Orphic Mysteries and Dionysian Roots

Beneath the Parthenon, on the southern side of the most famous hill in Athens, Greece, there stands today the Theater of Dionysus. Two millennia ago a Dionysian festival gathered here each year at harvest time for a series of remarkable dramatic performances. The great tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides and the great comedies of Aristophanes and Menander were first performed at this festival, in this theater, where these ruins stand today. We have the ecstatic God Dionysus to thank for Greek comedy and Greek tragedy. Today, as befits Dionysus’s reputation for impulsive doomed flights, the theater is a gentle ruin.

It’s exciting to imagine how it must have felt to attend the theater of Dionysus in its prime, at the premiere of an Aeschylus or Sophocles or Euripides work. Here’s artist David Reinhold’s illustration of what one may have seen:

Two thousand years later, in the city of Firenze and elsewhere in Europe, popular and intellectual culture began to brim over with a new fascination for the lost cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. This new intellectual strain exploded into the Renaissance. One group of Florentine thinkers and scholars, the society known as the Camerata, devoted itself to the task of recreating the experience of attending an Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides tragedy in its original context. The group applied itself seriously to this collective challenge, which involved intensive historical research as well as creative interpolation. These scholars acknowledged one unusual idea that turned out to have tremendous impact on the future of European culture: they believed, apparently with fairly good reason, that the performers in the original Greek tragedies were not actors who spoke, but singers who sang.

The timeless words of the Orestria, or Oedipus Rex and Medea, these Renaissance scholars believed, were not written as spoken dialogue but as music, as melodies, each sung by a different solo vocalist performing in character. The musical setting, the scholars reasoned, helped to carry the words in these large outdoor theaters. However, if this is true, why don’t we have the music? The words to these great plays are still extant today, but the music has been lost.

The members of the Camerata decided to mount new works of theater, with new music composed in the spirit of this ancient lost music. The first productions were staged around 1600 in Firenze. This effort, this experiment, was the birth of opera.

This amazingly fascinating historical moment of creative interpolation is the topic of the third episode of my new podcast, Lost Music: Exploring Literary Opera, which is now available for your enjoyment on iTunes, Spotify and Stitcher.

I’m really enjoying the process of creating podcasts — I’m also concurrently doing the World Beyond War podcast — and I was especially happy to be joined for the latest installment of “Lost Music” by my good friend Lisa Geraghty, a poet from Kansas City who may be familiar to a few old Litkicks and Action Poetry friends. It was Lisa who suggested the topic for this episode: the 1762 opera Orfeo ed Euridice by Christian Willibald Gluck.

This is a particularly sublime and symbolic opera, and also one of the very earliest operas in the modern repertory. The story of the Greek hero Orpheus and his mad descent into the forbidden realms of Hades to bring his beloved wife Eurydice back to life happens to resonate deeply in the history of opera. As an early prototype of the “rock star” Greek god (he plays lyre, and uses his musical skills to charm various gatekeepers of the Underworld), Orpheus has emerged in our culture as an avatar of Dionysus: a reckless, courageous, artistic and emotional figure of myth — in other words, a natural for opera.

One of the very first operas staged by the Florentine innovators of the Renaissance era was an Euridice written in 1600 by Jacopo Peri, followed by a celebrated L’Orfeo by Monteverdi in 1607. The operatic form matured and spread, and Gluck’s definitive masterpiece premiered in 1762. A century later, the great composer of French comic operas Jacques Offenbach composed a wild, great parody of all the dusty old serious operas about Orpheus and Eurydice. Offenbach’s “Orphee aux Enfers” presents Orpheus and Eurydice as a cynical married pair obliged by the pressure of public opinion to act out their fabled love story even though they barely like each other. Orpheus’s descent into the underworld in this comic opera introduced to the world a famous dance number, the “Can-can”, a wild Dionysian romp that ends the opera in an “infernal gallop”.

Lisa and I talk about all the different Orpheus legends in this podcast, and Lisa also quotes from an Arcade Fire song and a Rilke poem. We had a great time yakking it up on this podcast, and I think we kept it pretty informative and entertaining too. We had so much to say, it turned out, that it was only after I had the whole episode in the can that I realized we had left out certain entire topics related to the Orpheus operas: the use of castrati singers, the Orphic movement in modern art, Richard Powers’ novel Orfeo, and so much more. Well, I guess I wanted to explore literary opera to make connections — that is what I like to do in this podcast, and it’s a good thing that our cup runneth over.

I hope you’ll check out this podcast episode, and if you like it please give us a good rating, subscribe, and become a patron on our Patreon page!

Next episode coming up: Beethoven’s Fidelio, and the opera of #resistance.

One Response

  1. Super cool! I love history.
    Super cool! I love history. I love theaters. I love old theaters. Ghosts CAN be evoked. There are shimmers of the past in the present. It ain’t over yet. Ripple in still water.

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What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!