Heavenly collaboration in Carbondale: Anaïs Mitchell’s ‘Hadestown’
October 13, 2011
CARBONDALE – Probably the last label that anyone would hang on Anaïs Mitchell is “diva.” The 30-year-old was raised in semi-rural Vermont, the daughter of back-to-the-landers who fled the New Jersey suburbs in the early ’70s for something earthier and artsier. In her early 20s, after attending Vermont’s Middlebury College, where her father taught film, Mitchell decided not to pursue a regular job, but instead got into her car with an acoustic guitar to see if she could get traction on a music career. She could – in 2003, Mitchell earned the New Folk award at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas – and in her musical endeavors since then, she has focused on collaborative situations rather than pursuits that put her alone in the spotlight, and she is quick to give credit to her musical teammates. About the closest Mitchell came to a diva moment in our conversation was when she explained, of her recent move to New York City (Brooklyn, specifically), that she had become “a little Vermont-ed out.”
Still, over the past several years, Mitchell has been drawn toward the opera world. Or, to be more specific, the folk opera world, an alternative corner of the opera realm where the vocalists are neither conservatory-trained nor self-absorbed, where collaboration is paramount, and where a production, rather than taking months to stage, can be put together in a matter of days.
In 2006, after recording two albums of folk songs, Mitchell began to sense a shift in her lyrical sensibilities. “A few songs came out of nowhere, and the language and ideas began to point to this thing,” Mitchell said from her father-in-law’s cabin in Babylon, Long Island. “A weird line came to me: ‘Wait for me, I’m coming.”
Mitchell followed her muse, and “this thing” became a full-fledged creation – a full folk opera of characters, story, setting and distinct musical language which she titled “Hadestown.” After several fully staged productions, and an album version, Mitchell has brought the opera to the mountains. The brief CO Sings “Hadestown” tour stops Friday at PAC3 in Carbondale. The production features no sets or costumes; Mitchell likens it to a radio novella, with the story told solely through the songs. Still, there are 14 musicians, singers included, which Mitchell calls “a logistically crazy endeavor.”
When a few of those unusual songs began coming to Mitchell, she saw certain themes taking shape: hope, doubt, loss of innocence, hard times. It made her think in terms of mythology – a field she had as little previous experience with as she had with opera – and specifically the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus, who must venture into the underworld to rescue his wife, Eurydice. “I’m not a big mythology buff – I don’t even remember the story that deeply,” Mitchell said. “I remember reading it as a kid, an illustrated book of mythology, and I remember the illustrations.”
At first, Mitchell engaged with these songs only reluctantly. “For a while, I’d write songs that were ‘Hadestown’ songs. But they seemed like distractions from what I should be writing,” she said. “But then they hit a critical mass.”
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Also at play was the Vermont winter. Mitchell was more or less holed up in rural Vermont, a condition she shared with her community of local artists. It seemed an ideal time to entertain an offbeat, large-scale idea. “It was rural, cabin fever, living in the woods,” she said. “It was a sort of beat-the-cabin-fever project.” And just to make sure she didn’t abandon “Hadestown” when the spring thaw appeared, Mitchell went and booked a small tour of Vermont dates. “We booked the shows figuring that would make it happen.”
Among Mitchell’s colleagues was Michael Chorney. Chorney had worked on Mitchell’s earlier albums, but he also had a band that paid tribute to space-jazz icon Sun Ra, so was versed in string and horn arrangements. The two, along with some fellow singers, began figuring out just what a folk opera should be, especially in terms of the balance between narrative and poetry.
“At first, a lot was missing from the story,” Mitchell said. “But there was logic and characters, and people seemed to gravitate toward it.”
Mitchell knew what themes she wanted to explore – compromise seems to be the strongest one – and they were worthy of operatic scale. Her take on Orpheus and Eurydice is set in the post-Depression era, and rough economic times are making for emotional and political turmoil. Among the songs she wrote are “Why We Build the Wall,” with an us-and-them mentality; “Gone, I’m Gone,” about the compromised choice Eurydice makes between love and material comfort; and the literally hellish “Way Down Hadestown.”
“Certainly there’s a pretty dark political and economic streak. It’s a love story, but there’s a dark streak,” Mitchell said. “It’s vaguely 1930s-esque; we draw on Depression-era United States, and this idea of the company town. It’s a walled city, a place of safety, but you give up certain freedoms to be part of it. The state and the market are the same people – in these company towns, it was owned by economic forces, but they had the government behind them. They were all-powerful.”
Apart from what can seem an obvious connection to 2010s America, Mitchell was also attracted to the open-ended nature of the Orpheus myth. The tones are dark, but not exclusively so. “Flowers,” for instance, has a sweetness to it, and holds out hope for better things: “If you ever walk this way/ Come and find me lying in the bed I made” are the closing lines.
“It’s hope versus doubt,” Mitchell said. “The Orpheus myth is unusual because it isn’t Hollywood. It sets you up for this triumphant end, but it doesn’t come. Orpheus looks back in doubt. It’s a story that raises more questions than answers. It’s, Should we have hope or not?”
For the “Hadestown” album, released last year, Mitchell attracted an all-star folkie cast. Opposite Mitchell’s Eurydice was Justin Vernon, the voice behind the acclaimed folk-rock act Bon Iver, as Orpheus. Ani DiFranco sang Persephone (DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records released “Hadestown”) and Greg Brown did Hades. The Fates were sung by Ben Knox Miller of the Low Anthem and triplets Petra, Rachel and Tanya Haden (the offspring of jazz bassist Charlie Haden). The album earned stunningly positive reviews, and the packaging was up for a Grammy.
For the CO Sings “Hadestown” tour, Mitchell rounded up some of Colorado’s finest singers. Jefferson Hamer, formerly of the folk-rock band Great American Taxi, sings Orpheus; Hamer, who now lives in New York, occasionally performs old British and Scottish ballads with Mitchell. Reed Foehl, formerly of Acoustic Junction, sings Hades; Mitchell says she became obsessed with Foehl’s 2009 album “Once an Ocean”: “It didn’t leave my car for a whole summer.” Playing the Fates are KC Groves, of the string band Uncle Earl, and the female vocal trio Paper Bird. “When we said we were doing Colorado shows, five people said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to get those girls from Paper Bird.'” Chorney sings Hermes, and plays guitar in the six-piece band.
Mitchell enjoys putting on the stripped-down version of “Hadestown” because it lets her intersect with a new set of singers. “It becomes a celebration of whatever scene we happen to be in. I get to see whatever world they’re in,” she said, adding she hopes to produce another fully staged version of “Hadestown” at some point.
In the meantime, she is ready to set opera aside. In February, she will release “Young Man in America,” which might sound like a big-concept album, but is not. “It’s just a record, a songwriter record,” Mitchell said. She wants to make a recording of the British and Scottish folk ballads with Hamer. After that, she could see putting on her pseudo-diva hat and stepping again into the opera world.
“I haven’t listened to a lot of classical opera,” she said. “I think I’d be into it if I gave it a chance. I’m really drawn to narrative music, lyric-based storytelling. People ask if opera is so different from what I usually do, and it isn’t. Opera is high art, and folk is the people’s art. But for me, they’re both storytelling forms.”
Another difference: folk opera doesn’t tend to produce diva temperaments. Mitchell may have originated the idea of “Hadestown,” written all the songs, sung one of the lead parts. Still, she doesn’t claim “Hadestown” as her own.
“It’s been a long road and a lot of people have had their hands on it,” she said. “I feel lucky to have been part of a project that collaborative and that epic. It feels like a kid who grew up and ran away, and you can’t take credit for it. It’s been a community scene from the start.”