By MEGAN JAMES
VERGENNES — Musician Anais Mitchell couldn’t shake these lyrics from her mind: “Wait for me, I’m coming, in my garters and pearls/ With what melody did you barter me from the wicked underworld?” The lines, which she composed while driving, refer to the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the story of a man whose music was so beautiful it swayed Hades, king of the underworld, to make an exception to the rules of life and death.
The myth has captured artists’ imaginations for centuries, as it is the story of the power of art itself. Fascinated by this, Mitchell, a New Haven native now a popular musician living in Montpelier, worked for more than two years to make sense out of that original lyric.
She seems to have done it with “Hadestown,” her recently completed folk opera based on the Greek myth, which premieres at the Old Labor Hall in Barre this Friday and Saturday and will play at the Vergennes Opera House the following weekend, Dec. 15 and 16.
Created with Bristol composer Michael Chorney, founder of the Montpelier-based band Magic City, and director Ben T. Matchstick of Glover-based Bread & Puppet Theater, Mitchell’s opera tells the tale of the lyre-playing Orpheus, whose wife, Eurydice, is killed shortly after the couple’s wedding. Devastated by his loss, Orpheus travels to the underworld, playing such mournful music along the way that everyone he passes — guards, ghosts and ultimately Hades himself — is brought to tears.
Moved by the sincerity of Orpheus’s music, Hades strikes a deal with him. Orpheus can bring Eurydice back to the world of the living on one condition: he mustn’t look at or speak to her as she follows him out of the underworld. Orpheus agrees, but the journey is dark and treacherous, and just before reaching the light, Orpheus, impatient and anxious, breaks his promise and looks back, sending his beloved wife hurtling back to the kingdom of death.
The underworld in Mitchell’s folk opera is “an exploitative company town” in an era evocative of 1930s America, where “Orpheus wields not a lyre but a banjo,” Mitchell explains. Hades is “a sadistic, wall-building boss-king,” whose wife, Persephone, “moonlights as the proprietress of a speakeasy.”
The story, as well as the Depression-era images of desperation, resonates with people on a gut level, Mitchell said.
“I think many of us are made to feel frightened and impotent by the powers that be,” she said. “I’m not just thinking of death here, but also of those human mechanisms that force people to live like they’re dead: mindless labor, senseless violence, the whole military-industrial complex, to use an old-fashioned term.”
Mitchell added that, as an artist, she can’t help but give in to the belief that her music, like Orpheus’, could somehow change the world.
“When I face that faceless world, that circular logic that reduces the human heart and the human spirit to a series of numbers, all I can think is, ‘If I could only write a song beautiful enough, maybe I could move someone, maybe I could change things,’” she said. “I believe many people feel this way, and this is the spirit of Orpheus, who travels to the underworld in the hopes that if he sings a song beautiful enough, he can move the immovable Hades and win Eurydice back.”
Mitchell graduated from Mount Abraham Union High School in 1999 and began to make a name for herself as a singer/songwriter while studying at Middlebury College. She was recently signed to a prominent record label, folk diva Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records. She has recorded two albums, “The Song They Sang When Rome Fell” (2002) and “Hymns for the Exiled” (2004), and a third, titled “The Brightness” and recorded at Chorney’s Bristol studio, will be released in February.
This is the first time Mitchell has tried her hand at musical theater. Writing songs for voices other than her own, she said, was liberating, not to mention lots of fun.
“I tend to get very serious writing ‘Anais Mitchell songs,’ and it was refreshing to approach writing with a lighter heart,” she said.
She also enjoyed collaborating with Chorney and Matchstick, whose styles she kept in mind over the course of writing the opera. She referred to Chorney, who has produced two of her albums, as a “natural partner,” and to Matchstick as a “renegade local hero,” who has worked with Chorney before and whom she got to know when she moved to Montpelier recently.
“They (Chorney and Matchstick) are both extraordinary at what they do, and I wanted most of all to write a song cycle that would appeal to them as collaborators on the project,” she said. “In Michael’s case, that meant writing songs that were rich enough for Magic City-style orchestration, and in Ben’s case, it meant making sure the story moved along in a compelling arch that he would have fun staging.”
The “Hadestown” cast includes Middlebury College graduate Ben Campbell as Orpheus; Magic City’s Miriam Bernardo; David Symons, singer for Burlington’s Black Sea Quartet; and Matchstick, who is also directing. Mitchell herself plays Eurydice.
If audiences are enthusiastic about the performances in Barre and Vergennes, the cast may take the show on the road, Mitchell said. But for now, she is simply putting one foot in front of the other.
One thing she can be sure of, after the hard work of preparing for opening night and spending month after month tumbling into the kingdom of death again and again as Eurydice, she said, is “a glass of red wine and a bubble bath.”
Tickets for the shows in Barre and Vergennes are available at the venues’ box offices and Web sites, the Langdon Street Café in Montpelier and at Main Street Stationary in Middlebury.