In 'Eurydice,' Matthew Aucoin and Sarah Ruhl recast opera's foundational myth

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In 'Eurydice,' Matthew Aucoin and Sarah Ruhl recast opera's foundational myth

Composer, conductor and MacArthur "genius" Mathew Aucoin just debuted his opera, 'Eurydice,' at the Met. The new work reinterprets an ancient, archetypal myth from the perspective of its namesake.

Transcript

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The Greek tale of Orpheus and Eurydice has inspired operas from the beginning of the art form more than 400 years ago. Tonight, The Metropolitan Opera presents the newest version of "Eurydice" based on Sarah Ruhl's play with music by Matthew Aucoin. He also has a new book about opera being published next month. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Only 31 years old, Matthew Aucoin is a pianist, conductor, composer and writer. And he loves opera, even if he finds it an impossible art form.

MATTHEW AUCOIN: I think impossibility is at the core of what opera is and does because it aims for this union of all the human senses and all art forms. And it fails catastrophically in every moment, you know, in every performance. But that failure to me is really touching in its own way.

LUNDEN: In his new book titled "The Impossible Art," Aucoin describes his passion for what he calls, quote, "the messiest possible human endeavor." One chapter is devoted to adaptations of the Orphic myth where the divinely talented musician Orpheus goes to the underworld to bring his dead wife Eurydice back to life with tragic consequences. Several Italian composers used it to create opera in the early 17th century, including Monteverdi.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "L'ORFEO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Orpheus, singing in Italian).

AUCOIN: The myth is essential to the art form because it claims that music can conquer death, but we're always going to screw it up.

LUNDEN: As a matter of fact, Aucoin wrote a piece called "The Orphic Moment," which takes place right before Orpheus turns to look at Eurydice, sending her back to the underworld.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATTHEW AUCOIN COMPOSITION, "THE ORPHIC MOMENT")

ERIN MORLEY: (As Eurydice, singing) It has been life to lose you.

LUNDEN: When Aucoin was commissioned by The Metropolitan Opera to write a new work, he considered expanding that piece. But then he was introduced to Sarah Ruhl's play "Eurydice." Ruhl says she wrote the play in 2003 to change the story's perspective.

SARAH RUHL: Well, I'd always loved the myth and been drawn to it and also been drawn to retellings of the myth. But I realized no one had told it from her point of view. Even when operas are titled "Eurydice," they don't really tell it from her point of view (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "EURYDICE")

MORLEY: (As Eurydice, singing) I don't remember. It was high.

LUNDEN: Ruhl and Aucoin collaborated on the adaptation set in the present, which adds the character of Eurydice's father, who she meets again in the underworld. After she travels through the river of forgetfulness, he helps Eurydice recover her memories and language, says Aucoin.

AUCOIN: She goes to the underworld, becomes a total blank slate, and we witness her become herself again. It's an extraordinary shape for a play or an opera. And though the myth is contained within it, I actually think Sarah's up to something very different. And that was a liberation.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "EURYDICE")

MORLEY: (As Eurydice, singing) This is what it is to love an artist.

LUNDEN: Soprano Erin Morley plays the title role. Her big aria is called "This Is What It Is To Love An Artist."

MORLEY: It is complicated. Orpheus just takes up so much space, and that's typical of a lot of artists who we may know. And they are so passionate about so many things and so interesting to us, but they're also intolerable life partners (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "EURYDICE")

MORLEY: (As Eurydice, singing) There is always something more beautiful.

LUNDEN: In this telling, Orpheus is kind of a regular dude with an other-worldly gift. So Sarah Ruhl says they came up with an unexpected solution.

RUHL: We added Orpheus' double, and that was Matt's idea, and I think musically it's such a brilliant idea because you get a countertenor paired with a baritone to get this idea that music, the immortal side of Orpheus, is really incandescent, a little bit androgynous, out of this world.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "EURYDICE")

JOSHUA HOPKINS: (As Orpheus, singing, unintelligible).

LUNDEN: "Eurydice" was initially staged at the LA Opera right before the pandemic. Composer Matthew Aucoin says now it may speak even more poignantly to audiences.

AUCOIN: We don't usually live that close to death. And this past year, a lot of us have had to confront that. And I really hope that this piece is like a portal into engagement with whatever people are dealing with. Because this piece lives in the underworld, it lives in the afterlife, and it really asks the question, what would you say to a loved one down there if you could meet them?

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.