Interlude: Opera, it’s all Greek to me

Coming to stand beneath a Greco-Roman statue in a crumbling square of Herculaneum I think about the dark ages that followed the fall of Rome. Zeus, his family of troublemakers, and the libraries of ancient knowledge misplaced like keys in the couch cushions. I can imagine this statue beginning with its Inauguration Day crowned in sunny garland, boys playing Achilles vs. Hector in nearby alleyways while smoke rises from bread ovens ubiquitous as our McDonalds. The statue would be fully colored with paint back then. I can further imagine a culture in fast forward around him like a mannequin from the time machine. Quickly the flowers fall from crown to toes, the paint fades to stone while vandals invade and plagues creep the vulnerable. New customs and styles replace old ones while gravity and accident take a nose here or a limb there. The ground slowly rises to suffocate the stone symbols and finally bury its metaphors leaving the mythical gods of polytheism to just whispers in vestibules. It will stay like this for the next 1500 years, but nothing stays buried forever.

During the Italian Renaissance humanists seeking knowledge based on reason rather than dogma will bring shovels to places like Herculaneum to expose the sculptures, dust them off, and begin to resuscitate the Greco-Roman ideas of the past they were buried with. The rediscovered writings of Aeschylus, the father of Greek tragedy, will inspire the birth of Opera and the very first will be Dafne by Jacopo Peri in 1598.

I have never seen Dafne, but Herculaneum is on my mind because four of the next five operas I will be attending are centered around a Greek myth, and not all from 500 years ago. Two others Rake’s and Merry will reference specific Greek Myths within their work. Before adventuring to Boston and New York to hear them I’d like to explore why these myths persist well into the twenty-first century and why me and other people seem to love them so much.

For me it was movies like “Jason and the Argonauts”, “The Clash of the Titans”, and “Hercules” starring Lou Ferringo that hooked me at an early age. These stories are fun as heck: Gods and Demi-gods rub elbows with mortals in a world of exciting creatures in exotic locations where we witness epic deeds against unimaginable obstacles, C’mon. Who can forget the morning that Theseus enters the maze to feel the hot bullish breath of the Minotaur before rallying the courage to draw his sword… Yet tug Ariadne’s thread just a little and myths like “Theseus and the Minotaur” become more than just entertaining stories. They are containers that hold humanities collective experience through time; fears and dreams recorded for the future to come to terms with, and hopefully learn from.

To specifically narrow the focus on greek myth I think it’s imperative to start with the container itself. Greco-Roman art has a unique visual vocabulary that decorated every aspect of classical life from drinking cups to buildings. Imagine a Greek amphora full of classical imagery such as shields, spears, and helmets. the helmet isn’t just decoration it is Achilles madly driving his chariot in circles in grief for his fallen friend, it is a symbol of loyalty and solidarity. When Daedalus preaches moderation to Icarus, it is a book of manners in the guise of a fun romp, and the visual imagery of grecian feathers helps the story stick in our memory. Any modern building with columns demonstrates the appeal and staying power of the Greek aesthetic, beauty and balance. Greek images and their underlying meaning both permeated and saturated classical living as guidelines on how to be good citizens. In the theater these images and characters came to life to continue to guide the citizenry.

Most audiences however, then and now, don’t show up to the theater to be told how to be better citizens, they go to be entertained; they go to feel something, they go to feel not so alone in their experience in the world. That experience can often be surprisingly emotional and even psychologically healing.

Aristotle posited that drama can provide a catharsis for individuals in the audience, a cleansing of blocked emotions. By using the characters on stage as a proxy, an individual can begin to confront their own ‘demons’ with a safe sense of detachment. “You see. Doc, I have this friend…” If the experience hits close enough to the heart then the drama becomes a mirror as much as a lens and then ‘the healing can begin.’ Psychologists Breuer and Freud would reignite interest in catharsis thru their writings on psychoanalysis.

Just think of the movie Pretty Woman when Julia Robert’s character Vivian cries while attending the opera La Traviata about a courtesan named Violeta who falls in love. Vivian’s empathy toward her proxy on stage triggers repressed emotions within herself that otherwise might have been held down, like a weight attaching her to old patterns of behavior. Even if it’s only in the imagination, for Vivian the feeling is very real.

