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Visiting Aucoin’s Underworld

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Boston area favorite-son composer Matthew Aucoin reached a pinnacle of recognition in November of 2021 at the Metropolitan Opera, where his opera Eurydice (book and libretto by Sarah Ruhl) vividly and artfully retold the Orpheus-plus myth from the tragedienne’s perspective. The underworld has never since been the same.

“It’s not surprising that a tale about the greatest musician in history, a man who could make the very stones weep when he performed, keeps appealing to his descendants. The scenario offers composers a wedding party, a tragic death, an evocation of what lies beyond, an attempt at resurrection, a plangent lament — opportunities to shine, and to place themselves in a grand tradition.”  NYT 2021

For the Boston Lyric Opera’s production, Aucoin reduced the orchestration demands considerably, but according to our interview subject, award-winning bass-baritone Mark S. Doss*, who plays the newly added role of Eurydice’s father, “…the sound is quite incredible.”

The show runs March 1st through the 10th at the Huntington Theater. Tickets HERE.

FLE: Mark, I didn’t know there was a father in this legend.

MSD: The librettist Sarah Ruhl added the role of Eurydice’s father. The relationship between the two is quite profound and goes into some detail. I take the father to be what Bob Carlisle describes in his famous song, “Butterfly Kisses,” and that is the profound love between a father and a daughter.

There’s a lot in the story about the interactions between gods and humans and Sarah wants to go deeper. Over the tail that she’s spun, Matthew Aucoin, the composer, hasn’t really ventured too far away from the book that she wrote on the subject.

Do you as the father interact with anyone other than Eurydice?

There is an ensemble in Act 2 where I sing along with the two Orpheus characters (me in the underworld and them in the upperworld), but other than Eurydice it’s only the three singing stones that I interact with on stage.

Eurydice (Sydney Mancasola), Father (Mark S. Doss, ) Nile Scott Studios photo

Are you alive or dead?

Actually I’m dead. Basically, I’m talking to Eurydice from the underworld. She’s about to get married to Orfeo. And so he starts out very prominently writing a letter to her.  There’s sort of a mail system in the underworld. Hades, being the boss, uses the father’s letters to Eurydice as a tool to win her over.

“So I have a letter from your father,” Hades sings. “That’s impossible (knowing he is dead), Eurydice responds.  Then she grabs the letter, and looking at it says, “It’s his handwriting.”

Some of this sounds a little bit cutesy. Is it serious? Or is there some ironic light treatment to the story.

It’s a combination of those two. I mean, when I first read through the story,

I thought it was cute, and a bit silly sometimes, but then in context you realize it balances out the story and brings out the depths of it, so there’s quite a strong development of relationships throughout the opera.

Again, when all of my wonderful colleagues and I did a read-through, I had this feeling that it connected to something like Butterfly Kisses by Bob Carlisle. That was once at the top of the hit charts, and for me it has a lot of correlation, especially in the final verse: “…She’ll make a promise and I’ll give her away. Standing in the bride room just starring at her, she asks me what I’m thinking, and I said I’m not sure… I just feel like I losing my baby girl…” The whole role is kind of looking glass into the foundation of an intimate father-daughter relationship.

Tears would come to my eyes listening to Bob Carlisle’s words and music in Butterfly Kisses, which is one of the top tunes chosen for the father-daughter dance at weddings, and that builds even more strongly my characterization when singing the words and music of Sarah Ruhl and Matthew Aucoin. 

Is this actual song interpolated into the score?

Not at all. It just helped me internalize the relationship. In the old mythologies, Eurydice stepped on a snake, it bites her, and she dies. And then she goes to the underworld; Orpheus tries to rescue her. He’s given permission by Hades to lead her out, but he can’t look back. He does look back, not hearing her and thinking Hades has tricked him, then she fades back into the underworld.

Sarah adds an interesting twist: You forget everything when you arrive in the underworld. This makes sense since our past could torment us. So initially, Eurydice and I can’t remember anything. The father relies on system to connect certain letters related to animals and feeling to remember his daughter’s name, and he passes that on to Eurydice so she once more recalls Orpheus. And when he cites the symbolic tree that she would find shade under in her backyard, she exclaims, “Oh, you are my father!”  She is somewhat sad to be leaving him when she knows that Orpheus will be coming to try and save her. 

When his attempt fails, both father and daughter tragically miss the opportunity to unite while their memories are in tact, so they resort to what the Stones put forth as the process of dipping yourself in the river to forget all your memories.

***

Matthew’s music guides us through these encounters quite extraordinarily. He has put together an amazing score. At first glance, I thought, ‘Well, it looks nice. It’s got long enough lines. Then my next step was to begin analysis on my role. I saw that the Father has 105 phrases; that’s not a bad role. But then I need to study the orchestration. I went through it on my software on all the different levels. Understanding the composer’s vocabulary allows me to bring in some extra things that may not be in my lines, and because those little dots on that page are not really music.

I’m very analytical, I think that’s how I succeeded in getting a reputation for doing modern music. Working with Matthew as the conductor and composer feels like a master class. This is even more intense because each time you go through the rehearsal, you have the composer who is conducting and he’s quite a good conductor as well. It’s been an amazing experience.

Do you think that you’re more deeply prepared than most singers?

