“When I wrote that stage direction 20 years ago, I never had an inkling that [‘Eurydice’] would become an opera at the Met, where it would have even more resonance,” says Ruhl, 47, by phone from New York.
But on Tuesday, the operatic adaptation of the play composed by Matthew Aucoin, directed by Mary Zimmerman and with a libretto by Ruhl, makes its Metropolitan Opera premiere. As even the most well-trodden myths still manage to remind us, the fates are full of surprises.
“I was thinking about [the stage direction] in terms of Greek drama,” says Ruhl, “and how opaque ancient Greek tragedy can seem to us in a contemporary context. I didn’t want anyone to be declaiming and giving us that distance that antiquity sometimes has for us. I wanted it to have a kind of transparency, rather than the opacity of a Greek vase.”
Speaking by phone from New York on the morning of the first sitzprobe, Aucoin, 31, concurs.
“We should write that phrase on a banner and drape it in front of the Met,” he says. “I certainly want to resist the impulse to be capital-C classical. This is not the Greek story. This is a story about a young woman in the 21st century, period.”
Aucoin — a pianist, conductor and writer as well as a composer — is also artist in residence at Los Angeles Opera, and an artistic director (along with Zack Winokur) of the American Modern Opera Company (AMOC). With the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, he just released “Orphic Moments,” a two-CD collection of orchestral and chamber works from the past decade, featuring seven debut recordings and 11 of his fellow AMOC artists.
In the original myth, Orpheus returns from his expedition with the Argonauts and marries the fair Eurydice, who — of course — dies soon after from a viper bite and descends to the underworld. Desperate to reunite with his bride, Orpheus uses his beautiful singing voice to charm the likes of Cerberus, Charon (the ferryman of the river Styx) and finally Hades himself, who allows Orpheus to take Eurydice home on one condition: He must lead the way and not look back. That — spoiler alert — did not go well.
The perspective of the myth isn’t the only thing that’s different about Ruhl and Aucoin’s retelling.
For one thing, the character of Orpheus is split into two singers, baritone Joshua Hopkins and the countertenor Jakub Jozef Orlinski, who appears as his double. (It’s the second new opera this season at the Met to bifurcate the role of its male lead.) It’s an effect that allows us to see Orpheus as a twofold figure, both human and divine. (The paternity test to determine if his true father was Thracian king Oeagrus or the god Apollo remains historically pending.)
For another, Eurydice (to be sung by soprano Erin Morley) has her sojourn in the underworld further complicated by the appearance of her dead father (bass-baritone Nathan Berg), who does not appear in the original myth, and unlike other dwellers of the underworld, has retained the ability to read and write. Much of the play — and the opera — has to do with Eurydice reconstructing who she is from the fragments of her story that she’s lost. Or, as Ruhl puts it, “relearning her life.”
It’s a small tweak, but one with great emotional consequences for Eurydice, pulled between two worlds.
“I think the central question,” says Aucoin, “is ‘What would you say to someone you love if you could encounter them again after life?’ I sort of want to reframe the conversation away from the Orpheus myth because I think Sarah’s play tells a very different story. It was very moving for me when I started writing it, but now it feels visceral.”
Ruhl is a fellow MacArthur fellow, a Tony-nominated playwright and a celebrated author, twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize (for “The Clean House” in 2005 and “In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)” in 2010). Her most recent book, “Smile: The Story of a Face” recounts her experience with Bell’s palsy; and a collection of haikus she wrote to cope with the coronavirus pandemic is forthcoming.
“Eurydice” was one of the first milestones of her career, but one she can still see quite clearly from a great distance.
Ruhl lost her father to cancer in 1994, when he was 50 and she was 20. The original play is dedicated to him, and she’s described writing the play as a way to “have a few more conversations with him.” Looking back on the origins of the play reminds her of a time when she was playing the role of “the daughter, archetypically,” in real life.
“When I first wrote the play, it made me sad every time I watched it,” she says. “And through repetition, I feel like my grief belongs to my collaborators now — I’m handing off the grief baton.”
Ruhl’s words in the play and the resultant libretto are few enough to feel precisely chosen, chiseled into marble — a mythic short-spokenness that lends the words heft and levity at once.
But even as the spare language of her lines endows them with a monumental feel, their brevity and levity also prefigure the semiotically fraught short exchanges of the texting era.
For Aucoin, retaining this balance of the mythic and the modern was one concern. Maintaining the delicacy of Ruhl’s language in his music was another — not to mention its wicked wit.