It is a further charm of drama to unfold within a condensed time frame that lets the trauma experienced by Vivian’s proxy to be accelerated when compared to life-time off the stage. It means the healing and resolution from the trauma is also accelerated. The audience who watches Vivian watch Violetta feel the joy she feels when Richard Gere climbs up the fire escape. I personally don’t feel that the catharsis experienced thru theater is long-lasting but does speak to the power of story and myth to touch us to the core even if only briefly and who knows maybe for some it can be a catalyst for healthy change.

Following generations will continue to rework the classical aesthetic vocabulary for their own time and own needs with the intention of healing not just the individual but also society.

For an artist to criticize their leaders would risk career and life but it’s an absolutely brilliant alternative to borrow these myths to converse about parallel problems separated by time. The “Oath of the Horatii,” could be read as a rallying cry for The French Revolution channeling the bravery of three brothers fighting a just cause. Art can also be used vice-versa as propaganda for leaders in power (a Cold War of ideas). For example, King Leopold commissioned Mozart to write an opera about La Clemenza de Tito, a progressive emperor to indicate to his electorate that he would be magnanimous like Tito, in this case he was genuine.

While the persistence of myth has enriched society culturally and personally, a downside of myths written 2500 years ago is that they also perpetuate certain systems of belief that might not reflect current trends in our culture. A popular movement right now is to subvert these old myths in ways that highlight some of the inequities from those old stories. Two of the operas I will be seeing Iphigenia and Eurydice subvert the expectations of male dominated narratives by reimagining the story from the female point of view.

While in Boston I recently saw an exhibit at The Gardener Museum that took a thoughtful approach to this conversation of reckoning great art works of the past with our current sensibilities:

The first features a Renaissance painting by Titian titled The Rape of Europa. The title itself speaks volumes about public taste and many museums have even softened the title to ‘abduction.’ Rather than change the title The Gardener keeps it intact and rather than hide the truth or oblige a sensitive public, instead chose to pair the exhibit with a parallel exhibit by a contemporary artist. The audience can bridge the divide and hopefully walk away with a deeper understanding of themselves and the world.

Titian, The Rape of Europa

In this second exhibit Mary Reid Kelley responds to Titians work from a more contemporary and feminine gaze. She slays the patriarchal misogyny of the Europa myth with biting humor and satire combining imagery from the past with contemporary concerns as she alternates between limericks and puns. Reid said her goal was to “humanize and liberate her from the subservient and silent role she had long been forced to play in the ancient myth described by male poets and artists.” This is a similar goal in the opera we saw in Boston, Iphigenia. Reid for me is much more subversive and convincing:

Excerpts from “Europa” by Mary Reid Kelley

It looks like the bleeding has stopped, said Europa, sanguinely
But I’m all sticky, Europa twigged
A tampon would be great, Europa plugged.

I hate limericks, said Europa, aversely.
I’ve missed three periods, Europa recounted.

There once was a girl from Rosetta
Who was cast in a light operetta
When she launched her soprano
Oh, out came the guano
And the theater rained down excreta.

Who knows what’s in there, Europa insinuated.
Probably probably twins twins, Europa repeated.

Time has shown that Greek myth holds within its vocabulary an enduring wealth of image-ideas that artists of all ilk can use to comment on their personal experience living within western culture.

I have always liked the look of classical sculptures but not until a trip to Egypt and Greece did I truly appreciate their evolution from stiff representations to abstracted forms in Greece to stone so human I stood in the National Archeological Museum in Athens and just waited for one of those stone toes to wiggle. I find it the ultimate irony that time and gravity have fragmented them back into abstractions. I reference these broken sculptures in some of my own artwork from the point of view of an artist living in culture that idolizes youthfulness.

It struck me that over time these amazing sculptures of chiseled youth and beauty from Greece had aged closer to a Picasso than the ideals of Plato. The irony is hilarious. Also, there is comfort in intellectualizing our worries and working them out in the form of words or material that according to Aristotle provides catharsis with which I began this train of thought. At the end of this project, rather than be abject I found comfort in the flaws, that beyond their breaks and cracks there still remains some of the beauty and strength they held 2,000 years before, more than that, maybe something gained by their endurance over time.


My artwork, rubbings of constructed reliefs

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