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Iphigenia Extended: the revolutionary indigestion of Wayne Shorter & esperanza spalding’s “…(Iphigenia)”

esperanza spalding (center) as Iphigenia of the Open Tense with her chorus of Iphigenias. Photo Jon Fine.

Do you ever watch a piece of media and wonder if it was crafted precisely for you?

That’s how I felt watching Wayne Shorter and esperanza spalding’s …(Iphigenia) at the Kennedy Center yesterday afternoon. A jazz opera of Iphigenia in Aulis by Euripides, Shorter (score) and spalding (libretto and one of the Iphigenias) don’t so much as reproduce the play — instead they refract it like a dazzling prism before smashing it into varicolored shards across the stage. I have never seen anything like it and can’t wait to see it again.

There are so many things to talk about with this production that all intersect and entangle themselves together, so I’m going to talk about the part that excites me first: the opera acts as a sounding hypha-e of the myth of Iphigenia.

Earlier this summer I wrote a new myth theory called mycorrhizal mythophony, a theory of sounding hypha-e, exploring both the inherent aurality/orality in myth and how it spreads out in different hypha-e (mycelial roots, from the ancient Greek for “web” or “weave”) that sound across time and space.

At the end of this theory I quoted the entirety of esperanza spalding’s song “How To (hair)” from the deluxe edition of her 2019 somatic symphony 12 Little Spells. My purpose in doing this has been trying to think through the different “hairy” materials that create weaves across the eukaryotic kingdoms of life — the weaving of plant fibers, the braiding of animal hair, and the networking of fungal hyphae — and thinking through the relationship between hair and music, a topic that spalding picks apart (pun intended) again and again throughout her art:

“Shameless scratching at the uncombed earth
Raking the godhead righteous”
— “How To (hair)”

Despite her prowess as a jazz bassist, I’ve always been drawn to spalding as a lyricist, in the ways that she often jumps between different musical styles and across lyric vernacular. Before the show began, a Black woman in a twinkling sapphire jacket — who I would later realize was in fact the Usher as an Artemis stand-in for the play — was casually vibing down the aisle, asking folks if they knew the story, reveling in the horror of it, before insisting that this production was going to do something different…

This promise is somehow both upheld and broken within the first five minutes of the opera. Act 1 “Iphigenia(s)” begins with the Argive soldiers positioned around the stage with an altar in the center. The first Iphigenia — dressed in a vibrant lime green with her hair done up in buns with neon barrettes — dreamily walks across the stage, in her own world as she plucks the petals off of a flower (he loves me — he loves me not) right before her father seizes her to slit her throat, answering both and neither of her plucked queries. The soldiers celebrate as the winds blow, their sacrifice to Artemis complete.

Then another Iphigenia, this time in teal. And then a saffron one. The Iphigenias line the front of the stage with their corpses and the soldiers unceremoniously dump the slaughtered sacred deer amongst their number as well (and the deer never moves from this spot for the rest of the opera).

It’s at this point that the Usher’s voice interrupts the live singing, crackling with irritation through the loudspeakers: “Hold up…that’s not what’s supposed to happen!”

Despite the Usher’s irritation with the Argive soldiers, the Iphigenias continue to replicate themselves — an Iphigenia in off-white with her mouth bound is next, and then a salaciously pink Iphigenia who offers a whole roasted deer to the soldiers and saucily displays herself on the altar with glitzy hot pink heels.

While the differences between each Iphigenia is stark — and not just because of the vibrant colors they are all wearing — the Argive soldiers act as a homogenous chorus. The distinguished characters are the brothers Menelaus and Agamemnon — both without helmets, the latter with blood red embellishments on his armor — and the seer Kalchas who wears a bedazzled silver robe that makes it look like he’s walking around covered in shattered mirrors.

The two “choruses” of the first act are inherently at odds with each other — expressed through their juxtaposed music, costumes, and even tone. The Argive soldiers lean into the comedy of their machismo and it does feel incredibly honest to the experience of first reading these masculine dynamics in tragedy, though updated with contemporary cues: while the soldiers lament about their need to go to Troy, one of the soldiers prances across the stage with a blonde blow-up sex doll as a brief parody of Paris and Helen. After a night of revelry, they trash the stage with red solo cups. At one point they bring out a rocking horse in the shape of a deer and play with it until they break its antlers. While the pink Iphigenia offers herself up for sacrifice and enacts it, they circle around her, panting and huffing in an approximation of sexual orgasm.

The Argive chorus dominates the first act of the opera, with only a brief interlude from the Iphigenias in pink and off-white, while the Usher tries to recontextualize the myth. Finally, a new Iphigenia is brought forth — this one wearing a holographic silver body suit and played by spalding herself — and when it looks like Agamemnon might be sacrificed, she offers herself up instead “no let me”.

