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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Greek: History, Repeating

Allison Cook, Susan Bullock, Andrew Shore. Photo: Jane Hobson 
Mark-Anthony Turnage’s groundbreaking and profane 1988 two-act opera, Greek, was set in Britain’s Thatcher era. Based on the in-your-face stage play by Steven Berkoff (adapted by Turnage and Jonathan Moore), Greek’s bleak humor and exploration of social and political unrest continue to resonate. Scottish Opera/Opera Ventures’ acclaimed new production is presented in its New York premiere—the engagement also marks the New York premiere of Greek (Dec 5—9), now a cult classic in the contemporary chamber opera repertoire. Director Joe Hill-Gibbins answered some questions about Greek.

Q: You have spoken of a “hitherto unknown love for the Oedipus story.” What drew you in?
A: Like all ancient myths, legends, and folk tales that remain with us today, Oedipus contains a multiplicity of meanings and interpretations. Like The Passion of the Christ, The Odyssey, or Cinderella, the story is a powerful narrative template that offers different meanings to the different individuals, generations, and communities that encounter it.

One resonant meaning is found when Oedipus searches for the source of the plague that blights Thebes. This detective story ends with him discovering that he himself is the criminal. The source of the plague is his own house, and his own bed. Now this is a version of the Oedipus story I find much easier to connect with: “The problem in the world is a problem in you.” I’ve long been a devotee of the maxim, “When you draw up a list of your own worst enemies, make sure you put your own name at the top.”

There’s another important message to be drawn from the myth: “You run away from the thing you most fear, but every step you take brings you closer to it.” Eddy, like Oedipus, flees from his family home, hoping to escape the grim prophecy of patricide and incest. But, also like Oedipus, unbeknown to Eddy his parents are not his parents, but instead a childless couple who secretly took in another’s baby and raised it as their own. The lies of his surrogate parents allow a tragic irony to strike. As Oedipus heads towards Thebes, and Eddy towards Chalk Farm, both men believe they’re heading away from catastrophe, when actually they’re rushing towards it. Their actions bring about the exact opposite of what they intended. But then that’s the terrible thing about fate, if such a thing exists. If it’s fated to happen then whatever course of action you take—literally whatever you do—only serves to bring you closer to the same point. In trying to save yourself you seal your fate.

This too is a version of the story I can get behind. I’ve stayed up half the night cramming for an exam, and so failed the exam. I’ve tried with every fiber of my being to charm and beguile the object of my desires, and come across as desperately weird. And I imagine we all try to live our lives so that we avoid the mistakes of our parents, and yet are stunned to find that, in ways we didn’t quite see coming, we have become them nevertheless. Saying that thing, in that voice.

Allison Cook, Susan Bullock, Andrew Shore, Alex Otterburn. Photo: Jane Hobson

Like many journeys through the Oedipus myth, this path leads us to questions about psychology and the subconscious. Is the thing we fear the most actually the thing we desire the most? Do we actually crave our own destruction more than our triumph?

Q: Which of the myth’s many lessons or meanings was served particularly well by the operatic form?

A: [Steven] Berkoff, [Mark-Anthony] Turnage, and the original director Jonathan Moore chose to express the way that our parents shape our minds in a distinctive way. In Greek, one singer plays the role of Eddy, but all the other characters he encounters are played by the same three singers. This means that the singers who play Eddy’s surrogate parents and his long-lost mum also play everyone else he meets. Wherever Eddy goes he sees his family. In the cruddy pub he sees them, and over the road in the posh wine bar too. In the riot scene Eddy sees his Dad in the truncheon-wielding police chief, as if his father is trying to kill off his son before he can do the same to him. Greek suggests we can’t escape our family, because we carry them in our heads wherever we go and project their image onto everyone we meet—our bosses, our friends, our lovers.

The operatic form is perfect for expressing this idea. The way that musical themes, phrases and fragments repeat in an opera suggests the way repeated memories and feelings dance around our heads. Whatever present moment we’re in, it is colored by memories from the past that bubble up in our minds. Turnage gives the memories in Eddy’s head a musical form. Football chants remind him of his working-class adoptive parents, and phrases that shimmer like water remind him of being separated from his mother as a toddler, when he fell from a ship into the Thames.

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