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Orpheus & Euridice

by RIcky Ian Gordon

LBO's notorious opera in a pool is back! Met Star Elizabeth Futral and Grammy nominated clarinetist Todd Palmer retunr to transform the Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool into the River Styx.

"The pairing of Gordon and Long Beach Opera is propitious. The composer and the company both offer new directions for opera in America" - LA TIMES

Composer's notes

In 1995, my partner at the time, Jeffrey Grossi, started to become very ill. I was his primary caretaker, and a lot of times, you’re in no condition to do anything. And one morning I called Todd and said, “I just want to write a piece for clarinet and piano.” I thought, At least I can do that. I could hear the disappointment in his voice. That night, I went to bed, and about four in the morning, I literally had one of those wake - up - and - there’s - an - idea - in - your - head moments.

Hidden somewhere in my subconscious…an old obsession with the “Orpheus and Eurydice” myth was boiling to the surface. When I was little, one of the foreign films any one of my three sisters, who all took me to foreign films and rock concerts at The Fillmore East, was the beautiful “Black Orpheus” with Bruno Melo and Marpessa Dawn. What could I have really understood in that story…but something lingered.

I see Todd as Orpheus with his playing his “Pipe” instead of a lute or a lyre, and Euridice (I changed the y to an I) was both herself and the storyteller…the notes were his and the pianists, and the words were hers.m She gets a mysterious virus that steals her from him incrementally. When someone you love is dying of AIDS, every day something else about them dies. I went to the dining-room table with my notebook; by five o’clock in the morning, I had the entire libretto. I was, like, in a fever.

Poor Todd. I am not sure when he commissioned me, he bargained for an hour-long song cycle. But that is what he got. We were lucky to try a version of the piece out at Cooper Union. Howard Stokar who ran the Cooper Arts series asked me to do the piece in October of 2001. It was very soon after the awful September 11th incident at the World Trade Center, so there was a very weird feeling in the air. Todd played, Elizabeth Farnum sang, Scott Dunn played the piano and Ted Sperling directed it.

Sometime after that I was a guest of Jane Moss’s at Lincoln Center for the Schubert “Wintereisse” that Simon Keenleyside sang and Trisha Brown choreographed. I was so impressed with the way the cycle was done. I was especially impressed with the way Simon actually DANCED in the piece as well as sang. I longed to do the piece this way, and I approached Jane Moss and Jon Nakagawa…who lovingly allowed me to make this dream a reality. I watched a piece by a brilliant choreographer named Doug Varone…a piece he did called “The Bottomlands.” I asked him if he would direct and choreograph this version of “Orpheus and Euridice” at Lincoln Center. Doug, Todd and I all decided where we thought the piece might bear a bit of expansion and I went to work. This version of the piece had it’s world premiere with the soprano Elizabeth Futral, Todd on Clarinet, and pianist Melvin Chin, as well as Doug’s whole dance company, on October 5th, 7th and 8th, 2005, as part of the Lincoln Center New Visions series. I am very excited and very proud. It won an OBIE Award.

The Lonely Hunter (Opera News Feature, Jan. 2007)
Can a boy from Long Island find music in the Dust Bowl? BRIAN KELLOW listens to the singular voice of composer Ricky Ian Gordon, whose opera adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck's classic Depression-era novel, opens in February at Minnesota Opera.

Orpheus in Mythology

Orpheus was the son of Apollo and the muse Calliope. He was presented by his father with a lyre and taught to play upon it, and he played to such perfection that nothing could withstand the charm of his music. Not only his fellow mortals, but wild beasts were softened by his strains, and gathering round him laid by their fierceness, and stood entranced with his lay. Nay, the very trees and rocks were sensible to the charm. The former crowded round him and the latter relaxed somewhat of their hardness, softened by his notes.

Hymen had been called to bless with his presence the nuptials of Orpheus with Eurydice; but though he attended, he brought no happy omens with him. His very torch smoked and brought tears into their eyes. In coincidence with such prognostics Eurydice, shortly after her marriage, while wandering with the nymphs, her companions, was seen by the shepherd Aristaeus, who was struck with her beauty, and made advances to her. She fled, and in flying trod upon a snake in the grass, was bitten in the foot and died. Orpheus sang his grief to all who breathed the upper air, both gods and men, and finding it all unavailing resolved to seek his wife in the regions of the dead. He descended by a cave situated on the side of the promontory of Taenarus and arrived at the Stygian realm. He passed through crowds of ghosts, and presented himself before the throne of Pluto and Proserpine. Accompanying the words with the lyre, he sung, "O deities of the underworld, to whom all we who live must come, hear my words, for they are true! I come not to spy out the secrets of Tartarus, nor to try my strength against the three-headed dog with snaky hair who guards the entrance. I come to seek my wife, whose opening years the poisonous viper's fang has brought to an untimely end. Love had led me here, Love, a god all powerful with us who dwell on the earth, and, if old traditions say true, not less so here. I implore you by these abodes full of terror, these realms of silence and uncreated things, unite again the thread of Eurydice's life. We all are destined to you, and sooner or later must pass to your domain. She too, when she shall have filled her term of life, will rightly be yours. But till then grant her to me, I beseech you. If you deny me, I cannot return alone; you shall triumph in the death of us both."

