The Oresteia Project:

Bringing  an Ancient Masterpiece to the Modern Stage

 

Andrew Earle Simpson, composer

 

The Beginnings

Finding a Translation

The Artistic Goals of The Oresteia Project

The Oresteia Ensemble

An Economy of Casting

 

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The Beginnings

 

In the summer of 1999, while I was searching for a subject on which to write my first opera, my wife, Sarah (this opera's eventual librettist), encouraged me to read the Oresteia trilogy of Aeschylus.  She had just returned from two years at the University of Oxford, where she had been studying the Oresteia in proximity to some of the world's leading scholars of ancient Greek literature, and her newly-awakened enthusiasm spilled over into my realm of activity, taking over her better judgment, I suspected.  I half-heard her suggestion, promising to look into it if my then-current interest in Savonarola as a subject faded.  It did--quickly--and without a better idea at the time to pursue, I agreed to read the Oresteia; or, at least, the first tragedy, Agamemnon.

 

I am probably typical of Americans graduating from public high schools in that my prior experience of Greek tragedy, though extremely positive, was limited to the reading of Oedipus Rex and Antigone, with passing glances at Medea and the Bacchae thrown somewhere into the mix.  Agamemnon and the Oresteia I knew by name, but I do not recall ever having read a word of Aeschylus (beyond a tantalizing glimpse of the first scene in some anthology) before that summer.  In any event, my approach to Agamemnon was mostly without prejudice, though I was frankly more than a little skeptical about the prospects for making a contemporary opera from ancient tragedy.

 

To say that I was "blown away" by Agamemnon sounds painfully clichéd, and yet it describes my reaction perfectly.  Here was a work which was intense, powerful, moving, and strange: very strange.  But, above all, what was most significant was that the text seemed positively to cry out for musical setting.  So many elements of the staging and the speeches, to my mind, absolutely needed music as a vehicle to convey their extreme emotions, and to express beyond words the violence and its consequences taking place, on or off stage. The amazing thing about Agamemnon was that it read like an opera libretto.  No other tragedy with which I was familiar read in the same way (of course, I had only read two, so my experience was somewhat limited!).  But, to return to my earlier phrase, that reading of Agamemnon blew away my misconceptions and doubts like confetti, and I immediately began to search for a translation for musical setting.

 

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Finding a Translation

 

Sarah pointed me toward an excellent English translation by the British authors Frederic Raphael and Kenneth Macleish, entitled The Serpent Son.  The cover of that book, featuring a bloodied Diana Rigg holding a massive knife, presumably from the BBC television production for which this translation was employed, still sits tantalizingly on the shelf.  Having read through that marvelously vivid and clear translation, I wanted to use its words as the text for the opera, and contacted the publisher to initiate the process of obtaining copyright permission.

 

This process proved much more difficult than I had at first imagined: after being directed from one office to another via letter and fax, I finally had to resort to the expensive option of phoning Cambridge University Press in London, only to be referred back to their New York office, only to be sent again to London through yet another department!  Finally, after several frustrating months, the process began to move forward.

 

By this time, however, I had spoken to my Dean at The Benjamin T. Rome School of Music at Catholic University in Washington, DC, about this new opera on Agamemnon which I was planning to write.  I wanted to see if CUA would be willing to mount a workshop production of it.  Happily, the Dean agreed to this; and, should the workshop prove successful, the Dean also agreed to mount a full-stage production of the work in the following year.  Having such strong incentive (but also a time deadline), I redoubled my efforts to contact Cambridge University Press for copyright details.

 

It had, however, become clear by the summer of 2000 that the process of communicating trans-Atlantically was going to be extremely cumbersome, especially if I wanted to make changes, cuts, and alterations to the translation, for which I would always have to be getting permission.  Finally, Sarah, seeing my frustration, offered to translate two passages for me as a trial, to see what she could do.  I had already composed music, to the original words, for these two passages; thus, were I to adopt her translation, I would have to adjust either music, translation, or possibly a little of both.  Sarah began by translating the beautiful passage of Klytemnestra's beginning with the words, "The Sea is There," sung as a love offering to Agamemnon (although an insincere one!), then translated the opening scene of Agamemnon, the Watchman's scene.  Having read through her new translations, I found them extraordinary: and so, on the spot, we decided to abandon the old translation and to make a new translation of the libretto directly from the ancient Greek text.

 

Thus, the project continued through the completion of Agamemnon, and also through the recent completion of the second opera in the trilogy, The Libation Bearers.  We plan to begin creating the libretto for the third work, The Furies, in summer 2003.

 

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The Artistic Goals of The Oresteia Project

 

It has always puzzled me that very few composers have chosen to set Aeschylus' tragedies, though many have set Euripidean and Sophoclean tragedies to music.  It was not clear to me why this was so, though Aeschylus' comparatively more complicated language has probably had something to do with this.  There also has been a common opinion that Aeschylus' works are somehow not quite as theatrically satisfying as the works of the other two great tragedians.  We disagreed from the outset with that point of view, believing that the Oresteia would be extraordinarily effective on stage not only as tragedy, but also as opera.  Thus, we formulated what has become the fundamental principle of our project: Aeschylus' Oresteia is sufficiently powerful upon its own merits to work as opera, and we aim to demonstrate this through our work.  The events of Agamemnon have been translated without adaptation or alteration, and so we decided to set the three tragedies of the trilogy in such a way as to preserve, as faithfully as possible, the original text, language, and timings of the tragedian.  The only significant modifications consist of cuts from the 1600+-line tragedy which were necessary to keep the libretto at a practicable length for musical setting.  Even these cuts, however, have been made with an eye towards maintaining Aeschylus' sectional proportions to the greatest extent possible.  In effect, we have filtered both the substance and the essence of Aeschylus through the prism of opera, creating, we hope, new and unanticipated beauties.  By shining a light through the text--illuminating Aeschylus, as it were--and by employing the extraordinary timbral and expressive resources of contemporary music to amplify the already-present power of Aeschylus' tragedies, we have sought to make Agamemnon sing.

