The Making of Benjamin Cohen and Kate Mendeloff's Orpheus and Eurydice - a Musical Odyssey for Young People

By Kate Mendeloff
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109
e-mail- mendelof@umich.edu

All photos by David and Peter Smith.

**NOTE: All lyrics quoted in this article are under copyright of Benjamin Cohen, 1994. They may not be used without permission.**

I would like to discuss the process of creating a new musical version of the Orpheus legend that I produced with my colleague, composer and lyricist Benjamin Cohen, last June in Ann Arbor Michigan. I am a theatre director now teaching at the University of Michigan in the Residential College Drama Concentration; Ben is a recent graduate of the U-M School of Music's Masters Program in Vocal conducting. We first worked together on a new musical adaptation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata (with text by my RC colleague Carolyn Balducci) in December 1991. Our next collaboration was on an adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, which was produced with Young People's Theatre (a local children's theatre company) in May 1991. Ben is a gifted composer for children and he went on to produce his original comic opera of Casey at the Bat with Young People's Theatre the following year.

YPT wanted another collaboration from us for the next season. Ben and I were drawn to the Orpheus myth for a number of reasons- its theme of the conflict between love and art was one that seemed appropriate to the two of us who as artists have to constantly integrate our work and our human relationships. The myth itself has been adapted many times into operatic form, into theatre and film, and has served as the subject for many interpretations. The story cries out for theatrical exploration because of the epic nature of the journey and the scope it offers for imaginative staging choices. We also wanted the opportunity to challenge young people by giving them an education in mythology and classics.

One of my major contributions to our adaptation was to develop the female characters. In Ovid, Eurydice seems a shadowy figure, even before she literally becomes a shade. I wanted to explore the possibility of making her more distinctive as well as a stronger presence in the story. Hence our title, Orpheus and Eurydice. In our production Eurydice is the pragmatist. She has the mind of a scientist, not an artist. When her handmaidens bedeck her with bridal flowers her interest is to dissect them into their real components:

Stamen and sepal
Swaddled in style--
Pollen producing piles...
A flower's not some bonnet that's bathed in Haiku
Why force things upon it?
Just whisper what's true--
Stamen and sepals: what's true.
Eurydice's problem with Orpheus is that he seems to be more in love with love than with her. Orpheus is always singing about his happiness to the gathering throng but he is unable to focus on his bride, to look her in the eye and really see her. At the wedding ceremony Eurydice entreats Orpheus to sing to her alone:

Sing me your delicate song, sprinkled with cheer...
Though I'm not a gathering throng- I am all ears-
You've got a song for trees,wombats and wallabies,
Where is the song that's for me?
But there isn't one. Orpheus is too wrapped up in the idea of Eurydice and in the beauty of his own self- expression to hear her. This contrast between Orpheus' idea of love and Eurydice's seemed especially appropriate to our particular actors. We were working with 10-14 year olds. On the cusp of puberty, these separations between boys and girls are especially evident.

After the wedding ceremony, overcome with her own doubts about Orpheus' feelings for her, Eurydice wanders alone and meets the Snake. My belief about Eurydice's death is that it is no accident. Clearly she is seeking the chance to escape her fate--an unhappy marriage. She is open to the encounter with the Snake; perhaps she even wills it. In our production the Snake was played by the only African-American in our cast, and this heightened her Otherness.

Photo:Eurydice (Adrienne Pisoni) dances with the Snake (Iyobosa Ikhate).

The Snake is a reflection of Eurydice's unconscious- and represents an aspect of her true self- perhaps the erotic side of herself that Orpheus' romanticism cannot touch. This relationship between Eurydice and the Snake was clear in the mirror dance they did as the Snake sings her seductive song: 'Wind with me, waltz with me/ Spin somersaults with me./ Give me a moment to charm you--' As she lures Eurydice, the Snake lets her see her true reflection: 'What he wants is driven /By rainbows and ribbons/ But what you want is me.' In choosing to embrace the Snake, Eurydice is embracing the woman in herself.

We return to Orpheus leading his guests in a Greek wedding dance The action onstage is interrupted by Hermes announcing that Eurydice is dead. All are stunned and the chorus moves to comfort Orpheus. He determines to go after her and the chorus watch him travel

Photo: Orpheus (SeanVogt) is comforted by the chorus after Eurydice's death.

Through hill, through dale, through coppice and bracken,
He never looked back nor did slacken his pace.
Through bramble and brae,
His back to the day,
No, there's nobody stopping this poet from Thrace!
The chorus then becomes more the story-theatre ensemble than a traditional Greek chorus of observers. They take on the job of creating the various characters he encounters as well as becoming the physical terrrain Orpheus moves through.