Well, because of the process I go through, having done a role preparation master class at the University of Michigan, that’s possible. It’s not just pedagogy, though. For instance, I have fun finding graphic and physical ways to understand and feel polyrhythms like three against two, or 4 against 3, or Matthew a lot of times uses parts of 5 within measures.  Sometimes I throw people for a loop with four different metronome systems set to the same beat. On a big screen I have the notes moving along, and next to it is an App with a conductor’s pattern, and voice metronome counting out the numbers of the beats, and a Soundbrenner App that connects the beat pulse to vibrations that are felt on a wristwatch.  As an added physical connection I sing the music (while watching these Apps at work) juggling one heavy ball or three regular ones, with a weighted hula hoop flying around my waist.

***

What is it like as a bass to interact with a devil who’s a high tenor?

Well, it’s certainly different. When I first heard the Hades as a high shrieking tenor on the Met broadcast version, I thought, wow, this is very powerful…it’s up in the stratosphere. It’s tormenting and piercing in a way that signals the underworld. Maybe this is what it feels like to be dead. As in my line at the beginning, “And there are strange high-pitched noises, like a tea kettle always boiling over”, Hades puts us into some sort of a really difficult place.

What’s it like for Orpheus to have a counter-tenor Doppelganger singing circles around, him?

They produce some painful, and difficult-to-sing dissonances that come from singing a half step apart sometimes. It grates on the nerves, but it can serve to reveal emotional things, especially when they’re dealing with distress.

For this BLO reduced version, how much is the orchestra scaled back from what you heard at the Met?

It went from 70 players at the Metropolitan Opera to 17 for this production. You would think you would miss something; the Huntington Theater is probably less than a quarter of the size of the Met, so the reduction is like day and night. But what I’ve heard so far, (especially at last night’s dress), the sound is quite incredible. As Matthew himself has said, “I can’t believe the sound, it’s really fantastic.”

I don’t think Matthew cut any instrumental or vocal lines; this is mostly the elimination of doublings. They are able to get out the essence of the score as he put it together.

The Huntington was designed as a spoken-word theater. It will be interesting to see and hear it after the recent renovations.

My speaking voice, (and I do have a spoken section that I project over music)  seems to resonate well there…maybe that’s one reason they chose me!

So how complex is the scenery?

It’s a square housing that has some backdrops that go up and down to create a playing space. The costumes are very picturesque for the stone figures. They evoke Star Trek.

It sounds like from your description that even though there are moments of silliness and comedy, there are actual human emotions between father and daughter and between the lovers.

For sure. And the stones provide a little comic relief, but they also can give us some profound statements together as an ensemble who take the place of a Greek Chorus. And we have a very, very high soprano who puts out some notes like the queen of the night

You’re clearly a thoughtful artist, not just one of these singers who simply memorizes his own line. It sounds like you could conduct it and perform all the roles too.

At Michigan State, for a couple of years, I directed students in as Opera Workshop course, helping them get into their roles. I take this very seriously. And I did take choral conducting in undergrad, so I find it very useful.

See related review HERE

Maggie Finnegan, Alexis Peart, Neal Ferreira (Nile-Scott-Studios photo)

The Huntington Theatre
Friday, March 1, 2024 | 7:30PM
Sunday, March 3, 2024 | 3PM
Wednesday, March 6, 2024 | 7:30PM
Friday, March 8, 2024 | 7:30PM
Sunday, March 10, 2024 | 3PM

Tickets HERE.

Sung in English dialogue with English surtitles
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission

Eurydice
Music by Matthew Aucoin
Libretto by Sarah Ruhl
Based on the play by Sarah Ruhl

A new arrangement commissioned by
Boston Lyric Opera and Opera Grand Rapids

Original Orchestration Commissioned by The Metropolitan Opera and Los Angeles Opera. Developed by The Metropolitan Opera/Lincoln Center Theater New Works Program with support from the Opera America Repertory Development Grant.

Eurydice SYDNEY MANCASOLA, Orpheus ELLIOT MADORE, Father MARK S. DOSS, Orpheus Double NICHOLAS KELLIHER, Hades DAVID PORTILLO, Little Stone/Ensemble MAGGIE FINNEGAN, Big Stone/Ensemble ALEXIS PEART, Loud Stone/Ensemble NEAL FERREIRA,  Ensemble JUNHAN CHOI

*A Grammy Award winner, Doss has been performing for 35 years, an activity that has taken him to more than 60 international opera houses, including La Scala, Covent Garden, San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera Chicago, Berlin Staatsoper, Wiener Staatsoper, Teatro Real Madrid, to name a few, and countless concert halls.
On his website (https://marksdoss.com/), you may find his biography, in which what immediately leaps to the eye is the artist’s enormous versatility. In his case, calling himself a bass-baritone means exactly that he sings both pure baritone parts, such as Rigoletto, Nabucco, Rigoletto, Germont, and Alfio, and true bass roles, such as Méphistophélès in Faust, Boito’s Mefistofele, and Zaccaria in Nabucco. His repertoire is extensive, with over 100 roles to his credit, and ranges from baroque (e.g. Argante in Rinaldo, the bass part in The Messiah, etc.) to contemporary opera, such as “Eurydice” in Boston.

The summer of 2023 saw the release of his latest album, “Welcome To My World” (Çedille Records), where, accompanied by pianist Ken Smith, he performs 21 selections dealing with several musical genres and spanning over three centuries.

He is also a recipient of the National Institute for Music Theatre’s George London Opera Prize, and Planet Africa’s Entertainment Award, which recognizes his achievements as an artist and for being a positive role model for youths in both Canada and the United States.

Orpheus (Elliot Madore) in front, and his double (Nicholas Kelliher) enter the Underworld (Nile Scott Studios photo)

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