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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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December always seems to fly by, doesn’t it?! This time of year I’ve been traveling quite a bit and not around as much for the fabulous Chicago performances this time of year. But I still found myself engaging with the arts through new media and the internet.

Technology really is changing the way we look at performing arts.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you can’t have the arts without people. But there are so many ways technology is giving us more opportunities to be consumers of performing arts.

I’m examining  3 hot, recent examples that are changing the way we think about what performing arts should be.

What do you think has the most potential? What do you think the future holds?

  1. Performing Arts with Google

So this is really crazy to me. I went to open on new tab on google chrome and there, at the bottom of my screen, something like “click here to explore the performing arts.”

Thought #1- “Gosh, google analytics know me well!” Click! Thought number #2- “Yes! The internet is actually working to make performing arts accessible.”

Then I played with it for a bit and investigated more.

There weren’t many full length performances which I was really hoping for. But it was really lovely and a great foundation for what could be with buy-in from cultural giants around the world.

I watched ballet, I looked at archives, I went onstage at Carnegie Hall, I took a tour of the Kennedy Center all from my computer chair.

I was excited when on my travels, I got to take a tour of the Kennedy Center irl.

However, Continue reading

Seeing Eye to iPhone

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Before Turkey Day, I went to another Thursday event at the Harris Theater, Mix at Six featuring Lucky Plush Productions.

The Mix at Six structure is interesting. Affordable, short performances on a weeknight so people can attend after work at 6pm. They build enthusiasm for the artist’s other full length performances at the Harris Theater.

A social event for young, hip artistic types that otherwise don’t have plans on a Thursday. It’s a smart move to increase audience awareness, but are there some flaws? But what about people who don’t work in the loop? Is the concept popular?

Seats were general admission, which would make it easy to invite friends at the last minute with tickets only $10 at the door. But, everyone at the performance fit on the orchestra level. Considering there are 3 balconies, it certainly wasn’t a full house.

I’m in full support of low ticket cost and promoting theatrical events to make them more accessible to the community. Mix at Six is an excellent test case to see what this type of series could do for a community. I think much smaller scale cities would see brilliant results from this type of program with not a lot of competition for a Thursday night slot. I’m curious to see what it looks like as the series continues.

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Lucky Plush Productions seemed to be a great fit for the evening as well. I’ve wanted to see them perform for a while and admire their mission to create “work that is richly complex while also being broadly accessible.” It’s a challenge to strike that balance, which makes the troop especially intriguing in my mind.

Their work has a delightful fusions of dance with theatrical, comedic story arcs. I was impressed with the honesty of the performance.

Especially the second number, struck me as an inventively realistic critique of reality tv. A part that really stuck with me was one of the performers dancing with her phone between her ear and her shoulder all while carrying on a conversation.

We are drawn to watching one another in “real” form on tv and on stage. This is essential to performing arts, but also eery with technology observing our every move. Even the first piece “The Queue” set in an airport also had awareness of being watched as inherently important.

Lucky Plush reminds us that the performing arts are about being watched. And in our world full of technology, it’s trickier to define what it means to watch or be a consumer of performing arts. And they do so with an affable sense of humor mixed with a critical eye to deliver very entertaining work.

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I’m a fan of this Lucky Plush clip from “Punk Yankees” in 2012    Watch it!

The pervasiveness of technology is used a lot as a theme these days. We are both drawn in and creeped out by all that the capability of the technology we use everyday. Especially for the arts, artists can use technology to help create/stage their work (youtube, garageband, vine etc.), but art can’t be done without humans at all. Different from the work of engineers, artists can’t be replaced by computers because their work is inherently humanistic. And that’s the important part.

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I drew on this theme of technology and the ever watching eye. I recreated the iphone with signature background as a pencil drawing. We spend so much time staring at our phones like little zombies. I thought, what if the phone looked back at us? (…besides from the obviously creepy “periscope”-esque camera functions). So I added a subtle face in the stars peering back at the viewer.-

How much art is around us everyday that we don’t really see? How much art could there be around us if we were just looking in the right ways?

Lucky Plush shows the beauty, the humor and the poignancy of real life. When we engage with the world around us, art can be anywhere from an airport to the cell-phone in our pocket. Mark your calendar for their show Trip the Light Fantastic: The Making of SuperStrip at the Harris Theater on March 3!