While trying to write notes in the dark of the Kennedy Center about what I was witnessing, I was also furiously trying to copy lyrics, writing without any light, and knowing that I was going to have to read fragments written on top of fragments. spalding is frequently in concert with that other famous fragmented lyricist of history — Sappho (and as a reminder — the lyre is also an ancestor of the concert bass) in some of her poetic lyrics:

“a crown at the fruited meaning”

“mouth of your latent womb”

“her sapphire seed of thought”

“bird and nectar a hum in the chest of the shielding man”

“all entwined through the root”

She also makes reference to broader ancient intellectual thinking around the meaning and purpose of myth. Her lyrics: “of my secret virgin pupils”/“fruited eye all seeing” bring to mind Plutarch’s words around the pun of the ancient Greek kore, which means both maiden/virgin/young girl as well as the pupil of the eye, in his discussion of the goddess Persephone:

Κόρη τε καὶ Φερσεφόνη κέκληται τὸ μὲν ὡς φωσφόρος οὖσα Κόρη δ᾿ ὅτι καὶ τοῦ ὄμματος ἐν ᾧ τὸ εἴδωλον ἀντιλάμπει τοῦ βλέποντος ὥσπερ τὸ ἡλίου φέγγος ἐνορᾶται τῇ σελήνῃ κόρην προσαγορεύομεν.

“She has been called both Kore and Phersephonê, the latter as being a bearer of light and Kore because that is what we call the part of the eye in which is reflected the likeness of one who looks into it as the light of the sun is seen in the moon.”

— Plutarch, On the Faces of the Moon 942d

spalding’s libretto is rich with imagery that goes from the repeated canon (both in the literary and musical sense) of Iphigenia’s myth, creating a form of mythic repetition throughout the first act. This repetition is only interrupted when the Usher halts the opera — after the newest Iphigenia acquiescences to her fate — so that she can disorient the entire myth.

Act 2 “Iph…i…” begins with the Usher stripping away the mythological dressings of the stage. “you see where we are” she says as the entire backdrop of the stage falls, revealing the piano-base-drum trio onstage that’s been accompanying the pit orchestra the entire time. “the where we are.”

The second act of …(Iphigenia) was definitely my favorite part of the play, and what I was most looking forward to after hearing spalding talk around why she wanted to make a production of Iphigenia, in wanting to create a chorus of Iphigenias, and in wanting to bring the issue of consent, and exploring what consent means in this context, to the forefront of the production. The various Iphigenias tell different extensions of their myths — from patriotic musings, to listening to the sea, to the distillation of jasmine perfume — creating a literal mythophony (several voices coming together to sound myths out in multiple definitions of “sound”) of these different variations of Iphigenia. As the Usher says, “It ain’t nothing without the Iphigenia…” to which “the Iphigenia” is echoed across the stage by the chorus.

I particularly like the juxtaposition of these two choruses in the opera because it also seems to be an interesting continuation of the manuscript tradition of Iphigenia — it’s commonly accepted that the second chorus in the text of the play, the chorus of Argive soldiers, is a later 4th century BCE interpolation onto the text, and that the “original” chorus of the play is the chorus of young newlywed women from Chalcis. Therefore Shorter and spalding have kept the interpolated male chorus and have now have added their own mythic innovation of a chorus of Iphigenias. This not only highlights the choral vocality of myth as a mode of expression, but also how its canonical variations (again, letting canon work in the literary and musical sense) are often the point of why myth functions as a dominant form to share information across time and space (for humans at least).

The second act centers around the chorus of Iphigenias trying to teach the newest Iphigenia — who is dubbed Iphigenia of the Open Tense — to find her voice and vocality. The different Iphigenias sing in wildly diverging musical styles as they encourage their most current variation into singing. They even go so far as to shield her from the pit when the orchestration starts to overwhelm her. Visually, the Iphigenias and the Usher create an ever-moving collage of colors and textures against the black backdrop of the stage — musically, their voices weave in and out of each other to create a glittering vocal web of “Iphigenia” that haunts over the remainder of the play.

(Ironically, the choral director for this production was Caroline Shaw, whose song “Partita for Singers” was incredibly influential on my own score of Iphigenia in Aulis that I produced earlier this year, unknowing at the time that this production of Iphigenia was in the works.)

