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Subverting dominant paradigms the ancient Greek way
by Neil Ellis Orts
“One of the questions at the heart of the play is ‘What is a man? What is a woman?’ Klytemnestra comes off as both—or even as more man.” John Harvey, playwright and director, brings to the fore one of the driving characteristics of Klytemnestra, the woman at the center of the ancient Greek play Agamemnon by Aeschylus.
“One of the things that is very dangerous to a patriarchal culture is for a woman to choose her own lover. Or for anyone, for that matter—even in today’s world,” adds Misha Penton, the creative force behind Divergence Vocal Theater’s new opera, Klytemnestra. “You can’t control someone who isn’t going to be exchanged in marriage.”
These are among the themes running through two interwoven yet distinct productions being offered in Houston this month. Harvey is directing his and Richard Armstrong’s translation and adaptation of the ancient play for the University of Houston’s Dionysia, a project of the Honors College’s Center for Creative Work. Misha Penton portrays Klytemnestra in the UH production, and then reprises the role the following week in DVT’s Klytemnestra, for which she wrote the libretto.
This collaboration came about organically, almost by accident. The Dionysia production was already in the works when Harvey contacted Penton about taking on the central role. As preparation for her portrayal, Harvey asked Penton to write down some of her perceptions of the character, such as what would be going on in Klytemnestra’s mind as she waited for the return of Agamemnon from the Trojan War. Penton, who founded DVT in 2008 with the express goal of creating new opera works, began to see her notes as fertile ground for a libretto.
Enter Dominick DiOrio, Director of Choral Activities and Assistant Professor of Music at Lone Star College. As a composer, DiOrio had created vocal and chamber music, but this is the first time he’s been commissioned to compose an opera. “I’ve written a lot for voices. I’m a singer myself and I’m a choral conductor, so I deal with voices every day, but I’ve not had the joy of taking on a work of substantial length and scope as an opera.” In turn, DiOrio is adapting his own music for the opera into incidental music for UH’s Dionysia production. “You’d think as the composer that, okay, you’ve handed off your score and your part is done—now they do all the rest. What is great about all this is that I have a say in the process, and it’s creative beyond the black dots on the page.”
That ongoing involvement of so many creative people is part of Divergence Vocal Theater’s ethos. It’s a company of artists with strong vision who collaborate and shape the final performance. “One of the things I want to do, in terms of influence, is restructure the way people think about who does opera, how it’s done, who makes it, and who performs it,” Penton says. “What I do with Divergence is, in terms of the classical music industry, very subversive. I create my own works and I sing in them. It’s very much something actors and dancers do, but singers are not encouraged to create their own products. So my influence and inspiration is from artists who do their own work.”
Harvey also has his reasons for collaborating with people outside of the UH Honors College. Part of the curriculum includes studying a Greek classic. Dionysia exists to take the learning experience beyond just reading a text. It’s a way to expose students to working arts professionals. “It was a groundswell of interest in creativity. You read a Greek tragedy in the fall, and in the spring you attend a performance by students, faculty, and professionals from the city. So it’s also reaching out to the city and grounding the students in that way.”
These collaborators are also brought together by personal interests that converge in Greek tragedy. Penton’s work has often drawn on myth and legend, as seen in DVT’s previous productions such as The Tenth Muse and Selkie: A Sea Tale. Harvey’s work as a playwright for local theater company Mildred’s Umbrella draws on the tradition in theater of addressing the dysfunctional family. And DiOrio draws on very personal experience when composing the music to Penton’s libretto.
“One of the things I related to when I was poring over the lyrics is that I’m currently in a long-term, long-distance relationship with my partner in New York,” DiOrio relates. “I moved down here to Houston to take a job. I realized that Klytemnestra is in some sense isolated. She is left here without the person she loves. Whether the love is twisted or not, there is a distance. I related to that distance. It’s sort of a confused place to be when you’re detached from your love.”
From subversive Greek text to a subversive art-making process, paradigms are shifting under the guidance of these artists and their performer/collaborators.
Agamemnon is presented by Dionysia at 7 p.m. on April 8 and 9, and at 2 p.m. on April 10, at the Wortham Theater on the UH campus, and at 6:30 p.m. on April 11 at Kohn’s Bar. Klytemnestra is presented at 8 p.m. on April 15 and 16 at Divergence Music and Arts at Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring St. For more information: www.divergencevocaltheater.org and the School of Theater and Dance box office at 713/743-2929.
Neil Ellis Orts is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.