As he sang these tender strains, the very ghosts shed tears. Tantalus, in spite of his thirst, stopped for a moment his efforts for water, Ixion's wheel stood still, the vulture ceased to tear the giant's liver, the daughters of Danaus rested from their task of drawing water in a sieve, and Sisyphus sat on his rock to listen. Then for the first time, it is said, the cheeks of the Furies were wet with tears. Proserpine could not resist, and Pluto himself gave way. Eurydice was called. She came from among the new-arrived ghosts, limping with her wounded foot. Orpheus was permitted to take her away with him on one condition, that he should not turn round to look at her till they should have reached the upper air. Under this condition they proceeded on their way, he leading, she following, through passages dark and steep, in total silence, till they had nearly reached the outlet into the cheerful upper world, when Orpheus, in a moment of forgetfulness, to assure himself that she was still following, cast a glance behind him, when instantly she was borne away. Stretching out their arms to embrace one another they grasped only the air. Dying now a second time she yet cannot reproach her husband, for how can she blame his impatience to behold her? "Farewell," she said, "a last farewell," and was hurried away, so fast that the sound hardly reached his ears.

Orpheus endeavored to follow her, and besought permission to return and try once more for her release but the stern ferryman repulsed him and refused passage. Seven days he lingered about the brink, without food or sleep; then bitterly accusing of cruelty the powers of Erebus, he sang his complaints to the rocks and mountains, melting the hearts of tigers and moving the oaks from their stations. He held himself aloof from womankind, dwelling constantly on the recollection of his sad mischance. The Thracian maidens tried their best to captivate him, but he repulsed their advances. They bore with him as long as they could; but finding him insensible, one day, one of them, excited by the rites of Bacchus, exclaimed, "See yonder our despiser!" and threw at him her javelin. The weapon, as soon as it came within the sound of his lyre, fell harmless at his feet. So did also the stones that they threw at him. But the women raised a scream and drowned the voice of the music, and then the missiles reached him and soon were stained with his blood. The maniacs tore him limb from limb, and threw his head and his lyre into the river Hebrus, down which they floated, murmuring sad music, to which the shores responded a plaintive symphony. The Muses gathered up the fragments of his body and buried them at Libethra, where the nightingale is said to sing over his grave more sweetly than in any other part of Greece. His lyre was placed by Jupiter among the stars. His shade passed a second time to Tartarus, where he sought out his Eurydice and embraced her, with eager arms. They roam through those happy fields together now, sometimes he leads, sometimes she; and Orpheus gazes as much as he will upon her, no longer incurring a penalty for a thoughtless glance.

The story of Orpheus has furnished Pope with an illustration of the power of music, for his Ode for St. Cecelia's Day. The following stanza relates the conclusion of the story:

"But soon, too soon the lover turns his eyes;
Again she falls, again she dies, she dies!
How wilt thou now the fatal sisters move?
No crime was thine, if 'tis no crime to love.
Now under hanging mountains,
Beside the falls of fountains,
Or where Hebrus wanders,
Rolling in meanders,
All alone,
He makes his moan,
And calls her ghost,
Forever, ever, ever lost!
Now with furies surrounded,
Despairing, confounded,
He trembles, he glows,
Amidst Rhodope's snows.
See, wild as the winds o'er the desert he flies;
Hark! Haemus resounds with the Bacchanals' cries.
Ah, see, he dies!
Yet even in death Eurydice he sung,
Eurydice still trembled on his tongue;
Eurydice the woods,
Eurydice the floods,
Eurydice the rocks and hollow mountains rung."

The superior melody of the nightingale's song over the grave of
Orpheus, is alluded to by Southey in his Thalaba:

"Then on his ear what sounds
Of harmony arose!
Far music and the distance-mellowed song
From bowers of merriment;
The waterfall remote;
The murmuring of the leafy groves;
The single nightingale
Perched in the rosier by, so richly toned,
That never from that most melodious bird
Singing a love-song to his brooding mate,
Did Thracian shepherd by the grave
Of Orpheus hear a sweeter melody,
Though there the spirit of the sepulchre
All his own power infuse, to swell
The incense that he loves."