Orpheus reaches the River Styx and the Fagin- like Charon who 'ferries dead souls for a fee.' Orpheus plays his lyre for Charon and is soon aboard with the dead souls traveling to Hades. We created the boat and the river out of fabric. I had an image of seeing the faces and bodies of the dead struggling in the water. Our choreographer Suzanne Willetts helped to capture that grotesque vision by having the actors press their faces and hands against the cloth. They looked like drowning creatures and gargoyles. Those in the boat swayed to the rhythm of the water as they sang a dirge- like sea chanty:

On the way Orpheus played calmly, calmly
Keeping all the Furies at bay.
Row, Friend, Row...
And a sweep of disembodied arms came from the water as the drowned souls warned: 'Orpheus, consider the road you're taking...'

Orpheus arrives at the entrance to Hades, a grotesque Gothic gate made of twisted human bodies. As Orpheus approaches the cast goes into a frenzy of barking. Out comes Cerberus, a monstrous dog with three heads who goes into a doo-wop number--'Throw me a bone or three...'

Photo:Orpheus (Sean Vogt) meets Cerberus the three-headed dog (Charles Tillinghast, Portia Kreiger, Elliot Campbell).

Once Orpheus has charmed Cerberus with his music he enters the Valley of Tortures.We had the young actors come up with their own ideas for the tortures: being stung by endless swarms of bees, two people perpetually strangling each other,someone trying to cut off her own head, etc. We hone in on two of the damned souls, first Tantalus who can never reach his food or water:

One drop, just one drop or I'll drop--
I'm not talking 'bout swimming pools,
I'm just talking 'bout molecules
...and then Sisyphus who eternally must push his rock uphill only to have it roll down: 'But this stone/ Has a mind of its own...' Here the stone--an actor in a rock bag--turned a winsome face to the audience as Sisyphus struggled to push her across the stage again.

The tortured souls bemoaned their collective fate with a song:

Why are the Gods so strict?
Why is Hades the King so easily ticked?
Tortures abound, no mercy can be found
Here in Hades underground, moribund town
As they continue to suffer, they cry 'When will it be enough?'

And Hades enters shouting

It's NEVER enough!
It's never enough for a god like me-
Forgiveness is poppycock--so push that rock interminably!
This house is a jail and I hold the key!
When Ben asked me about what drives a character like Hades, I thought of overacheiving younger brothers. This seemed to make sense and produced the following solo:

How would you feel if your brother were Zeus?
The mind behind humankind, the rule of the roost?
You'd feel pretty small- forever reduced!
No matter how hard I try
I'll never be him, that's why...
It's never enough!!
Why am I dark? Why am I drear?
I've got a wife who takes a spring break half of the year!
A failure in love? Is that why I'm here?
But even the frustrated anger of Hades can be soothed by Orpheus' music. Orpheus appeals to Hades own marriage to gain his sympathy:

Hades don't you know the pain of love,
The strain of losing her?
At least you know youll see her half the year
Hear my song
The god is moved and grants his wish with one condition: 'You may take her now/ You make take your love --But don't turn around/ Til you're up above.'

There follows a scene between Eurydice with the Queen of the Underworld. I was very intrigued by Persephone as a character. Here is a woman who was physically abducted, forced into a marriage--and yet endures it. Persephone has had to live with the dark and bright sides of life and has found the balance required of mature relationships. She has wisdom to impart to Eurydice,who is unsure of Orpheus and unwilling to return with him. Persephone tells her story and what she has learned for the younger bride:

This place is dark but not so drear.
It fills my world, makes my colors complete.
As you grow older your love will grow dearer
Your songs will grow clear and together you'll sing...
Armed with this reassurance, Eurydice starts the journey home. As she and Orpheus climb towards the entrance of the world, through a human tunnel, her need becomes too great. Once again she asks 'Where is the song that's for ME?' Out of love this time, after all he has sacrificed to win her back, Orpheus turns to look at her--really see her for the first time. Their eyes lock in their first real embrace-- and Persephone comes and gently leads Eurydice away.

Once again the chorus emerges in human form to comfort Orpheus. But his song is different now. He has experienced mature love and loss and he is ready to endure life until he can join Eurydice again:

The sun's rays are a different hue
But my heart's warmed by this reverie
I know when all's done and the singing is through,
I will go and join Eurydice
Kate Mendeloff
University of Michigan
e-mail- mendelof@umich.edu

(Kate Mendeloff's current project is an integration of Vietnam narratives into Sophocles' Philoctetes.)