Orpheus and Eurydice

My son Kevin and I had an amazing weekend. He wanted to take me to a trap concert down in LA, and on Wednesday and Thursday we trawled around on the web looking for things to do to fill up the time between Saturday morning and Sunday evening. We hit kind of a perfect cultural storm, with the play Water by the Spoonful closing and the opera Orpheus and Eurydice opening at the Music Center on the same weekend.

We didn’t see the opera, but got tickets (for $35 each) at the Getty Villa on Sunday to hear the reflections of curators, musical historians and the opera director James Conlon on the mythical and cultural significance of Orpheus. The event closed with an abridged offering of Gluck’s original score, rewritten for piano accompaniment and sung by two women: an alto as Orpheus and a very pregnant soprano as Amor and Eurydice.

For those that don’t know the myth: on their wedding day, Orpheus entertains the guests with lyre and song, and Eurydice is found alone by a spurned suitor who chases her into the marsh, where she is stung by a serpent and dies. Orpheus is overcome with grief until counseled by Eros (Amor) to use his skills to beguile the guardians of Hades and inspire its master to allow Eurydice to return to life. He succeeds, but the condition is that he neither look at nor speak to Eurydice on the journey out of Hades. Taken from the Elysian fields of eternal happiness, Eurydice is confused, and beseeches Orpheus to explain until becoming angry. Tormented, Orpheus emerges from the cave and turns a moment too soon. Eurydice is still within, and falls into oblivion.

Orpheus wanders the land grieving, renouncing the company of women. His music still enflames their desire, though, and eventually he encounters a company in whom frustration kindles violence. The women beat and dismember him, throwing his head into the river where it floats away still singing.

In Ancient Athens, women were denied access to society, cloistered to ensure the bloodline of the patriarchs. Culturally, Eurydice was an afterthought, and Orpheus celebrated principally for his music and the understanding of the afterlife that was stamped into golden foil to guide the dead on their passage to Hades.

With the resurrection of Greek culture during the Renaissance, the Greek tragedy was recast as Opera, and Orpheus and Eurydice was a staple. Perhaps in part due to that popularity, Gluck adopted it as a set-piece for operatic reforms intended to clarify dramatic focus. The intellectual controversy, the popularity of the myth and the image of art living on after death made the story a mainstay in the plastic arts as well, particularly among those that felt that the Enlightenment was extinguishing the sacred embers that once permeated the world.

In early Christian iconography, it is not uncommon for Orpheus and Christ to be transposed. The torment of Orpheus, destroyed by those whose virtuous exemplar he honors, evokes the Cross. The myth also has parallels with the Garden of Eden: the inattentive male, the trusting spouse, and the serpent that sunders their bliss.

So I found myself, as the Italian libretto was summarized, confronting the same frustration that caused me to write this, when re-iterating God’s motivations in bringing Eve into being:

Get a clue, guys!

Calzabigi (the librettist) charts Eurydice’s descent into doubt and vanity. She is a torment to Orpheus, who eventually sings “I knew that this would happen.” But from the intonations of the soprano on Sunday afternoon, I inferred this: “Orpheus, what is my place in your world?”

It was to explore answers to that question that I had Kevin help me chase down Professor Morris at the reception. I was distressed by the conversation, though not surprised: no one has wrestled meaningfully with the problem of feminine virtue except in juxtaposition to masculine virtue.

What Orpheus must have understood, having lost her again, is that the opportunities she had surrendered to death were things he had not celebrated, for if he did, Elysium would have had no pull on her. Motherhood, gentleness, healing, compassion, inspiration: why did he not sing of these before? Why did he not turn his every effort to bringing Elysium to the world in song, rather than indulging his virtuosity?

For nothing of virtue lasts unless a woman brings it to flower.

The Better Half

As a member of the afflicted sub-population, I may admit freely that the Bible is all about men’s problems. As I observe in The Soul Comes First, Jesus obviously had a rich ministry to women, but there are few writings that address their unique concerns. I consider it a terrible loss that Jesus’ teachings to women are not available to us.

Some might doubt the existence of such teachings, but a number of the encounters in the Bible make it clear that Jesus recognized the oppressed status of women, and Luke records an encounter with two sisters [Luke 10:38-42] in which Martha becomes irate because her sister Mary sits and listens, foregoing her obligations as a hostess.

The recorded parables, however, are mostly about men. In the modern era, the context of business and financial probity is more relevant to women, but I would imagine that in their day they would have been hungry for stories that related more directly to their concerns.

How would they have understood the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids? As related in Matthew [25:1-13], ten bridesmaids await the arrival of the bridegroom to be received at the wedding feast. They bring their lamps, but fall asleep until midnight when the bridegroom is announced. The five foolish bridesmaids depart to by more oil for their depleted lamps, while their wiser peers enter the feast with the vials they thought to bring in advance. Upon their return, the foolish women are turned away by the bridegroom with “I do not know you!”

The imagery of the story is not obvious. The lamps could be souls or wisdom, but I believe the story holds together better if we think of them as virtue. The wise maids store their virtue, conserving it for the afterlife. The foolish maids do not. In their contemporary religious practice, the loss of virtue could be recouped by alms and sacrifice at the temple. What Jesus warns, however, is that that practice carries no weight in the kingdom of heaven.

The last leaves me to consider whether this isn’t just another dig at the priesthood, but in comparison with the parable of the landowner, I do see some special meaning for the women of the era. Masculine personalities are active, dynamic and at times brutal. Feminine personalities express their virtues in merging. I don’t think that it’s an accident that we have two groups of women, for it is in community that women find their strength.

More might be extracted from the parable if I better understood the marital traditions of the era. Clearly, the lamps are carried for some purpose other than to light the way to the celebration. Some sense of the special purpose of women in heaven is suggested in John’s vision of the New Jerusalem [Rev. 21 and 22]. The masculine virtues, represented by the twelve tribes, stand guard at the walls, while the feminine virtues manifest as the tree of life with leaves that heal the nations and twelve crops to feed them. I have an intuition that Jesus also is offering an insight in Matthew 25 that would be revealed by study of the marriage rites.

I once characterized Jesus’ stories as the “WTF parables,” meant to draw sharp contrasts between the retribution expected of men and the forbearance of a loving God. In this case, a literal interpretation of the story leads in the other direction. Why are the wise maids so harsh with their sisters, in contradiction to the practice of Jesus himself on the cross? Why are the lamps necessary at all to enter heaven, when the prodigal son brings nothing but his humbled spirit? It is here that we again see this as a story targeted to women: men were used to lording it over people, and as the prodigal sons they needed to learn humility. Women had different priorities – first and foremost the preservation of their virtue in a society so devoted to their diminution and degradation.