An Odyssey through Music and Words

I saw the Friday night performance of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria as part of Monteverdi 450 at the Harris Theater.

Monteverdi’s opera, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, tells of the second half of the journey of Ulysses. It is considered one of the earliest operas and one of the three surviving operas written by Monteverdi.

The Odyssey itself is held in regard as the oldest written text next to its prequel, The Iliad. I was interested in the adaptation of this story into a musical form. Since the Odyssey comes from an oral storytelling tradition, vocal music seems like a particularly fitting way to present the story because it is conveyed orally.

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Monteverdi’s work laid the foundation for opera going forward and are sometimes referred to as the “first modern” operas. Although, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria has even made its own return. After its 1640 premier, it was rarely performed until Robert Haas published a manuscript of the opera in 1922. This publication created a stir that the opera was not written by Monteverdi himself. But now, it is widely held to be authentic. How has the opera survived until today?

In the case of the Odyssey and Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, oral performance has survived because it was recorded in print media. The print music and the libretto survived. Whereas, for the other seven operas he is to have written, they have been lost almost entirely, with only a few librettos.

The reason the work can be performed today is because both the music and the words were documented and preserved. We needed a page in order to lift the words off of it with song.

Ellen Hargis said in her pre-concert lecture of Monteverdi’s operas “prima la parola.” Words were of more importance than music. This principle is opposed to later composers like Wagner or Salieri who claimed “Prima la musica.” This unique feature guided my ear in listening to the opera. The story and the character of the words came through quite clearly.

The music in this early opera is much more foundational and simplistic musically than what we’re accustomed to today. Cadences were repetitive and the vocal style reserved. Although, stylistic changes stood out more prominently than I was expecting. Monteverdi uses changes in the style of the music to outline complex emotions and expressions.

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As for my experience as an audience member for the Monteverdi 450 performance, I enjoyed discovering the work. Being so familiar with classical orchestral music, I felt dropped in a foreign land with the baroque instrumentation. It was an interesting experience to rack my brain for the names of the instruments. I imagine that must be how many first time orchestra attendees might feel.

Although Classical music and instruments may seem such a part of our culture, the practice dates back hundreds of years. What is another couple hundred to place us in the world of the Baroque?

Below is a breif timeline of a few notable adaptations of the Odyssey in the context of cultural developments.

circa 750 – The Odyssey is written

1640 – Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria is first performed

1750 – End of Baroque Era

1857 – The phonautograph is invented, the first device that could record sound waves as they passed through the air. It was intended only for visual study of the recording and could not play back the sound.

1911 – L’Odissea, silent film, is released

1922 – James Joyce publishes Ulysses AND Vienna Manuscript of Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria is published

The story of Odysseus has become a pillar in our cultural landscape across different forms of media. One consistency in what adaptations have lasted, there was some way to document them.

Now, we are lucky to have video and sound recording to preserve performance. But how will these technology formats evolve to be useful for future generations? And who chooses what has enough value to get preserved?

I was surprised to find L’Odissea on youtube, but without the film transferred to the digital formats we use today, would it end up as dusty film on a shelf? Perhaps lesser known titles will dissolve this way.

Why did 1922 see a surge in Ulysses related publication?

1922 – Mussolini rises to power. The Irish Civil War begins. Joyce was Irish, living in Trieste, which had just become a part of Italy. Robert Haas was Austrian and became a member of the Nazi party.

Perhaps in a time turbulent with war, the idea of the epic journey became more intriguing. Or perhaps with modern technologies, the creation and distribution of these works was more conceivable than earlier times.

Ulysses, in particular, juxtaposes references to historic English literature with many vocal music songs (and many other things in between). Joyce seems to play with the idea of what is written vs. what sounds aloud. Rooted in the oral history of the Odyssey, spoken, sung, or sounding noise has lasting impact when written down in Ulysses. Although Joyce references many songs, only once does musical notation appear. It appears in reference to a gregorian chant style piece. Otherwise, he references songs through their names or lyrics.

Prima la parola

Joyce’s reliance on words is quite different than what led to the preservation of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria which was Robert Haas’ publication with score and libretto. The lost operas of Monteverdi, if you’ll remember, only had librettos or pieces of librettos. Although words had primary importance in Monteverdi’s writing, the opera is incomplete without both music and words.

