Sunday, January 16, 2011

Hadestown: a folk opera in three acts

It may seem silly or presumptuous to try to impose a three-act structure on a 57-minute album, but I think doing so is useful for understanding its operatic nature. I spent some time debating whether there is a two-act or three-act structure at work, but there are really far more arguments in favor of the latter, so that’s what I’ll present here.

Act I takes places outside of Hadestown. It opens with the courtship of Orpheus and Eurydice (“Wedding Song”) and ends with Orpheus seeking a way to follow Eurydice to the underground (“Wait For Me”).

Act II begins at the wall of Hadestown (“Why We Build the Wall”), which is known as the River Styx. It ends with an instrumental number (“Papers”), during which Hades discovers both Orpheus’ presence and the speakeasy Persephone has been hiding from him.

Act III opens in the bedroom of Hades and Persephone, as they discuss what is to be done with Orpheus (“How Long?”). The piece ends with Eurydice and Persephone remembering and honoring Orpheus (“I Raise My Cup to Him”).

This subdivision of the work makes evident several pleasing parallels and overarching features.

With regard to setting, Act I takes place in the “world of the living”, away from Hades’ supreme control, while the events of Acts II and III occur in or near Hadestown. This format is almost exactly the same as in the legend recounted by the D’Aulaires, the main difference being that it ends in the underworld rather than following the rest of Orpheus’ life.

Thematically, Act II is institutional and Acts I and III are relational. Act II begins by showing Hades’ power as lord of Hadestown and ends by uncovering the challenges to that power. In between Eurydice and Orpheus struggle (separately) with the isolation imposed by being in Hadestown. Eurydice’s aria “Flowers” in this act is the only number she sings solo, without interaction or commentary from other characters. The two numbers that start this act are not solos, but the only interaction is simple call-and-response, with a single strong personality (Hades or Persephone) speaking to a faceless audience (the workers of Hadestown, who replace the dead of the original myth), who dutifully give the elicited replies.

On the other hand, both Acts I and III open with duets—between Orpheus and Eurydice in the first case, Hades and Persephone in the second. Each of these songs is a conversation, in which a couple tries to sort out how to handle some difficulty presented to them. These duets are both followed by narrative sections (“Epic” parts 1 and 2); here Orpheus is showcased as the master poet and storyteller as he tells the tale of Hades. The crowd responds, either in a discussion of the merits of living in Hadestown (“Way Down Hadestown”) or in support of Orpheus and Eurydice being together (“Lover’s Desire”). (This latter number is again instrumental, and so it’s less clear what is happening. But at the end of the previous song, the workers have joined Orpheus in singing, and in the following Hades complains that they have begun rioting when the lovers kissed. It seems reasonable to infer that the entire town is responding to Orpheus’ plea, as in the legend.) In Act I, the attention then turns to Eurydice’s shifting loyalties, as she is seduced by Hades in another duet. In a twist, Act III instead leaves Hades alone with his thoughts. For the first time, he is forced to reflect on the fragility of his lordly status and to contemplate how to overcome Orpheus’ destabilizing presence. Human weakness impinges on the relationships: Eurydice feels she must escape poverty in Act I, and Orpheus cannot bear the uncertainty that his love might not be following him in Act III. Tragically, the lovers must be separated at the end of both these acts, and each must find aid from another companion. Orpheus calls “Wait for me” to the absent Eurydice as he follows Hermes’ directions to Hadestown. In the end, Eurydice toasts Orpheus “wherever he is now”, and she is joined by Persephone at the table.

Act III also sees another shift in the characters’ relationships. In Acts I and II, both Orpheus and Hades are supreme in their respective crafts. No one can sing so divinely as Orpheus, and no one can challenge Hades’ role as boss. Their conflict, until the end of Act II, is indirect. Orpheus is clearly the hero and Hades is the villain. Starting in Act III, their conflict becomes more direct and ambiguous. Orpheus uncovers Hades’ humanity and threatens to overturn Hadestown’s society. Hades, on the other hand, knows that he must maintain control of the town, at least in part to benefit its residents by providing them with work. He becomes a kind of antihero. As in the myth, the question is raised whether Hades is bad or simply fulfilling a necessary role in life (and death). The battle of wills is begun.

Hades, of course, is victorious. But the opera refuses to admit that Orpheus has utterly failed. Just by presenting his case to Hades in Hades’ own domain he proves his virtue. There is something of the existential here, but that is a topic for another post.

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