Touching on Midas

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.

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8 thoughts on “Touching on Midas”

  1. Con­grat­u­la­tions — that is such won­der­ful news! This has been a favorite myth of my own since for­ev­er. CONFESSION: when a din­ner com­pan­ion makes a com­ment about music or lit­er­a­ture that’s not worth argu­ing, I like to envi­sion the dolt with ass­es’ ears.

    1. Arthur — So sor­ry — this is an old post, from last year — actu­al­ly my very first! I some­how repost­ed it while try­ing to get rid of that obnox­ious “oth­er” cat­e­go­ry. So I think I should be wear­ing the ass­es’ ears today! How­ev­er, big points to you for being famil­iar with the sto­ry!! And I promise word will go out when there’s more opera news.

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