Regardless, these works have had a lasting impact and continued the legacy of the Odyssey while continuing the discourse about spoken v. written word. Their preservation in print has led, in part, to their lasting contribution.

Odysseus, Ulysses, Ulisse, Nobody, Homer

Homer, Monteverdi, Shakespeare share something in common. It has been claimed of all of them that they have not written the works that bear their names.

James Joyce plays with this idea in Ulysses heavily referencing Shakespeare and the question of his authorship. I think this reference is connected to Odysseus’ famous interaction with the Cyclops. When Odysseus spears the cyclops in the eye, the cyclops asks his name, to which Odysseus replies, “My name is Nobody.” This will force the cyclops to respond if asked, that “Nobody” stabbed him. Just as Odysseus’ work is separated from his identity, these creators have become distanced from their work and called into questions as it has been passed down generations.

Homer is claimed to just have written down the story of the Odyssey that was passed around orally by many storytellers. It is also said that the story of Romeo and Juliet was a common tale and Shakespeare was the one to write it down.

Monteverdi’s authorship was called into question because of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria. The musicologist Giacomo Benvenuti claimed that the work couldn’t be by Monteverdi because it wasn’t as beautiful musically as his other operas. He declared “Il ritorno d’Ulisse non e di Monteverdi.” Here, it is was the music not the story that sparked the controversy.  I do think the question of authorship, though in different forms, unites these works and complicates their preservation.

I created a piece that took the idea of the Odyssey and told it using a temporary medium. Since it is fall, I thought leaves would be the perfect material to use for my adaptation. I chose write and illustrate on leaves the three books of the Odyssey; the Telemachiad, the Odyssey, and Nostos.


Then I released them back out into nature. This way they my find readers, but may disappear and rot into the ground. I added my own artist signature if they are discovered.


I wanted to emphasize the temporality of works of art and give a twist to the question of authorship. While someone who finds a leaf could not connect it to me, I have this digital account of my work. Through the photos the work can be understood by future audiences, but the original, will almost certainly be lost.


What Makes Cinderella (Cinde)Really?

With a vibrantly modern look, Cinderella brought humor and light-heartedness to the Lyric Opera stage. I was enthusiastic for the magic of the performance, but left thinking a lot about adaptation.

lyric opera cinderella

Rossini’s Opera hits the major plot points of Cinderella, with some slight changes from the story I was most familiar with. The stepmother is a stepfather, the shoe is a bracelet, and we didn’t get the payout of a grand ball, just a fancy intimate dinner.

As for the show itself, Lawrence Brownlee stole the show as the prince. The chemistry between him and Isabel Leonard was sweet and endearing. But when he sang the big aria in Act II, “Si, ritrovarla io giuro,” it brought the house down. In the scene, he gets into the set piece of a carriage that flipped over from the panels of the courtyard set. He came around the back and popped out the window of the carriage to a grand finish. This moment was the climax of the show for me. The right amount of flash, surprise and emotional longing. (These were things that were somewhat lacking with the simplicity of the staging, it felt like Brownlee put the production on his back and lifted it up at this point).

Here’s a great video of Brownlee singing “Si, ritrovarla io giuro” in 2009. The way he sings the ornamentation is so rich and full, and even more impressive in real life.

From the LA Opera production

Same Carriage set from the LA Opera production

But what is Cinderella in Opera, really? 

I also got my butt up early two weekends ago to commute down to Humanities Day at my alma mater, UChicago. (Luckily there was plenty of coffee and interesting ideas flying around)

The keynote speaker for the day was David Levin who aptly discussed opera in modern life. He used the example of an interpretation of Strauss’ Elektra (Zurich, 2005). We’re developing a new vocabulary for opera with today’s technology that shies away from “blanket celebration or denunciation.”

The format of how opera is being consumed is changing with technology, the MET streaming in movie theaters around the country, home dvds, pbs, youtube. Not to mention all the competition with Netflix etc., to get people in theaters to see Opera is somewhat of a feat.

The Lyric Opera modernized the stage design and costuming. The masks on the mice were nice and the way the carriage was portrayed through the set and then again as a miniature added a dynamic element to the production. But other than that, it was just Cinderella.

