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Orpheus, the Original Penniless Poet: Plutus/Pluto in Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown

From: Syllecta Classica
Volume 23 (2012)
pp. 103-126 | 10.1353/syl.2013.0006

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In 2010, Anaïs Mitchell released Hadestown, a reimagining of the Orpheus myth as a folk opera that evokes 1930s Dustbowl America in a post-apocalyptic setting. Mitchell makes wealth a key theme in Hadestown, aided by the longstanding conflation of the Greek god of wealth, Plutus, and Hades. Mitchell’s Hades is a charismatic man, happy to compare his riches with Orpheus’ empty pockets. Therefore Orpheus, far from the all-powerful musical master and sage that we find in antiquity, is instead the original penniless poet, with nothing to offer but his song. This re-created hero is nonetheless still a hero and a particularly contemporary one.1

Lover, tell me if you can
Who’s gonna buy the wedding bands?
Times being what they are
Hard and getting harder all the time2

Thus begins Hadestown, an epic folk opera released on CD in 2010 that retells the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice for the twenty-first century. It is primarily the work of Anaïs Mitchell, an independent recording artist from Vermont. The speaker of these lines is Eurydice and her lover is, of course, Orpheus. With these opening lines, Mitchell reveals that her version of the Orpheus myth will focus on something new: wealth. This is the most significant innovation that she introduces to the myth and it is the key element in her overall theme. All of her innovations work in concert to produce a new type of Orpheus. The Orpheus of Hadestown is the penniless poet, the bohemian dreamer, the hipster.

The plot of Hadestown follows the overall framework of the narrative that we know from antiquity, established most thoroughly by Vergil in Book 4 of the Georgics and Ovid in Book 10 of his Metamorphoses. Orpheus and Eurydice are in love and preparing for marriage. She ends up in the underworld, here referred to as “Hadestown.” Orpheus goes before Hades and Persephone and manages to win Eurydice’s freedom with his song on the condition that he not look back as she follows him out. At the last minute he looks back and loses her forever. The most significant departure that Mitchell makes from the traditional narrative concerns the reason for Eurydice’s presence in the underworld, or “Hadestown.” In place of the traditional snake-bitten ankle Mitchell explicitly draws attention to the ambiguity of her narrative, challenging her listeners to draw their own conclusions. This will be further examined below.

Background and Personnel of Hadestown

Mitchell, a folk artist in her late twenties who already had produced a number of albums and EPs, began the songwriting process for Hadestown in the mid-2000s. As the songs took shape Mitchell began to work with other Vermont artists Ben Matchstick, a theater director, and Michael Chorney, an arranger/orchestrator, to develop the project into a stage show. The material was fine-tuned in a series of performances around New England and then recorded for Righteous Babe Records, the independent label run by Ani DiFranco, which released the CD in March of 2010.3 The resulting credit is “songs by Anaïs Mitchell, score by Michael Chorney” (Mitchell 2010).

For the CD Mitchell recruited “some of the brightest names on the indie-folk circuit” (John). Orpheus is sung by Justin Vernon, a young singer-songwriter from Wisconsin who, as the one-man band Bon Iver, had released his debut album to great critical acclaim and who would go on to still greater success.4 Hades is sung by Greg Brown, “one of the leading contemporary folk artists of the American Midwest” (Denning). The aforementioned founder of the record label, Ani DiFranco, sings the part of Persephone, while the supporting role of Hermes is sung by Ben Knox Miller, whose band The Low Anthem had also recently released a well-received debut album.5 The Fates, sung by Petra Haden and her sisters Rachel and Tanya, round out the cast. Petra has been part of a number of ‘indie’ bands, including That Dog and the Decembrists, but is perhaps best known for her solo a cappella work, particularly her 2005 a cappella cover of the entirety of The Who’s The Who Sell Out.6 I...



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