Saturday, January 15, 2011

Hadestown: a folk opera

The album Hadestown astounds me at practically every level. It has stellar performances, poetry, and musicianship. But for me, it bears relistening (at the rate I've been doing so recently) because of its structure and storytelling in addition to those other elements, which one expects from any good album. Not only do I find myself singing the songs over and over, out loud or in my head, I keep thinking about them—how they unfold and how they tie together. I’ve had enough thoughts about this album that I decided to start writing them down, in what I expect will become a series of blog posts. I consider myself more of a music analyst than a music critic, however (an amateur one in either case), and so most of my thoughts are about the construction of the work and the execution of the storytelling. I won’t be trying to assess the quality of the performances or suggest potential improvements (I will point out flourishes I particularly like), even though as I said before they are enough to recommend listening by anyone with even a casual interest in folk rock, blues, or spirituals. (You can get the whole thing streamed via Quicktime here, and hopefully you’ll decide to buy it.) Instead I wish to study what this piece accomplishes in a narrative and poetic sense, and details of the recording will mostly be mentioned only to underscore that focus. Some things I’ll say will be obvious; hopefully some will be less obvious.

The concept of the album is simple: it is a retelling of the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice in the setting of a fictional post-apocalyptic Depression-era America, through the medium of American folk music. Orpheus is an impoverished poet and songster who has found the love of his life in Eurydice. She, rather than being poisoned by snakebite as in the original, is seduced by Hades and the promise of lavish comfort to journey to the underground mine of Hadestown. Orpheus follows her and pleads with Hades to let Eurydice return above ground with him. Hades, struggling to maintain control and order in his domain, is eventually persuaded to let them go, but only on the condition that Orpheus walk alone with Eurydice behind him, and he cannot turn to look at her. As in the original tale, Orpheus is plagued by enough doubt that he cannot help turning near the end, and the lovers are separated permanently by Hades' decree.

(It’s worth mentioning that I learned the story of Orpheus and Eurydice from D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, which will always be for me the definitive telling of all the stories it covers. Less well-known but just as enjoyable and informative is D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths, which I credit with providing me the only chance I have of understanding the setting of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.)

The “folk” element in the subtitle is evident, but why “opera”? It’s more than just because this piece tells a story set to music over the course of several songs. The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice has appeared again and again in opera and theatre. Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607) was arguably the first true opera, and it was cited in my music history class as an indicator of the beginning of the Baroque era in music. Subsequently, the story was also used as the basis for operas by Gluck, Offenbach (who used the occasion to compose his famous Can-can music), and Glass, in addition to a ballet with music by Stravinsky. By the time Anaïs Mitchell came along to give it a new treatment, it couldn’t be as anything but an opera. The force of musical history is too strong.

Still, I’m not sure anyone had heard anything quite like this album before. It’s an opera in an American musical medium, like Porgy and Bess before it, but it draws on a somewhat different set of elements—Appalachian ballads and traditional call-and-response numbers and folk songs of the 1960s. I personally had not heard of any of the performers (including Mitchell herself), apart from Ani DiFranco (who plays the part of Persephone, Hades’ wife and queen), before receiving this album (it was a gift from my in-laws), although they seem to be well-known and well-respected in the folk music community at large. In any case they come together and tell the story masterfully. It may just as well be described as an oratorio, because the musical setting stands on its own without any staging. The styles of the songs are immediately familiar, but like any great storyteller, Mitchell has imbued every level of the work with layer upon layer of additional meaning. This is what captivates me, and what I want to explore.

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