly the same age as she was when she wrote the play, and said she was fascinated by the line between poetry and song, and the question “of where a phrase can lift off and become music.”

Her libretto has expanded Mr. Aucoin’s expressive palette. He said that “Crossing,” like so much of contemporary American opera, had a darkness that verged on “self-seriousness and monochromaticism.” But Ms. Ruhl’s text for “Eurydice” can be laugh-out-loud funny and surreal, with sly turns toward heartbreak and horror. Mr. Aucoin has aimed for his score to be a musical analogue.

Credit…Emily Berl for The New York Times
Credit…Emily Berl for The New York Times

The role of Hades, for example, is rendered in sound as a stratospheric, hysterical tenor (Barry Banks). In opera history, Mephistophelean characters are typically basses, but Mr. Aucoin didn’t feel that was appropriate here. The phrasing in Hades’s lines is unnatural, as if he were trying — and often failing — to imitate human speech.

“I want to make it seem like he’s on helium, in this Queen of the Night register,” Mr. Aucoin said. “It’s really funny, but it can quickly become dangerous.”

He and Ms. Ruhl have also built on the world of her play. Orpheus is doubled onstage — sung by both the baritone Joshua Hopkins and the countertenor John Holiday — because, Mr. Aucoin said, he’s both human and godlike.

“In most Orpheus operas, we tend to just see the superhuman side,” he said. “But in Sarah’s play, Orpheus is a normal dude, a pretty immature one, and not super communicative — a frustrating boyfriend. I wanted to musicalize both his doubleness and that there’s something Eurydice can’t see.”

When Orpheus is more human, only the baritone sings; when his speech tends toward the poetic, the countertenor’s voice becomes what Mr. Aucoin described as “a halo of sound.” It’s up to the director whether the double is visible onstage.

For the premiere, that director is Mary Zimmerman, who staged the Orpheus myth in her Tony Award-winning “Metamorphoses.” Her theatrical comfort zone, she said, is similar to Ms. Ruhl’s, “where the divine and the ordinary sit side by side.”

She chose to keep Orpheus’s double onstage; her production is a more or less straightforward reading of the text. Ms. Ruhl’s libretto is already a fanciful intervention into the classic myth, so Ms. Zimmerman felt, she said, “like we have to lean into the thing that it is.”

“I was sort of attracted to the idea of the underworld being like a dentist’s waiting office, but I knew that wasn’t right and not of Sarah’s world of the original play,” she said, adding that future productions could reimagine the settings: “Down the line, people can envision the underworld as a dentist’s waiting office or a library or a street corner.”

Mr. Aucoin has written a score with shifting tones and feelings, and so Ms. Zimmerman developed an aesthetic vocabulary that is at once literal — “A beach is a beach,” she said — and whimsical. She has also kept the chorus offstage, to maintain the story’s intimacy.

This week, she was still making adjustments. At first she wanted to project supertitles on the set: “I think the gaze of the audience member to the stage should be that of a lover,” she said, “that unbroken staring into the face and loss of self.” But after the dress rehearsal — in which Erica Petrocelli sang Eurydice while Danielle de Niese continued to recover from a neck injury — Ms. Zimmerman took them out.

(On Thursday evening, Ms. de Niese was finally cleared to perform on opening night.)

In the orchestra pit, Mr. Aucoin had his own refinements. He was often self-deprecating, correcting the players while also placing the blame on himself: “This is my fault as an orchestrator,” “I may have been a little too enthusiastic.”

His demeanor at the podium has evolved since he started conducting his work. By his own description, he was once “a full-body conductor, to an egregious extent”; when he led a performance of “The Orphic Moment” in 2016, his arms swung as he breathed heavily and vocalized with the instrumentalists. Now he is more restrained and practical in his movements, more confident.

This change, from a young artist with something to prove to one increasingly comfortable in his own skin, is in the score for “Eurydice,” as well. Mr. Gilfry said it’s “on a whole other level, a quantum leap from his other writing.” The opera’s different registers — parodic, lyrical, noisy, and deeply felt — cohere in a way that, Mr. Aucoin feels, is “much more of a piece.” And, as he went over the finished score, he was happy he couldn’t spot influences in it: He is approaching something like his own style.

“I feel 100 percent calm,” Mr. Aucoin said. “I think it’s because I believe there are things buried in the piece that will nourish people some day. I feel really at peace for the first time with having transmitted something.”


Saturday through Feb. 23 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles; laopera.org.

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