It’s just a week now before the premiere of Judgment of Midas, the opera I’ve been working on with Kamran Ince. It’s happening in Milwaukee, in a production with Present Music and the Milwaukee Opera Theater. I’m really excited, looking forward to seeing how it’s been imagined, and hearing the complete score for the first time. This is my second libretto, and I know I will feel that amazing sensation again, of hearing words I’ve written come alive through the music.
For me, Judgment of Midas began when I met Kamran in Philadelphia after a performance of his Strange Stone by Relâche. I found Kamran’s music ravishing, with beautiful textures and a sweeping energy. I told him how much I liked it, and in the conversation that followed he mentioned he had received a commission to write an opera, but had no librettist yet. My first opera, Violet Fire, had had its first performance at Temple University just a few weeks before.
Describing the project, Kamran explained that it was inspired by an ancient myth, a story connected with the archeological site of Sardis—part of the kingdom of Lydia, and now in western Turkey. My antennae went off: I had visited Sardis a few years before and remembered it vividly. Thanks to Steve, my husband, who has a lifelong passion for antiquity, we’ve been to Turkey several times, that last time with our son Ethan.
Sardis sits on a high plain. You see the Greco-Roman city rising up out of an empty field, and farther away, the huge burial mounds that dated to an even earlier time. It’s one of those places like Stonehenge—so quiet, you can hear the breeze going past your ears.
It’s also the place where Dr. Crawford Greenewalt, Jr. spent every summer for decades, supervising the archeological dig. It was Greenie’s idea (that’s what everyone calls him) to commission an opera based on the story of King Midas—not the Golden Touch, but the less well-known sequel, known from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
The story that Greenie suggested to Kamran involved a music contest. It goes like this: after Midas has washed off the Golden Touch, he retires to the woods, following the god Pan. Pan challenges Apollo to a musical contest, a sort of Lydia’s Got Talent, to be judged by the local mountain god, Tmolus. Midas protests when Apollo is declared the winner, which leads Apollo to punish him by giving him a pair of asses’ ears.
Full disclosure: I am a mythology nerd. Being able to dive into this story, with its range of divinities from the most sublime to the least, and play with the themes it throws off, was a great attraction. Midas was a real king, and is historically connected to the even earlier Phrygian kingdom. But legend said that he washed himself clean near Sardis, in the river Pactolus—the source of gold for wealthy Lydia.
One of the gifts of this project was meeting Greenie, a remarkable man who followed his passions for archeology and music without stinting. If he were still alive, he probably wouldn’t want any fuss made over his central role in the project. Fortunately he was able to see the concert performance of Midas in New York in 2011. But I’m sure he’ll be with us in Milwaukee too.