But the most important thing — an Orphic struggle if ever there was one — was not to look back.
Aucoin considers himself a fan of the long lineage of operatic Eurydices who’ve made the descent to the underworld before his and Ruhl’s. He loves the Gluck, he enjoys performing “Possente spirto” from Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” and he declares full geek status for Harrison Birtwistle’s mind-bending 1986 opera, “The Mask of Orpheus.”
But he tried not to listen to any of these while working on the opera, which commenced in 2016.
He waited until after the opening of “Eurydice” by L.A. Opera in February 2020, which managed to get all six of its performances in before the pandemic dropped the curtain on performing arts around the country. Housebound and with the premiere behind him, Aucoin started work on a book of essays, “The Impossible Art: Adventures in Opera,” which arrives Dec. 7 and includes a chapter on past imaginings of the myth.
“I had the title even before the pandemic,” he says, “because I think impossibility is at the core of opera as an art form. It attempts this union of all the human senses and all these artistic disciplines. And you know, let’s face it, it almost never works. It usually fails catastrophically, but that is what’s great about it — these slightly embarrassing, absurd failures open up pathways of experience that can be powerful and revealing.”
Ruhl had seen a few operas before, but never thought of herself as an opera fan. She cried at the opening night in Los Angeles, deeply moved by the music (which she describes as “almost too much for the heart to hold”) and dazzled by the spectacle of Zimmerman’s staging (which she praises as “painterly”).
She loved how Aucoin musicalized the pain of the story, but also its humor. Opera tends to pull the comic and the tragic pretty firmly in opposite directions, but here humor suffuses the libretto and the lines.
“When we started the collaboration, I said, ‘Can operas be funny?’ ” Ruhl says. “And I feel like it was earnestly asking that question.”
“I remember being so depressed that this was even a question,” Aucoin laughs. “It seemed like a disastrous PR failure for opera! My answer was yes — and not only is it permitted, but we need it. I found that, for me, [humor] unlocks something in my music, a kind of wildness.”
He mentions the vision of the surreal offered by “Alice in Wonderland,” a spellbinding instability. Things can be funny, absurd and a moment later, “the mask falls and it becomes all too real.”
In musical terms, this could mean capturing Eurydice’s catastrophic tumble down the stairs (and into the underworld) from the swanky apartment of the sleazy Interesting Man, a.k.a. Hades — a proto-#MeToo avatar of icky male entitlement embodied by the steely tenor Barry Banks, who reprises his role from the L.A. premiere.
Or it could mean the ping! that marks the loss of memory in the underworld — described in the play as “a small metallic sound of forgetfulness.” Or the ding! of the elevator that shuttles new denizens to its depths. Aucoin describes the opera as a “closet percussion concerto.”
Humor, like myth, has a way of making the unbearable approachable.
“I think humor can even give us permission to cry,” Ruhl says.
For Aucoin, bringing “Eurydice” back to life at such grand scale is an effort not just to reimagine the myth, but also the ways that art and grief connect.
“I hope it serves as a kind of portal for anyone who has experienced loss,” he says, “to engage with it and not flinch and turn away.”
One of Ruhl’s former teachers, the Cuban American playwright María Irene Fornés, used to voice extreme irritation when asked what she wanted people to walk away with from her plays.
“She’d say ‘My play is not a doggie bag from dinner! There’s nothing to take away,’ ” recalls Ruhl with a laugh. “But [with ‘Eurydice’] I do want people to feel their own stories, and to make space for that.”
Ruhl also references a line that struck her from one of Aucoin’s former teachers at Harvard, the poet Jorie Graham, who said about myths in a 1987 interview “it’s not just that I feel they ‘really’ happened; I feel like they are, at all times, happening.”
It brings to mind a line from the play (that didn’t make the leap into the libretto). After the lovers’ fateful parting glance at each other, as their respective worlds pull them apart and as their love and language fall out of sync, Orpheus exclaims: “WE’VE KNOWN EACH OTHER FOR CENTURIES!”
Is he calling out to her in the underworld or to us in the audience?
Such is the magic of myths, these little twofold vessels of time that can stretch across the eras and still resonate in our everyday lives — like music.
“I wanted to keep that line,” Ruhl tells her interviewer, with a laugh. “You can take that up with Matt.”
Eurydice runs Nov. 23 to Dec. 16 at the Metropolitan Opera, 30 Lincoln Center Plaza, New York City. Metopera.org.