The lyrics I saved from Act 2 are more haphazard — I was recording not only the ones that I felt would help me articulate the arc of this opera, but also the ones that were resonating with me particularly:

“terrified of nature he vowed to find her permanence”

“what is a woman but a cast off shell its unseen iridescence”

“I was already permanent she cried but he could no longer hear her”

“Her mouth harps not knowing itself”

“mother of conjuring come sea come beautiful come crash in my ear”

“for land and honor and dominance because they do not know themselves as earth”

“I am the unwritten law from a language that is only spoken when the sun goes down”

“Life’s grammar”

“the miswrit virgin”

“you are all what the myth can bear”

“sealed in the chrysalis of mythos”

Act 2 also heavily resonates with spalding’s two most recent albums: the aforementioned 2019 12 Little Spells and this past September’s Songwrights Apothecary Lab. Both albums feel like early explorations of “Iph…i…” and placing them within the context of this opera, we can also see spalding’s commitment to creating a broader mythical musical system which she can rely on. She embodies this as she plays Iphigenia of the Open Tense, able to find her own voice amidst her broader mythophony, yet still worrying through how she can figure (out) this myth. The Usher leaves her with parting advice:

“Just…
Don’t…
Forget…”

As a further curtain is pulled back we see large translucent set pieces like frozen wind (designed by Frank Gehry) to signal that the repetitive cycle of the Iphigenia myth can no longer delay. The Argive chorus returns and the Iphigenias disappear behind the winds, their voices now relegated to haunting refrain. An “Opera Broadcast Host” in red attempts to segue into the third act — even reflecting on the fact that she too had been an Iphigenia — but she is too impacted by the voices of the Iphigenias to complete her announcement.

Brad Walker as Menelaus (center left) and Arnold Livingston Geis as Agamemnon (center right) with the Argive army. Photo Jon Fine.

The third act of the opera “IPHIGENIA” is the most straightforward version of the myth in the entire opera, even though it is in this act that the myth is ripped apart entirely. Iphigenia of the Open Tense finds her own high classical soprano voice and consents to her horrible fate. The chorus of her other selves stay singing non-verbally in the background. After the play I talked about the choral background in the third act and wondered if it might have been more powerful if there were phrases or a word that the chorus was repeating. On further reflection, I think that the tune, the melody itself, is the point. Shorter incorporated this melody as Iphigenia’s refrain because it was a tune that was haunting through spalding’s head before she even began working on it.

At one point the Chorus does have a line they sing: “and should the wind forget the butterfly that bore it?” as Iphigenia of the Open Tense floats around the stage in her holographic veil. I don’t want to get into too many spoilers around the ending, but its in the attention to each Iphigenia’s somatic experiences that this production truly shines. At the critical climax, Iphigenia of the Open Tense does something that I’ve never seen another Iphigenia do, and yet it’s a reaction that’s perfectly reasonable within the bounds of her own myth:

She throws up.

Iphigenia turns around and retches on the stage and the other Iphigenias gather around her in empathy. I loved that this happens because to me, it seems like the only response I can personally think of having if I learned that my father wanted to sacrifice me so that he could go to war on account of my uncle.

I find Iphigenia of the Open Tense’s indigestion revolutionary. When I wrote my myth theory explaining how myths operate like fungal hyphae, I was mainly inspired by the fact that fungi essentially act as the digestion tract of the planet: they break everything down for new sites of production and transformation. Myths similarly help us digest different types of information and bring our ecosystems under common wellbeing. Iphigenia throwing up on stage signals that she is no longer a part of this digestive tract of her own myth that is hellbent on consuming her.

It completely upends the play. Menelaus even has to bark at the conductor to bring them back to an earlier choral moment for the Argives so that they can try to trigger the mythic web once more, but something has been utterly dis/entangled in this climax.

Now I know I’ve gone this entire review without mentioning Wayne Shorter’s score — it’s because it’s fantastic and I won’t have much more to say about it until the recording comes out and I can listen to it over and over again in depth. Having grown up with Shorter constantly playing in the background from jazz-loving parents, the music of …(Iphigenia) is undeniably Shorter’s signature, though he’s definitely playing with a few different classical styles to collage with jazz and blues throughout the score. Early on in the opera, I wondered if there were aspects of Holsts’ Planets that he was drawing on for some melodic inspiration, especially some phrases from “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” around the Argive army (which I thought was a brilliant touch).

But it was in the final wordless choral harmonizing of the Iphigenias that I was strongly reminded of the choir in the final planet “Neptune, the Mystic”. Holst’s Planets ends on one of the first recorded instances of a “musical fade out” because there’s supposed to be a choir offstage singing from a room with a door open, and the door of the room is supposed to be slowly closed so that it’s almost imperceptible when the singing stops and where silence begins.

Similarly I’m not entirely sure when …(Iphigenia) ends — the music continues past the actors being onstage, it continues past the lights coming up in the theatre, and while yes, there was a point where the audience applauded, which is a good indication of an end, I still feel the music haunting through me, I still hear it quietly echoing through my head. I’m not quite sure if it will ever be done.

Is that the point? That myth can never be done? That a canon, despite how it might define itself, is always musical: it’s always going to come back around again and again.

How we digest it is up to us.

The chorus of Iphigenias amidst the Argive chorus. Photo Jon Fine.

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Thinking through alternate epistemologies of braids, textures, and extensions as opposed to classical structuralism in a state of pandemonium. [all art, unless noted otherwise, by patrick lorenzo semple]

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Vanessa Stovall

Vanessa Stovall

Classicist | Harpist | Playwright @theoctopiehole

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