Cinderella is a name that people are familiar with. And a Rossini comedy, great! People will buy tickets for it based on name alone. But if there’s one thing we can agree upon, our gut reaction is that Elektra has much more potential emotionally and psychosocially than Cinderella based on libretto alone.

Some stories are better than others. And some stories sell better than others. 

But how do we really see Cinderella?

Barbara Herrnstein Smith has some things to say about the narrative form of Cinderella and its variations in her “Narrative Versions, Narrative Theories.” We use the term “Cinderella Story” loosely from Superbowl wins, to a happy children’s book. Hernstein-Smith argues that “no narrative can be independent of a particular teller and occasion of telling” which is why Cinderella is a perfect example because it is a story that is an abstraction without one root story of origin that adaptations follow, but rather, many unique interpretations that share qualities. Performing arts performance is unique because each staging is a different telling for a different audience.

How does this translate visually? Visual signifiers are something I’ve been thinking a lot about with Halloween! How do you minimally signify you are dressed as a character? A good example of this is, if I were to dress as Taylor Swift, what would be required for me to pull it off? Likely, blonde hair. But in her latest music video for wildest dreams, she is brunette. We still know this is Taylor Swift without her signature hair color. That’s because of her face, her voice, lots of other signifiers that make it immediately obvious. But if I was to dress as Taylor swift in wildest dreams, without the blonde hair, you would have no idea who I was supposed to be. If I was to dress up as a princess and wear a blue dress, I think it’s likely people would guess Cinderella right away. If I dressed up as Cinderella in her rag look, people would know. But say I wore a pink dress, would the first guess be Cinderella? That’s how ingrained in our minds Hollywood has cemented this simplistic image. What about things we can’t control as much, hair color, skin color? How far are we willing to recognize that a character is Cinderella?

In pop culture, it’s interesting how Disney seems to have completely taken over our perception of Cinderella.


To interpret this adaptation, I decided to make my own display with standing paper doll cut-outs of Cinderella. Paper dolls were kind of passe at the turn of the century, though they were more widely used in teaching magazines (read about paper doll history). I think these types of paper displays go a long way in educational settings. They are visual and kinesthetic and develop story with spacial reasoning.

I wondered what characters in different interpretations of Cinderella looked like and what would appear when compared to each other.  I cut out pictures of Cinderella and the prince from different western interpretations of the story, Disney Cinderella, Rogers and Hammerstein Cinderella, “La Cenerentola” by the lyric opera  and by the MET in 2014.

mixed couples

The people playing the characters are of different ages and races. I expected great differences in style, but all the adaptations had a bluish white ball gown. Considering all the interpretations took place after the Disney movie, this can’t be a coincidence. That is how we picture the Cinderella look, it’s what registers for us when someone says Cinderella.
The costume director for the Disney live-action remake this year, Sandy Powell had some comments on her choice of the blue dress. “I then went through every other color and then I thought well it could be white, but, no it can’t be that because we have a wedding scene to do later and that really should really be the light colored dress. After that I kind of got a bit stuck on thinking green would be wrong, yellow would be wrong, red would be wrong.  I came back to blue because it actually is the most attractive color and it just seemed appropriate.  Then of course it went back to the fact that the original one is blue.  And then once I’ve come to that conclusion I realized there’s no way in the world I could have made it any color other than blue because it just is.  Cinderella’s ball gown is blue.  And I think there would have been like millions of little girls around the world like horribly disappointed or telling me I’ve done it wrong.” (Read more)
Why has this element become so quintessential for our vision of Cinderella today? A classic story with so many variations, yet after the Disney movie, we are almost unwavering that the one thing that makes Cinderella cinderella visually, is a big blue ball gown. Out of all of the possibilities for adaptations of Cinderella, there are many exciting interesting options that satisfy the telling to audiences today, but one surprising detail that we passionately resound with is that dress.
Low and behold,  "the dress" is actually white!

Low and behold, “the dress” is actually white!

Cinderella closed last week, but the Lyric has a lot of other programs this season! I’m particularly excited for Romeo and Juliet, another frequently adapted tale. Check that out this February and March! We’ll see what is essential in making Romeo and Juliet.

