April 15, 2003
A new opera, “Agamemnon,” will debut in its first full-stage production at Catholic University at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, April 25-26, and 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 27.
The 95-minute opera is the work of a husband-and-wife team of CUA faculty members: Assistant Professor of Music Andrew Earle Simpson composed the music, and Greek and Latin Adjunct Instructor Sarah B. Ferrario translated the libretto’s English text directly from Aeschylus’ Greek tragedy of the 5th century BC.
Andrew Simpson and Sarah Ferrario
The Rockville, Md., husband and wife team, ironically, have created an opera about a wife who murders her husband.
In the classic story, Agamemnon, king of Argos, returns home victorious from 10 years’ absence at the Trojan War, only to be murdered by his queen, Klytemnestra. Her motive: revenge for Agamemnon’s sacrifice of their daughter a decade earlier to placate the goddess Artemis and receive propitious winds to sail to Troy.
“When I first read this play, what was most significant to me was that the text seemed to cry out for musical setting,” Simpson says. “So many elements of the staging and the speeches, to my mind, absolutely demanded music as a vehicle to convey their extreme emotions, and to express beyond words the violence and its consequences.”
“Agamemnon” is the first of three operas that Simpson and Ferrario are creating to set Aeschylus’ complete “Oresteia” trilogy. The second and third plays describe Klytemnestra’s murder by her son Orestes, and Orestes’ subsequent purification and acquittal at Athens.
“Many composers have made settings of Sophocles and Euripides, but comparatively few have done so for Aeschylus,” Simpson says. “Both the librettist and I felt that Aeschylus is equally worthy of and suitable for operatic setting, so we wanted to bring this arguably least-known of the three great Greek tragedians to the stage.”
When Simpson and Ferrario decided to set “Agamemnon” to music, they committed to as high a degree of fidelity to Aeschylus’ original text as possible — an unusual approach to interpreting the Greek tragedies for the modern stage, Ferrario says. Oftentimes, the Greek classics are restructured, with new text added and scenes reordered. Ferrario and Simpson chose a different approach for their first opera of the “Oresteia” trilogy.
“For all of the lines that had to be eliminated from ‘Agamemnon’ to make it into an opera, I have still done my best to maintain Aeschylus' own dramatic structure,” Ferrario says. “No scenes or even speeches have changed places, no characters been cut, no choruses removed. The Composer and I thought this essential to maintain the accumulation of tension and fear that helps to make this play such a masterpiece. The original is so good, we didn’t want to change what works.”
Their approach hits the mark, says Claude Baker, chair of the Composition Department at Indiana University’s School of Music. The opera is “a success on every level — dramatically and musically — and keeps the audience on edge from beginning to end,” Baker says.
“Andrew Simpson is a brilliant composer with a unique voice and a theatrical vision which will rivet the audience,” adds Murry Sidlin, dean of Catholic University’s Benjamin T. Rome School of Music. “This boldly dramatic work has a very rich score which is energetic and dramatically appropriate to the myth, and often beautifully lyrical.”
Other compositions by Simpson recently have been performed in New York’s Carnegie Hall under choral conductor Henry Leck, at Madison Square Garden under Marvin Hamlisch, and at the Amalfi Coast Festival in Italy by pianist Brian Ganz.
The Washington Post praised a recent performance of one of his solo piano works: “Better still was Andrew Simpson’s ‘Flower-Terrible Memories,’ a large-scale work loaded with pianistic effects ... It’s a wonderful piece.”
“Agamemnon” will be staged in CUA’s Hartke Theatre, located at 3801 Harewood Road, N.E. in Washington, D.C. Ticket prices are $18, $8 for senior citizens, and $5 for students. Advance reservations may be made by calling the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music at 202-319-5416.
One hour before each performance, the composer and librettist will present brief talks about the “Agamemnon” production’s story, libretto and music on the mezzanine of Hartke Theatre. The performance will feature projection of English supertitles, which have been specially designed to reflect Aeschylus’ original poetry as translated in the libretto.
For more information about the production, visit: http://music.cua.edu/agamemnon/.
All contents copyright © 2003.
The Catholic University of America,
Office of Public Affairs.