“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.