Podcast 83: Matthew Aucoin and Sarah Ruhl, Eurydice

We welcome Sarah Ruhl, librettist and playwright, and Matthew Aucoin, composer, the two creators of a new version of Eurydice at the Metropolitan Opera. We discuss the history and meaning of this oft-adapted myth, and what drew both writers to it. We delve into their creative process and discover why Sarah chose to make some key changes to the story and characters. We also get a peek into how the two adapted Sarah’s original play into the current libretto, and how Matthew approached setting her text to music. It’s fascinating to hear about the piece’s long journey from its creation to its premiere at LA Opera with Mary Zimmerman directing, to the current remount at the Met. Both writers also have new books out, which should be on everyone’s reading list. Don’t miss this captivating conversation with two of opera’s most vital and thrilling creators.

Listen to the audio version here:

Or watch on youTube.


Peter: Why write an ancient Greek story?

  • Matthew: It’s a story that is always happening.
    • “Music can conquer death, but humans are going to screw it up.”
    • The Orphic Moment – composed for Anthony Roth Constanzo
      • He was connected to Sarah by his younger sister Christine and also by Andre’ Bishop of Lincoln Center Theater.

Walker: What do you mean that this story is always happening?

  • Matthew: The really great myths are archetypes – aspects of our psyches and are situations we could find ourselves in.
    • Each of us has been Orpheus – we do this one thing that we know we shouldn’t, but we still do it and feel the total loss. Or we’ve had it done to us.
      • “Myths are these stories that distill these psychic gestures to their essence.”

Peter: What was your reaction to Sarah’s original script Matthew?

  • Matthew:  The core of Sarah’s play is a different story from Orpheus.
  • Peter: The development of Eurydice’s Father as a character  is fascinating.
  • Sarah: The Father is her own creation. Sarah had lost her father to cancer when she was 20 years old and found this way, in her play to expiate her own grief.
    • Sarah also wanted to explore the relationship between language & music, and language & memory.

Brooke: Eurydice is given her own thoughts and independence in this version.

Walker: Were you influenced by the versions of this story in writing and film?

  • Sarah: She read/watched them all – Cocteau, Virgil, etc. then forgot about them.
  • Matthew: His deep dive about Orpheus & Eurydice operas occurred after he composed the opera for his book of essays: The Impossible Art.
    • Philip Glass – Orphee (based on the play by Jean Cocteau)
    • Marc-Antoine Charpentier – unfinished chamber opera – La descente d’Orphee aux enfers
    • Harrison Birtwistle – The Mask of Orpheus

Walker: How did you start to create your sound world for this opera?

  • Matthew: There’s an emotional transparency in Sarah’s writing and also, water plays an important role in the play.

Peter: How much did the opera libretto hew to the original script?

  • Sarah: Most of the work was pruning text, they trimmed down Hades’ role but created the role of Orpheus’s Double.
    • Barry Banks originated and is performing Hades at Met Opera
    • John Holiday originated Orpheus’s Double and gets 2 performances at Met Opera

Clip 1:

Description: Orpheus Writes to Eurydice, Orpheus and Orpheus’s Double sing an impassioned  love letter to Eurydice. 

Performers in Clip: Joshua Hopkins, baritone & John Holiday, countertenor, Matthew  Aucoin conducts 

Clip Credits: Eurydice Musical Sneak PeekLA Opera, January 24, 2020 

Peter: How was the first rehearsal at Met Opera? Is this the same production as done at LA Opera?

  • Matthew: It was a table sing and first staging rehearsal
    • Yannick Nezet-Sequin – conductor
    • Mary Zimmerman – director
  • Sarah: It is the same production with very minimal rewrites
    • Erin Morley performs Eurydice
      • Aria “This Is What It Is to Love an Artist”

Matthew: Crossing, his first opera received many rewrites because of some mistakes when creating the libretto.

Walker: What was the process of working with Mary Zimmerman like?

  • Sarah: Mary added these layers of dimensions of space, time and visual language as she did in her adaptation of the Ovid poem Metamorphoses.
    • Dan Ostling – Set Design
    • Anna Kuzmanic – Costume Design
    • Denis Jones – Choreographer

Peter: Your script includes many stage directions that seem physically impossible.

  • Sarah: Paula Vogel, her playwriting teacher tells her students to write “plays that may seem impossible to stage”
    • You find out that no matter how outlandish your idea, the right directors and designers will figure out how to stage it.

Brooke: In Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit she writes that the worst thing she ever did is where she had an unlimited budget.

