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LA Opera’s “Eurydice Found” Festival Celebrates Neglected Half of the Greek Myth

December 29, 2019

Opera may be the highest art form, but for Los Angeles Opera, it’s also a way to engage with community. In conjunction, then, with LAO’s world premiere production of Eurydice, which opens Feb. 1 for six performances and is a collaboration between the playwright Sarah Ruhl and composer Matthew Aucoin, the company is producing a three-month, multidimensional festival in which artists and scholars across the county will come together to share their stories and their art.

Dubbed “Eurydice Found,” the celebration will feature some 50 events taking place from Jan. 11 through March 30 and will include operas, theatrical performances, film screenings, fashion exhibits, dance, sound installations, and more. And while the Aucoin/Ruhl opera forges a new perspective on the enduring Greek myth of lovers caught between life and death — reclaiming the narrative for the heretofore neglected half of Orpheus and Eurydice — so, too will many of the festival productions offer new perspectives on the tale that continues to suggest insights into life, death, and beyond.

Presented through LA Opera Connects, this type of celebration is not new to the company, with three previous festivals — “Ring Festival LA,” “Britten 100/LA,” and Figaro Unbound” — having also proved popular in pairing countywide events with an LA Opera production. Stacy Brightman, vice president for LA Opera Connects, has been with the organization for 19 years and is, needless to say, passionate about her job.

“LA Opera has always had a kind of a love affair with our community and with all the scholars, artists and community experts that participate. Our art form is the original interdisciplinary one and the question has always been, ‘How do we contextualize this? How is it relevant?’ Opera is an art form that touches everything and we’ve always thought that every program we do is a partnership program.

“In 2010, the Ring cycle was monumental,” added Brightman, “it’s like going to Mt. Everest, and we felt strongly at the time that we needed to unpack this work, what’s it all about. It was such a giant of a piece and we went to our partners and a three-month festival was born. One of the wonderful events created for that was a new planetarium show that is still running nine years later — the [Griffith Observatory’s] Light of the Valkyries.

Brightman explained that after the Ring” festival she felt a paradigm shift and “wanted to make a festival practice, if you will, a permanent goal and factor. For us, every once in a while, you come upon that new mountain, something that needs to be tackled — the enduring resonance of the character Figaro [for example] — what does it mean? And now in this moment, we look at a classic Greek myth from a female perspective to really upend the myth and have a completely new pair of eyes from which to look through this world premiere.

“It compels us to reach out to our friends and say, ‘Help us do this. Help us parse out what this means.’ Why do we keep coming back to it and now to be looking at it from the side of Eurydice, by doing this in collaboration, we’re tapping into an extraordinary network of experts and visionaries and letting them tell us and share their knowledge.”

Indeed, some of the festival events include neuroscientists from the USC Brain and Creativity Institute discussing how a multitude of brain processes, including memory, imagination, emotion, abstract interference and social knowledge, are involved when we hear or read stories (Feb. 6) and on a completely different note, fashion historian Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell will discuss 19th-century goddess imagery and the neoclassical influence on 18th-century fashion at a “Goddess Fashion” luncheon Jan. 27 at the Ebell of Los Angeles.

“The Ebell Club has been supporting women’s education and culture for more than 100 years,” Brightman enthused, “and we’ve also got two veterans’ groups writing on the myths with original creative writing and we’re setting some to music.” [“Returning Soldiers Speak: Veterans Perform Their Poetic Myth,” Jan. 11 at the Amelia Earhart Library].

Music, of course, is also on the menu, with Proving Up by composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek on tap at the Boston Court Theatre and presented by Pasadena Opera (Jan. 17, 18, 24, 25). The chamber work, based on the short story by Karen Russell, follows the journey of Miles, the son of a family of Nebraska Homesteaders, who must “prove up” his family’s claim to their land by taking their glass window to be counted. As he travels further from home, Miles is taunted by his ghostly sisters and encounters an enigmatic man who will decide whether to grant him the deed or take his life.

The 80-minute opus premiered at Washington National Opera as part of the American Opera Initiative in 2018 and is Mazzoli’s third opera. “Out of all my operas,” said the composer, “this has been performed the most. In addition to three productions in 2018, there was one at Oberlin [Opera Theater], another at Rice [University], and another one on a gun range in Kansas. I only knew that happened when I saw pictures on Instagram.”

Mazzoli, whom Time Out New York called “Brooklyn’s post-millennial Mozart,” said that the work’s themes are universal and can easily be applied to the Orpheus myth. “It’s a lone quest into the unknown. Orpheus goes to the underworld to retrieve his wife, and in our story, Miles sets off across the prairie and encounters a ghostly villainous man. You could,” she added, “interpret him as a representation of death, or more accurately, a representation of fate.

“There’s this idea that you can make all the preparations you want and still fate has a role,” added Mazzoli. “That’s true for Orpheus, a super gifted musician who manages to do the impossible. The gods let him through, but it doesn’t work out. The family in Proving Up fulfilled all the requirements against all odds, but in the final hour undergoes a series of incidents that are beyond their control. There’s this false sense that we can control our destiny by doing everything right, but we can’t. Death comes for us all.”

