Mark Adamo : Lysistrata, or The Nude Goddess
The Nude Goddess is not your mother's Lysistrata. It's not even the one by Aristophanes.
This iconic comedy, unveiled in 411 B.C.E., eyes the women of Athens and Sparta, disgusted by an endless, pointless war, who barricade themselves in the Athenian treasury and swear a sanction on sex until their men make peace. It's a delicious premise. It is not a plot. Our heroine concocts this strategy: she bullies her team into agreeing; the plan works; end of play. Nor are these complex characters. Lysistrata, Kleonike, Myrrhine: these are less persons than personae, masks of text through which their play-wright declaims an impassioned political broadside. Twelve years into a failed imperialist incursion, Aristophanes felt no need to weigh a pro-war case, to squint at his women's motives, to paint his men as anything but blowhards and buffoons. Historically understandable; but his certitudes flatten his play. I love Lysistrata's strut and wit and nerve, its utopian yearnings, its magical locale an Acropolis where, by dream-logic, a handful of couples can reconcile the love of the battlefield with the battlefield of love. But there's a reason Lysistrata most often materializes nowadays either as the carrot of sex with which we lure students to the classics, or as the megaphone of protest through which we assail the war du jour. The reason is that you cannot say anything sophisticated about war while ignoring the psychology of warriors. In 1999 I was awarded my second commission from Houston Grand Opera, and I wanted it to be Lysistrata. But I couldn't see my way into the play. I put it aside.
And then I came back to it. I heard its music so strongly hyperrhythmic, brilliantly colored, now sly and purring, now bursting with energy that I knew I had to find, or create, the richer drama it demanded. I wondered: could one compose a Lysistrata principally fascinated by the war between men and women two radically different kinds of human beings damned by late and desire to love without complete understanding? Could you make an opera that used the civic conflict to illuminate the erotic discord, not vice versa?
Perhaps. But Lysistrata remains one of the West's indispensable pacifist texts; and even in 1999 I knew I couldn't write this piece without engaging, however obliquely, the problem of war. Is aggression ever justified, in lave or by law? What magnetizes eros and thanatos? I wanted to scour this opera clean of sexual cliché I believe that vice and virtue, surrender and assault, beckon as seductively to women as to men, and "who's on top?" isn't necessarily the same question as "who's in control?" As with sex, so with war: I could no more recite a familiar rhetoric of the evils of war than I could blithely exult in bloodshed.
This was all too interesting to resist. Lysistrata it was. I cut all but three scenes of the play, created new male characters, changed the war, omitted the choruses, and invented a wrangling romance between the Lysistrata figure (here, after the Latin, pronounced ly-ZIS-tra-ta, but mostly called Lysia) and the Athenian leader Nico. The text of Lysistrata, or The Nude Goddess now imagines a woman who fakes political convictions to wreak on her lover an erotic revenge: only later must she ask herself, to whom does she belong, herself or her people? The opera's score sends its melodies searching through a labyrinth of mirrors; no sooner is a theme sung by one character, given one meaning, than it is assumed by someone else and inflected with quite another. A sinuous monologue of seduction speeds up, changes meter, reappears as a swaggering soldiers' drill; a furious tantrum sheds its fioritura attitudinizing, melts into an aria of self-sacrifice. The libretto suggests, "Each of you will tell the truth; neither will agree." The score aims to make that suggestion an audible process.
Lysistrata, or the Nude Goddess was originally scheduled for premiere at Houston Grand Opera in March 2002. Things change: an opera begun in peacetime finds itself, today, scaldingly topical. (Aristophanes's Lysistrata was read over 900 times worldwide one single day in March 2003.) No artwork can presume to resolve any political argument. But I would love to think The Nude Goddess could, in some small way, reframe our current argument that hearing these passions and positions voiced and embodied by closely imagined personalities might help clarify our thinking and heighten our sympathy for those with whom we disagree.
We all want peace, just as we all want love.
The question is, love on whose terms?
The question is as urgent for lovers as for leaders; and it is a question I hope that brightens the language, drives the rhythms, sharpens the comedy, and deepens the compassion of this new singing Lysistrata.
