It’s a tale as old as time… boy meets girl, girl dies of snakebite, boy rescues girl from underworld, boy makes dumb mistake and girl is returned to underworld, boy is ripped to shreds by women after refusing to join their orgy and his decapitated head becomes an oracle. It’s amazing Disney never adapted this heartwarming tale!
Of course the tale is that of Orpheus and Eurydice, an ancient Greek myth told musically and with expertise as a guitar opera by Steven Mackey and Jason Treuting in Orpheus Unsung. The piece originally premiered in 2016 as a multimedia music and dance spectacle directed by Mark DeChiazza—this October, the music was released as an album on New Amsterdam Records.
Mackey brings Orpheus back to life with his electric guitar, which is the musical representation of Orpheus in this “opera without words.” Of course, in the original story Orpheus is known far and wide for his expertise with the lyre, a harp-like instrument he played so well that flora and fauna alike would follow the faint music and travel closer to hear him play. It’s refreshing to hear Orpheus played by instruments with a bit more edge. Mackey uses two guitars, one tuned normally and the second tuned microtonally, to create what he calls an “underworldly” harmonic sound. The drums and gongs provided by Sō Percussion’s Treuting round out the sound of the opera with interesting texture and crisp, innovative drumming techniques.
Mackey and Treuting give us the whole story in about an hour, which is structured as three acts representing the phases of Orpheus’ quest: above ground, the underworld, and his return to the land of the living. While above ground, Orpheus falls hard for Eurydice and the two marry with haste. At the wedding the god of marriage offers no smiles or words of encouragement (bad omen alert!) and just after the wedding Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies. Orpheus laments her death and embarks on his journey to the underworld to bring her back. Mackey and Treuting play “The Wedding” with gentle sustained notes that graduate to the all-out anarchy of “Snakebite,” which is followed by a somber, slower “First Lament” that builds as Orpheus lands on the decision to take his lyre with him to the underworld and get Eurydice back with a musical plea to Hades, God of the Underworld.
So down he goes. In a musical swirl of percussion and guitar loops, Orpheus uses his artful playing to charm the beasts, Furies, and dead souls that block his entrance. Mackey plays with lovely restraint and calm as Orpheus finds Hades and makes an impassioned speech, reminding the god of his own great love for Persephone. Convinced that Orpheus and Eurydice are true lovers, Hades agrees to free Eurydice from the underworld but orders that she must walk behind Orpheus on the journey back and that Orpheus is not allowed to turn back to look at her. Up, up, up they go with Mackey lighting the way with his cautious guitar, until Orpheus blows it all at the last second by turning back to gaze at his wife—his shattered dreams scored by shards of icy guitar riffs as she falls back into the darkness.
Oof. After mourning and weeping at the edge of the River Styx, Orpheus emerges from the underworld and plays a sorrowful lament punctuated by long, resting pauses. In “Orpheus Redux,” our protagonist wanders back home literally singing the blues (and here Mackey and Treuting transition to a bluesy sound as well). Eventually he is met by a mob of drunk, horny women. When Orpheus spurns their advances they begin to throw sticks at him. But remember how flora and fauna alike are enchanted by Orpheus? Of course you do. So when the thrown sticks refuse to hit him the women rip him apart themselves, tossing his parts into the nearby stream. The guitar and drums become chaotic to depict this messy and violent scene, but soften greatly as his head (still singing out for Eurydice) and lyre (still playing mournfully) float down the stream, bobbing gently as they continue to drift, perform, and enchant. Eventually The Muses discover his head and rest it peacefully at the bank of the stream, where it becomes an oracle.
Stories about loss and trying to cheat death will always be relevant—but with help from percussion and a couple guitars, Treuting and Mackey give new life to these themes and allow Orpheus to be reborn.