Mazzoli, 39, is no stranger to LA Opera, her 2012 Song from the Uproar, having been performed at REDCAT in 2015 courtesy of Beth Morrison Projects, LAO’s New York partner in its Off Grand series. But Proving Up, directed by Indre Viskontas and conducted by Dana Sadava with a 13-piece orchestra, including four harmonicas and seven guitars (each tuned to a different chord), didn’t come about through standard channels.

“I read about it on the internet,” Mazzoli quipped, “nobody tells me anything, but the director for this production called me and we had a really great chat and Pasadena Opera confirmed that it was part of the festival.”

Also part of the festival is Underway, a dance opera that takes place March 14 and 15 underneath L.A.’s historic 7th Street Bridge. Directed and choreographed by Heidi Duckler, whose eponymous troupe is celebrating its 35-year anniversary this year, the performance features music composed by Leaha Maria Villareal and was inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.”

Duckler, L.A.’s site-specific queen, explained: “Stacy Brightman talked to me about the festival and since I had been working on a project on the 7th Street Bridge, I thought that it would be perfect for the Eurydice Found festival. [With] most of the storytelling surrounding Orpheus — it was always about him — the fact that this is focusing on Eurydice, that also spoke to me.”

Duckler said that the bridge connects Boyle Heights to the Arts District and it has an old passageway that’s been sealed off for 100 years. “I was able to access the passageway underneath the bridge and will use images from this hidden perspective so that people will have a visceral sense of it. This spot is perfect — since there’s such contention with Boyle Heights and the arts community, it’s a beautiful thing to bridge these communities.”

Duckler, whose troupe will be performing in April as part of the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Arts’ dance season, pointed out that there will be seating for about 100 underneath the bridge and she’s hoping to have bleacher seating, as well, “so that people can see through and underneath the bridge,” adding that she calls this “spatial justice — how we all see as a community working together without any hierarchies.”

L.A.-based Marike Splint is a Dutch French-Tunisian theater maker who is on the faculty at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. She, too, is creating her work in a public space — the purple line of the LA Metro system. Called, Don’t Look Back, an “Orphic soundwalk through the streets of Los Angeles,” the work is being presented by Metro Art, a visual and performing arts agency that encourages ridership and connects people, sites and neighborhoods throughout L.A. County. Splint’s piece takes place on a 20-minute ride that begins at Union Station and ends at the Wilshire Western station, with the fare a mere $1.75.

“I was interested in doing something site-specific — a journey that related to the journey that Orpheus makes through the underground and [using] the underground as a setting. It’s a mythical and epic place, not only with Orpheus and Greek mythology, but also in indigenous mythology and in the Aztec religion. It’s something that keeps coming back in different eras and in different civilizations, so I was interested in exploring that in the context of L.A. and in the way that gives the people who do the experience a feeling of stepping in the footsteps of a person descending into the underground.”

The idea, added Splint, is that the score — which will be available online Jan. 15 at dontlookbackla.com and at marikesplint.com — is to be experienced while riding on the subway. “The soundtrack,” she explained, “is that you hear a voice speaking to you — like a voice in the Metro announcement, but it speaks to you directly. It’s pondering what it means to go underground, to take a journey, [as] all stories and civilizations seem to come back to the underground.

Splint said that Jonathan Snipes composed the music, “which are sounds that one would hear in the subway and in the same tonal register. It’s a meditation on both the underground and the city of L.A., and in the beginning, you hear actual subway sounds and you don’t know what’s coming through the headphones or what you’re hearing [live].

“L.A. as a city is always looking forward,” Splint continued, “it’s obsessed with what’s coming next and never looking back. It’s a future-oriented city that is always in the process of becoming the next version of itself, and that’s for me, the link with the Orpheus myth. His instruction is that when he walks out from the underground, ‘Do not look back.’ That’s where the city of L.A. and the myth come together. Do you face forward or do you face backward?”

Whatever direction one faces, there will be multiple ways to enjoy this extraordinary festival, with some events free and some ticketed, including a three-part showing of Jean Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy at the Norton Simon Museum (Feb. 14, 21, and 28) and a student production of Charpentier’s The Descent of Orpheus to the Underworld at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music (Feb. 29-March 1). There will also be a staged reading of Sarah Ruhl’s play Eurydice, the inspiration for Aucoin’s opera, followed by an interactive conversation with Ruhl and Aucoin at the Getty Villa (Feb. 22).

Added Brightman: “With so many events taking place during the festival, it’s tough to go to everything. There are a few days when multiple things are going on, so as part of my job, I tried to be a helpful air traffic control officer, but — gloriously — there will be multiple things going on. Another theme in the Orpheus myth is taking that journey and coming back from it and see how you are changed.”

Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning international arts journalist who covers dance, music, theater and the visual arts. Publications she has contributed to include the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and KCET Artbound. Her feminist novella in verse, Isn’t It Rich? is being adapted for the stage, and her children’s/coffee table book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet, will soon be published by Red Sky Presents. In addition, Looseleaf co-founded the online magazine ArtNowLA.