In the Castle

CSO French Passions and Reveries

While playing Pelleas et Melisande for some elementary schoolers, we discussed how music changes understanding of text. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra presents a festival of French Reveries & Passions this month. But I couldn’t help but take away the setting of scene two “in the castle” to represent the dubious accessibility of classical music to the lesser experienced listener.

There is the conception that the symphony concert goer fits the profile of a typically, older and financially up-scale patron of the arts. This “monarchy” can snatch up tickets at the highest rates and escape for an evening to the elaborate landscape of the castle-resembling concert hall. While counterparts, of the citizenship, stay outside the castle potentially barred by barriers of cost of entry or distance or priorities elsewhere or the perceived notion of the space of classical music as inaccessible. After Tuesday’s closing performance of Debussy’s opera, I thought it would be a perfect vehicle to discuss adaptation with the tools of music and text with young listeners in order to take steps to lower the draw bridge into the castle.

First, we watched a video of singers with an orchestra, no staging, no subtitles, to challenge them to look at the music for cues about the storyline. The CSO production went a step above this basic staging incorporating movement of the singers at their stands, surtitles and a complex light projected set. These elements played nicely to strike a balance between pure operatic performance and a strictly concert presentation.

A lovely drawing of an adaptation in which the princess' bunny gets stuck in a tree and saved by a flying superhero. (After they all go out for pizza)

A lovely drawing of an adaptation in which the princess’ bunny gets stuck in a tree and saved by a flying superhero. (After they all go out for pizza)

I centered our analysis in the “Tower Scene” in which Melisande finds her hair miraculously lengthened after it dipping in the pool and Pelleas walks by the base of the tower encountering her hair reaching down. This element of the story seemed relatable to students as similar to a Rapunzel story. There are clear differences between both tellings, but the similar elements laid groundwork to talk about adaptation. We took to writing and drawing our own Rapunzel stories in a modern setting.

What elements are essential in our adaptations to make the story similar enough, but apply to a modern setting?

All the stories had some sort of tower and magical elements. There were Wizards with potions at the top of a shelf, a suspended cage in a tree kept by a witch, and the bunny in the tree who gets down and goes out for pizza. I was pleasantly surprised with how the students chose different elements of the story to maintain and change.

Debussy adapted Maeterlinck’s text by setting it to music and then the CSO’s adapted it to performance. The magical qualities are suspended throughout, the music adds a layer of mysticism, and the lights and dramatization of the CSO illuminated the setting. The impressionism of Debussy’s music felt copied by the lighting design with its blurry, “almost-there”ness. This setting employed a narrator that tied together scenes and transported the audience from the outside world into the soundscape of the story with ease.

My interpretation takes the theme of the hand and using it to complete the picture. Like music and words, the hand and the background fit in together. One setting the scene, the other manifesting the action.

My interpretation takes the theme of the hand and using it to complete the picture. Like music and words, the hand and the background fit in together. One setting the scene, the other manifesting the action.

I went to the performance with my friend who is an engineer/casual oboist, which made talking about the symbols and themes of the story a little bit different than the conversation with a typical twenty-something artsy type. She was adept analyzing the structural elements of the story, she vigorously flipped through the pages of the program during intermission trying to learn everything about it. So when I brought up some of the symbols and metaphors that stood out to me, she replied that she didn’t note that, but could see where I was coming from (very analytical). One of the most strikingly symbols of the story that stood out to me was the hand. Metonymically, the hand stands for marriage, (taking someone’s hand in marriage), Melisande feels a hand grabbing her hair (her being is trapped and tied down), she loses the ring from her hand (loses the love of her husband).

Music and the text seem to marry metnoymically; the music is one piece that represents the story as a whole.

Next for the CSO is the French Reveries and Passions Festival is Messaien’s Turangalila-symphonie. A symphonic piece with no performed text, but based off the tale of Tristan and Isolde. There are clear musical links between the two French composers, but the approach to adaptation of a story is sure to differ. How will the adaptation present itself with Messaien’s work? With his setting, what I can imagine is the themes of passion and strong drama of the death of two lovers. The “reveries and passions” certainly shine in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s performance.