A Theatrical Song Cycle in Two Acts


Part 1 - Orpheus
Orpheus played his pipe
music, like a cool blue stripe
circling the heavens.
Creatures came
in sixes and sevens,
to hear him play.
did you ever hear him?
get anywhere near him?
I did once,
in a dream.

In books, it was a lute.
But in my dream
it was a reed
not a flute,
something richer, darker,
starker low, high,
all over the map
he could cry
through that strange instrument.
Huntsmen put their guns away
Lions ceased to roar
instead they'd sway and sing
Antelope would swing
when Orpheus played that thing.

Part 2 - Euridice
One day
when his mood was mellow
ambling along,
( happy fellow)
he saw among the daisies
in a dress of yellow
a loveliness
a sight to see.
He moved upon the form
asked her name,
She looked him in the eyes...
and music took a turn-
for it grew wise
and deeper
steeper, like mountains
and for a time
they were so happy
roaming through the meadow.
Endless hours
in the daffodils, and cornflowers.

Part 3 - Bliss
Asphodels grew whiter.
All the colors on the hill
though vivid now
grew bold, and brighter
and nowhere could he make a sound
that he would not confound
the animals with joy, and laughter.
Where they moved
the breezes whispered

Part 4 - Home
They found a house.
She loved to garden,
and decorate.
Upon the entrance gate filigree,
she wove ivy
strewn with roses
and morning glories
which seemed to sing, "hello!,"
even in the winter snow.
O, all who came were welcome
to tell their troubles
their triumphs and their woe
over madeleines and tea,
in this house of love,
so lovely-
with Orpheus,
and Euridice.

Part 5 - They Dance

Part 6 - Song
He wrote a song for her:
I am part of something now.
I was tall among the grasses
where the rushing water passes
through the land that I have known,
but I always felt alone.

I could scale the highest stone
which erupts in giant masses.
Where the largest deep sea bass is
you will find the lines I've thrown.
There were stars that just for me
here, where I have grown,
but I always felt alone.

With you ,
my heart begins to know
the way in which
the world I see
is me,
and I am it, somehow...
I am part of something now.
I am part of something now.

Act 2

Part 7 - Illness

She grew ill.
Who knows why.
It seems,
every time the sun
glows in the sky
there's a threat of clouds
or nightfall.
She was always tired.
Orpheus tried to wake her
playing dizzyingly high
like bird-call
but it only made her cry.

As she slept,
he wept bitterly,
and dearly.
Growing more and more bereft
in increments,
she left.

He could not accept
that clearly
life was soon to be
life without Euridice.

Part 8 - Death

When it came
her death,
he struggled hard, and long.
All throughout her suffering
she'd act so strong.
he somehow felt
his own survival

He stormed
the passageway to Hell,
and coaxed with song
the keeper of the gates.

Not that she was there.
But this was where
you had to pass through.
Like life,
you had to traverse
through the night
to circum-navigate the light.

He found her
as she wandered aimless
with the dazed and the confused
those who only recently had died
but were not used to it, as yet.
like a waiting room,
where disembodied souls met.

Part 9 - The Underworld
This was a blind and deaf Euridice.
Orpheus was desperate
to get his darling back
and he found the powers that be.
They made him play and play and play
everything he knew
till his fingers ached
his lips turned blue.
But he was unafraid
He played to persuade them-
Bade them.
Made them do
exactly as he wanted.
Bellowing out, on bended knees,
"Let her live again,
She is my only happiness!"
They absorbed his moving pleas,
assembled as they were,
a Grecian frieze.
A jury
which was slow to assess
though finally,
they reached their verdict-

Part 10 - The Journey Back
There were terms-
he had to make the passage
through the mud and worms
Euridice behind.
A scheme designed,
so he would never know
that she was there
until he reached the open air, outside.
"Fair Enough." he cried
But as they headed north
a panic struck his mind.
"What if she is not behind
and this is all a hoax?"
but they don't play jokes
down there.
All that he had feared
this fateful whim
destroyed him
for he turned around.
She made a weird sound,
and disappeared.

Part 11 - Song
Two I am not part of anything now.
Conclusion Orpheus tormented
settled back on earth
no longer knowing
the worth of life.
His was music
born of pain and strife.
Now the world was rife with violence.
Creatures craved the old way,
or silence...

He was torn apart
and scattered out in pieces
on the land.
Here, his shattered heart would lay
there, his liver,
while his blood ran into creases
in the sand.

Down the river floats his head
from which, it is said,
music never ceases.

Part 12 - Epilogue

Where spirit
sets the soul to rise
the barrenness of winter skies
the vibrancy of summers-
there music lies, there music lies.
O sound unearthly,
Orpheus, has birthed thee.

Ricky Ian Gordon
December 2nd, 1995