The Rebirth of Tragedy

Euripides’ “Herakles” Premieres in New York — In Ancient Greek, with a Reconstructed Score for Aulos

The 2019 Barnard Columbia Ancient Drama production of “Herakles.” (Photo: Pamela Sisson)

“Of the remaining embellishments in drama, the most important is music.” Thus Aristotle has it in the Poetics (1450b), where the Greek word for music is μελοποιία, literally “melody-making.” The melody-makers in this year’s outstanding production of Euripides’ Herakles from Barnard Columbia Ancient Drama (BCAD) are Anna Conser, a Columbia graduate student who composed the vocal score, and Callum Armstrong, a London-based musician specializing in the reconstruction of the ancient Greek aulos or “twin pipes.” The aulos provided the main musical accompaniment for ancient Greek drama, and Euripides would have relied on professional aulos composers (like Armstrong) for the original production of Herakles at the Great Dionysia in Athens in 416 B.C.E. According to the director’s notes, “this production of Herakles is the first modern staging of an Ancient Greek tragedy in the original language with a fully reconstructed score for tragedy’s original instrument.” There have been earlier attempts — the 2008 BCAD Antigone featured a score for auloi as well, written by Vanya Visnjic and Dmitri Karvounis — but a wealth of brand-new research on both the structure of the aulos itself, and the vocal melodies utilized by ancient Greek tragedy, led to this fully realized score. The end result was something truly special — even beyond the obvious specialness that BCAD treats its audience to every year by performing classical plays in their original languages at such a remarkably high level — and the vision of the director, Caleb Simone, is to thank for bringing this year’s production together in such an innovative and compelling fashion.

Callum Armstrong on the aulos. (Photo: Pamela Sisson)

After some pre-performance buzz about the music — a live aulos and professional auletes from across the pond! — and the notably professional heft of the production, the Herakles played in four sold-out performances over the first weekend of April in the Minor Latham Playhouse at Barnard College in New York City. The play itself is profoundly disturbing: its primary ethical conundrum — the impending execution of the innocent family of Herakles by a haughty usurper, Lykos, played here with gleeful ferocity by an excellent Barbara Vinck — is seemingly resolved when the play’s eponymous hero, a convincing Thanos Nioplias, returns from underworld. Yet no sooner has Herakles killed Lykos than he is driven mad by the figure of personified rage (Lyssa), who leads him with the frenzied pitch of the aulos to slaughter his family. Here the audience can observe the dramatic role of the music in performance, and the scene is excruciating to experience in real time. Where Lyssa wavers — and Yilin Liu brings the appropriate level of ambivalence to the role — Iris, the messenger goddess played with sly steeliness by Darcy Krasne, remains firm and forces her charge to do the bidding of Hera and destroy Herakles’ life and reputation. The murder of his children and of his wife Megara, played by one of the most natural and mellifluous Ancient Greek speakers I have ever heard, Elizabeth McNamara, a Barnard sophomore and veteran BCAD performer who also assisted the director here, sends Amphitryon and the chorus of elders into desperation.

Amphitryon (Cat Lambert) and the chorus visit the wife (Elizabeth McNamara) and children of Herakles. (Photo: Pamela Sisson)

And here we have, perhaps, the two greatest triumphs of this triumphant production: Cat Lambert and the chorus. Cat is a Columbia graduate student, expert Latinist, and nuanced shaper of Greek words and phrases, who memorized hundreds of lines to play Amphitryon with great clarity and verve: she deserves boundless gratitude and respect. The chorus is always the hardest part of any tragedy to represent successfully on stage; yet these ten members were synchronized in song and movement to a degree that I have rarely seen in my twenty plus years of BCAD productions. I attribute that to the careful collaboration of Simone (director) and Conser (composer) with an extraordinarily talented team of accompaniment composer and aulete Armstrong, sound designer Matt Rocker, choreographer Jon Froehlich, assistant director Rachel Herzog, assistant musical director and chorus leader Alice Sharpless, and assistant choreographer and chorus member Samuel Humphries, whose powerful dancing gives ample expression to the shifting emotions of the chorus as a whole. Cate McCrea (set design) and Marién Vélez of 22 Lighting Studio (lighting) round out the splendid technical team assembled to put together this marvelous show, which is itself brought to a close when Kiran Mansukhani arrives as a compelling Theseus, the ultimate friend, to lead the hero back to Athens for purification and recovery. As with other BCAD productions, a video recording will be made available online soon. To Mr. Simone, Ms. Lambert, and all the BCAD players and team: bravo! Or better yet: σοφῶς!

Herakles: a triumph for Barnard Columbia Ancient Drama. (Photo: Pamela Sisson)

[The Barnard Columbia Ancient Drama Group stages an ancient drama in the original language every spring, producing a Greek play in odd-numbered years and a Latin play in even-numbered years. For more information please visit their website.]

[Correction: the original version of this story omitted reference to the 2008 BCAD production of Antigone, which also featured music for voice and aulos.]