  • The constraints of a budget actually make for better art, as you are forced to be more creative

Walker: How do you think your play has changed from being morphed into an opera? Does it come across with a different meaning or overtones?

  • Sarah: Matthew has made the piece “actor proof”
    • The constructs of melody and rhythm help focus and control the possible line readings.
  • Matthew: One of the things that attracted him to Sarah’s work is this element of magical realism that makes them a good source for opera.
    • Sarah: She began as a poet and believes that Matthew is a secret poet.
      • Poetry has a minimalism of language that works for music

Peter: How did the melodies and music come together?

  • Matthew: There’s a slightly heightened musicality in the characters language
  • Sarah: “Try to Sing While You Write”
  • Matthew: The irony is that most of the inherently musical parts of the play were cut because the characters are already singing 

Brooke: Let’s talk about the new books you both have out now.

  • Sarah: Smile is a memoir of the last ten years of my life including a slow recovery from Bell’s Palsy which she was afflicted with after the high risk birth of her twins.
    • Smile: The Story of a Face, published 10/5/21, Simon & Schuster, Inc.
    • Sarah also recorded the audiobook 

Clip 2:

Description: End of Chapter One: Twins

Performers in clip: Sarah Ruhl

Clip Credits: Audio excerpt courtesy of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright 2021 

Walker: How did having the twins affect Sarah’s ability to write?

  • Sarah: She wrote in short form, like essays.
    • Book: 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write
      • After the twins began kindergarten she was able to go back to writing longform works from 9am to 3pm each day.

Matthew: His book was written during the pandemic as a way to stay connected to the art form of opera.

  • The Impossible Art: Adventures In Opera, 12/2021 Farrar, Straus * Giroux
    • A book of essays about his favorite operas across the centuries
  • Peter: I appreciated the essay about the composer Thomas Ades and his opera The Exterminating Angel
  • Matthew: I am interested in artists who obliterate the distinction between high art and entertainment.
    • The Tempest by Ades premiered at Met Opera right after Hurricane Sandy
  • Sarah: It’s not fashionable to talk about the soul in contemporary art practice
  • Walker: Theater usually gets closer to looking at the soul and is willing to talk about emotion more than most operas

Peter: What are your future projects?

  • Sarah: is working on a new opera and has a musical waiting to be scheduled for production
  • Matthew: is in the early stages of work on a new opera, but has been writing a lot of chamber music
    • An orchestral suite from Eurydice
      • The Philadelphia Orchestra – Yannick Nezet-Seguin, conductor
  • Sarah: Eurydice at LA Opera was the last thing they did before the shutdown and now is the first thing they are doing after the re-opening
    • The piece is about grief, memory and in some ways about stasis which feels very appropriate for current times

Clip 3:

Description: Sneak Peak Collage – Eurydice by Matthew Aucoin & Sarah Ruhl

Performers in Clip: featuring Erica Petrocelli singing Eurydice and the full cast 

Clip Credits: final dress rehearsal, LA Opera, January 21, 2020


Eurydice: Danielle de Niese 
Eurydice (Feb 14): Erica Petrocelli
Eurydice’s Father: Rod Gilfry
Orpheus: Joshua Hopkins 
Orpheus’s Double: John Holiday
Hades: Barry Banks 
Little Stone: Stacey Tappan 
Big Stone: Raehann Bryce-Davis 
Loud Stone: Kevin Ray

Creative team: 

Conductor: Matthew Aucoin 
Director: Mary Zimmerman
Set Designer: Daniel Ostling
Costume Designer: Ana Kuzmanić
Lighting Designer: T.J. Gerckens* 
Chorus Director: Grant Gershon 
Choreographer: Denis Jones 

Peter, Brooke & Walker discuss the production of Fire Shut Up In My Bones

  • Metropolitan Opera 2021-22 Season Opener
    • Terence Blanchard – composer
    • Kasi Lemmons – librettist
    • Based on the book by Charles M. Blow
      • Yannick Nezet-Seguin – conductor
      • James Robinson – co-director
      • Camille A. Brown – co-director/choreographer

Clip 4:

Description: The Fraternity Dance

Performers in clip: Will Liverman as Charles & the Male Dance Ensemble

Clip Credits: From the final dress of Fire Shut Up In My Bones, Act 3, choreography by Camille A. Brown, Metropolitan Opera 2021

Clip 5:

Description: Aria – “Leave It On the Road”