 

The Oresteia Project is a proposed series of three one-act operas, existing in both chamber and orchestral versions, which are intended to be performed separately, in any combination, or together.  The latter two operas are entitled The Libation Bearers and The Furies (setting Eumenides).  The three operas are of decreasing order in duration: performance time for Agamemnon is approximately 90 minutes; The Libation Bearers, 50 minutes; The Furies, 40 minutes. Thus, an envisioned festival performance of the complete trilogy would take roughly 3 hours and 45 minutes, including two 20-minute intermissions, a length comparable to performances of many traditional operas, such as Tristan und Isolde or Boris Godunov.

 

The second opera, The Libation Bearers, has been completed, and is in the compositional revision stage.  Currently, discussions are underway with a view towards a workshop production of The Libation Bearers as early as the 2003-2004 season.  Compositional work on The Furies is scheduled to commence with the creation of the libretto in summer 2003, following Agamemnon's March 2003 university premiere.

 

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The Oresteia Ensemble

 

For performance of the complete Oresteia trilogy, we envision developing a core ensemble of student and/or professional singers, dancers, and instrumentalists--the Oresteia Ensemble--which is able to perform any or all of the cycle in a variety of venues.  Performances of the operas' chamber ensemble versions at universities and festivals is a feasible goal.  Because Greek tragedy is a genre which does not need elaborate scenery or props to be effective (though it certainly is not hurt by elaborate stagings), a production of such drama can be designed for easy portability.  These operas, being so closely connected with the essence of the original tragedies, similarly require a minimum of sets and props for theatrical effectiveness.

 

An additional benefit of the creation of the Oresteia Ensemble would bethe founding of a permanent group specializing not only in this trilogy, but in the performance of other operatic settings of Greek tragedy and comedy.

 

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An Economy of Casting

 

Another factor, besides the minimal need for sets and props, which can help to make this traveling ensemble for the Oresteia Project possible is the economical cast structure of the trilogy. Perhaps as a natural result of ancient performance practice, in which a core of actors participated in all three tragedies of a cycle, we have been able to plan a rotating cast for the three tragedies, so that the same personnel can sing in all three operas, switching roles from one opera to the next. The principal roles in each of the three operas are as follows:

 

Agamemnon

Klytemnestra, soprano (Klytemnestra, The Libation Bearers; Ghost of Klytemnestra, The Furies)

Kassandra, soprano (Elektra, The Libation Bearers; Athena, The Furies)

Aegisthus, tenor (Aegisthus, The Libation Bearers)

Watchman, tenor (Orestes, The Libation Bearers and The Furies)

Agamemnon, baritone (Pylades, The Libation Bearers; Apollo, The Furies)

Herald, bass-baritone (Slave, The Libation Bearers)

SATB Chorus of Citizens of Argos

 

The Libation Bearers 

Klytemnestra, soprano (Klytemnestra, Agamemnon; Ghost of Klytemnestra, The Furies)

Elektra, soprano (Kassandra, Agamemnon; Athena, The Furies)

Nurse, mezzo-soprano/contralto (Pythia, The Furies)

Orestes, tenor (Watchman, Agamemnon; Orestes, The Furies)

Aegisthus, tenor (Aegisthus, Agamemnon)

Pylades, baritone (Agamemnon, Agamemnon; Apollo, The Furies)

Slave, bass-baritone (Herald, Agamemnon)

SSAA Chorus of Trojan Slaves

 

The Furies (setting Eumenides)

Athena, soprano (Kassandra, Agamemnon; Elektra, The Libation Bearers)

Ghost of Klytemnestra, soprano (Klytemnestra, Agamemnon; Klytemnestra, The Libation Bearers)

Pythia, mezzo-soprano (Nurse, The Libation Bearers)

Orestes, tenor (Watchman, Agamemnon; Orestes, The Libation Bearers)

Apollo, baritone (Agamemnon, Agamemnon; Pylades, The Libation Bearers)

SSAA Solo Ensemble of Furies

SATB Chorus of Athenian Citizens

 

Tenors and Basses not employed in the Chorus for the second opera can double as supernumeraries and as jury members at the trial in The Furies.

 

Dancers are present in all three operas, and have an integral role in the presentation.

 

Chamber Ensemble Instrumentation:

 

Agamemnon

violin, cello, piano, percussion (1 player)

 

The Libation Bearers

flute, oboe, violin, viola, cello, piano, percussion (1 player)

 

The Furies

flute, oboe, violin, viola, cello, piano, percussion (1 player)

 

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Last Revised 14-Jun-06 08:36 PM.