Orpheus on Sappho's Shore
Music by Luna Pearl Woolf
Libretto by Eleanor Wilner
A 45-minute "Operatorio" in two acts, Orpheus on Sappho's Shore is scored for soprano, tenor and chamber orchestra. Springing from a commission for soprano Jane Bryden, the concept was a collaboration between Woolf and poet Eleanor Wilner, whose original text was written for the project. The finished piece was premiered in 2004 by the Ensemble contemporain de Montréal, Véronique Lacroix conducting, and recorded on Oxingale's Après Moi, le Déluge album.
Montreal, QC, Canada
The Ensemble Contemporain de Montreal
Véronique Lacroix, conductor
Julianne Klein, soprano
Micheiel Schrey, tenor
Orpheus on Sappho’s Shore brings together two figures of the lyric poet: one mythical, the other historical. The conjunction that this piece imagines and musically enacts grows from a version of the Orpheus myth: that his severed, still-singing head and his lyre floated out to sea, and were cast up on the Greek island of Lesbos. Historically, Lesbos was a well-known center of poetry in the ancient world, and the home of Sappho, the famed woman poet who lived c. 600 B.C.E. To bring a mythic figure into contact with an actual one is to see what happens when a myth touches that imperfect shore on which real figures stand, greeting the mortal day.
Our piece begins where the myth ends, but here the severed head of Orpheus — riding time’s stream — becomes pure suffering consciousness, his song a plea for release from hopeless longing. Even as Orpheus can be seen as a necrotic figure of loss and detachment from life, Sappho is invoked as an erotic figure of attachment — a figure suggested by the little that is known about her: her approximate dates, her home island, her high reputation as a poet among the ancients, a few scattered quotations, two odes, some fragments. What survives are glittering shards of an intense and direct lyric poetry of sensual love, whose presiding deity is Aphrodite — fragments that have inspired an astonishing number of translations over the centuries, of which the italic lines in the libretto are contemporary examples.
The rest is conjecture and legend, and comes from stories that grew up centuries after she lived — hypothetical, mutually exclusive lives, all in hot scholarly contention. One version sees her as a kind of poetry mentor to a community of young women, perhaps apprentices in the Aeolian lyric mode. (The ungendered word philai, friends, is used in the libretto.) The very absence of biography has made Sappho a rich figure for projection and invention, revealing the persons, eras, and purposes that adopted her. Even as we conspire in her resurrection so that she might encounter and release the spirit of Orpheus, and, in a ritual born of compassion, cast off and resolve a legendary nostalgia.