Performers in clip: Latonia Moore as Billie

Clip Credits: Opening night performance of Fire Shut Up In My Bones, Act 1, Metropolitan Opera 2021

Peter, Brooke & Walker discuss the need for trigger warnings in modern opera

  • Fire Shut Up In My Bones needed them for gunshots, child molestation and sexual situations
  • Many operas produced by Prototype Festival have included dicey subject matter.
    • Angels Bone, 448 Psychosis, Dog Days

Peter, Brooke & Walker discuss score/orchestration of Fire Shut Up In My Bones

Peter, Brooke & Walker discuss Matthew Aucoin’s essay about The Marriage of Figaro from his new book The Impossible Art: Adventures In Opera

BIO: Sarah Ruhl

Sarah Ruhl is a playwright, and writer of other things. Her ten plays include In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play, The Clean House and Eurydice. She has been a two-time Pulitzer prize finalist, a Tony award nominee and the recipient of the MacArthur “genius” award. Her plays have been produced on and off-Broadway, around the country, internationally, and have been translated into over fifteen languages. Her book 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write was a Times Notable Book of the Year. She has received the Steinberg award, the Sam French award, Feminist Press under 40 award, the Playwright of the Year from the National theater conference, the Susan Smith Blackburn award, the Whiting award, the Lily Award, and a PEN award for mid-career playwrights. You can read more about her work at www.SarahRuhlplaywright.com. Her most recent book is Smile, the story of a face. She teaches at the Yale School of Drama, and she lives in Brooklyn with her children and her husband, Tony Charuvastra, who is a child psychiatrist

BIO: Matthew Aucoin

Matthew Aucoin (b.1990) is an American composer, conductor, writer, and 

pianist. He  was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2018, and is both Artist-in-Residence at Los  Angeles Opera and co-artistic director of the American Modern Opera Company. Aucoin’s newest opera, Eurydice, a collaboration with the playwright Sarah Ruhl, had  its world premiere at the Los Angeles Opera this past February, and will travel to the  Metropolitan Opera in the 2021-22 season.  

The role of Artist-in-Residence at Los Angeles Opera, created for Aucoin, fuses his  work as composer and conductor. Aucoin has conducted LA Opera mainstage productions ranging from Verdi’s Rigoletto to Philip Glass’s Akhnaten; he has also conducted  his own works, including the opera Crossing, and founded a new late-night concert series, AfterHours. In addition, Aucoin coaches the singers in LA Opera’s Young Artist  program, and advises the company on new music.  

The American Modern Opera Company (AMOC) is Aucoin’s newest project: an ensemble of some of the rising generation’s most exciting singers, 

instrumentalists, and  dancers. In Aucoin’s words, AMOC is “an opera company, a new-music ensemble, a  rock band, and a touring theater troupe, rolled into one.” The ensemble has an annual  festival at Cambridge’s American Repertory 

Theater, and has been in residence at the  Park Avenue Armory and Harvard University. Aucoin and AMOC are at work on commissions from the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and San Francisco’s ODC Theater.   

Aucoin’s orchestral and chamber music has been commissioned and performed by  such artists as Yo-Yo Ma, Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra, Salzburg’s Mozarteum Orchestra, the Brentano Quartet, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the 

Orchestra of St.  Luke’s, tenor Paul Appleby, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, and Chanticleer. 

Aucoin’s operas include Crossing (2015), commissioned by the American Repertory Theater; and Second Nature (2015), a chamber opera for the young, commissioned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Crossing has gone on to productions at the Brooklyn Academy  of Music and Los Angeles Opera; 

Second Nature has been performed all over the continent, including productions at the Canadian Opera Company and the Music Academy  of the West. 

   In addition to his work in Los Angeles, Aucoin regularly guest-conducts nationally and  internationally. This past summer, Aucoin made his Santa Fe Opera conducting debut  leading John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, in a new production by Peter Sellars. He has  also appeared with the Chicago Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Rome Opera Orchestra, the Music Academy of the  West, and Juilliard Opera, among others. This season, Aucoin conducts and curates  the San Diego Symphony’s annual festival, entitled Hearing the Future.   

Aucoin is a 2012 graduate of Harvard College (summa cum laude), where he studied  with the poet Jorie Graham, and a 2014 recipient of Juilliard’s Graduate Diploma in  Composition. Between 2012 and 2014, he served both as an Assistant Conductor at  the Metropolitan Opera and as the Solti Conducting 

Apprentice at the Chicago Symphony, where he studied with Riccardo Muti. 

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