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March 15, 2014

Weekend Reviews: Folk meets Greek myth flawlessly in 'Hadestown'

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The Daily Star

---- — “Hadestown” started as a folk opera created by Anaïs Mitchell that was performed live in Barre, Vt., and later all across New England. 

It is a compilation of 20 songs, primarily folk (though other genres are interwoven throughout the album) that describe the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, likening it to America circa-1930s. Mitchell uses the familiarity of Depression-era America to convey the feelings of hopelessness, poverty and despair that accompany the myth, creating a strong and coherent tone for the entire album, and providing a new perspective on a timeworn tale.

For those not familiar with the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, I’ll include a summary. Orpheus (son of Apollo) was a charismatic, talented musician who supposedly had an intimidatingly alluring voice. Gods, humans and animals alike migrated toward him when he sang; nobody could resist the sound of his music. Eventually Orpheus met a woman, Eurydice, and they fell madly in love and got married. After their wedding, Eurydice stepped on a poisonous snake and dies. 

Naturally, Orpheus fell into a spiraling depression, and later decided to venture into the underworld to try and convince Hades (God of the underworld) to give Eurydice back to him. Orpheus sang to all of the underworld creatures and eventually to Hades and his wife, Persephone, and they take pity on Orpheus and agree to return Eurydice on one condition: Eurydice has to walk behind him the entire way out, and if he turns back even once to look at her before she sees the light of day, she has to stay. That seems simple, but Orpheus accidentally turns around three seconds before Eurydice emerges from the underworld and she gets sucked back down into the depths of hell. 

After that, he falls back into depression and no longer finds comfort in his music. He rejects the romantic advances of any and all women, heartbroken over the loss of his bride. Eventually, his suitors become so enraged at his lack of interest that they cut him into pieces and he dies. Some versions of the story say he is reunited with Eurydice after his death; some don’t.

Because of the plethora of characters in this story, the album features many other artists besides Mitchell, including Justin Vernon, Greg Brown, Michael Chorney and Ani DiFranco. Each artist plays a different character within the story; Mitchell herself is Eurydice. Mitchell composed the songs, sometimes with particular people in mind for the characters, and other times not.  She discussed in interviews how much of her inspiration and motivation for the album and performance stemmed from growing up with parents who promoted creativity and imagination as a form of art and play. She mentions that her father passed down a love for life, art, music and Greek myths that helped to shape who she is today.

Additionally, she states on the Hadestown Web page that the album/performances came together so well purely because she lived in an area that had a strong focus on community, where everyone was consistently searching for ways to make his or her own fun while at the same time helping each other through life: “I don’t know if a thing like Hadestown could have gotten off the ground someplace else ... in Vermont it was pretty natural; it was like friends and neighbors coming together to help each other out and make some fun: ‘Oh, there’s a pile of wood in your driveway? I’ll help you stack it’ leads to ‘Oh, you want to write an opera? Sure, I’ll be Hades!’”

All of the lyrics are unique and deeply emotional. They retain much of the quality of older folk ballads, while at the same time offering a more modern and relatable platform from which to understand and interpret them. In one song, “Gone, I’m Gone,” Eurydice succumbs to death and sings to Orpheus, trying to convey her helplessness and sorrow, “Orpheus, my heart is yours, always was and always will be — it’s my gut I can’t ignore, Orpheus, I’m hungry. Oh, my heart, it aches to stay but the flesh will have its way. Oh, the way is dark and long, I’m already gone — I’m gone.” 

Other songs articulate the Greek myths in astute and clever ways, incorporating smaller aspects of the story into the lyrics. In “Our Lady of the Underground,” Persephone (Ani DiFranco) sings to the drunkards in a speakeasy about the claustrophobia and restlessness she experiences in the underworld: “You’re stir crazy! You’re stuck in a rut, or you could use a little pick-me-up. I can give you what it is you crave: a little something from the good old days — I got the wind right here in a jar, I got the rain on tap at the bar, I got the sunshine up on the shelf, allow me to introduce myself.”

Aside from the lyrics, the music itself is wistful and haunting at times, and at others, rough and powerful. The instrumentals (as well as the album as a whole) are dynamic and intense. The album displays the talent of all of the featured artists excellently, and with such a large range of vocal styles, the character’s personalities and emotions are conveyed faultlessly. It’s really something that’s never been done before, at least not with the same level of sophistication and astute creativity that Mitchell manages to incorporate.

Katie Huntington is a junior at Oneonta High School. ‘Teen Talk’ columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/teentalk