List of Performances
Cast List (seventeen singers to play twenty-four characters):
The ATHENIAN WOMEN
XANTHE: high lyric Soprano [doubles APHRODITE]
LYSIA (later LYSISTRATA) , beloved of Nico: lirico-spinto Soprano
MYRRHINE, beloved of Kinesias, younger friend of Lysia: lyric Mezzo-soprano
SAPPHO: lyric Mezzo-soprano
KLEONIKE, leader of the Athenian women’s resistance: lyric Mezzo-contralto
The SPARTAN WOMEN
CHARITO: high lyric Soprano [doubles TISIPHONE]
DIKA: lyric Soprano [doubles ALECTO]
ARETE: lyric Mezzo-soprano [doubles MEGAERA]
LAMPITO, wife of Leonidas: dramatic Mezzo-contralto
The ATHENIAN MEN
NIKIAS (NICO), leader of the Athenian army: lyric Tenor
MELEAGROS: lyric Tenor
KINESIAS, beloved of MYRRHINE: lyric Baritone
BION: Baritone or Bass-baritone [doubles FIRST GEEZER]
TWO GEEZERS: Baritones or Bass-baritones [double BION & PHILO]
The SPARTAN MEN
MARON: lyric Tenor
ALPHEUS: lyric Tenor [doubles ARES]
PHILO: Baritone or Bass-baritone [doubles SECOND GEEZER]
LEONIDAS, leader of the Spartan army: lyric Bass-baritone
TISIPHONE, ALECTO, & MEGAERA, the Furies: two Sopranos and Alto [double CHARITO, DIKA, & ARETE]
APHRODITE, goddess of love: lyric Soprano [doubles XANTHE]
ARES, god of war: lyric Tenor [doubles ALPHEUS]
Time: the present. Place: ancient Greece. The Peloponnesian Wars are raging. Women won’t make love until the men make peace. But the men won’t give up until the women give in. Which is stronger: the desire for power or the power of desire?
In Adamo’s hands the anti-war message isn’t preachy: it’s delivered with a wink and a nudge. He’s a gifted writer of comedy, and whenever the tone of the piece threatens to become serious, a good laugh generally intervenes; and Lysistrata’s smart-alecky tone is one of the work’s assets.
Olin Chism, Opera Magazine, 01/09/2012
With Mark Adamo's raunchy Lysistrata, the fourth addition to its 2012 festival, the Fort Worth Opera has a hit on its hands.
Saturday night's opening audience in Bass Hall greeted the comedy with loud, sustained laughter and rapt attention each time the laughter died down. It got the ultimate compliment: no coughs and (I know this is hard to believe) no cellphone rings, at least none that I heard.
, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 28/05/2012
A fantastical riff on the ancient Greek play… From the start, the bustling, hyperrhythmic and harmonically pungent music makes clear that "Lysistrata" is not just going to be some bawdy romp. Mr. Adamo seems to be following the model of musical theater composers from Mozart to Sondheim, who fill their scores with enriching intricacies that gurgle away just below the surface, audible to those who want to pay attention, but never intrusive…Mr. Adamo, who also wrote the libretto, invents characters and conflicts and makes the story a richer human drama that uses, to quote his program note, "the civic conflict to illuminate the erotic discord…Adamo wants to convey the tragic costs of this battle between the sexes, where passion and aggression are posed as irreconcilable forces. The women also ache with yearning and deprivation. But in a long, affecting ensemble they remind themselves of what is at stake: they sing a ritual ceremony to honor their lost husbands, brothers and sons. The music is haunting… Admire the ambition, sweep and skill that Mr. Adamo has brought to his work.
Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times
Delicious writing... Mr. Adamo's a clever fellow his libretto has its share of bon mots he turns nice vocal phrases, and writes deftly for a compact chamber orchestra.
Scott Cantrell, Dallas Morning News
A milestone; clever and assured...should have a solid future. Adamo's libretto and music for this "tragicomedy for singers and orchestra" reveal keen comic instincts; his dialogue is packed with witty wordplay, and (his) deftly orchestrated music propels the plot with ease. There's a lot of American musical theater's tunefulness and rhythmic vitality in the score, but Adamo's own engaging voice is evident throughout...Lysistrata could have provided an entertaining evening in the theater on comedy alone, but the opera's satiric/ironic side gives it greater weight... there's enough sexual innuendo and anti-war sentiment to have warranted a look by the Justice Department, but even today's most rabid, neo-Legion of Decency types would probably have found themselves savoring Lysistrata.
Tim Smith , Baltimore Sun
Witty and literate... (In) Adamo's libretto, both an update and a recension of Aristophanes's original, ancient stereotypes come alive in surprising new ways; (and) the music is mysterious and beautiful, full of quiet passion and hymnlike reverie. The (Act Two) octet begins as a powerful threnody to the dead, then morphs into a beguiling chorale, accompanied by a shimmering orchestration of whispering strings. Lysia's final aria, "I Am Not My Own," a languid variation on her Act One furioso against Nico, ramps up the energy and propels the opera to its conclusion; again, right-on orchestration, strings and saxophone mirror her resignation with sexy blues...Makes us want to listen.
D. L. Groover , Houston Press
Inventive and arresting...Adamo's well written libretto is cast in language that is eminently singable without sounding trite or clichéd. With its inventive, largely tonal score, Lysistrata moves swiftly from one arresting number to another. Vocal lines, animated by complex rhythms, take interesting chromatic turns while at the same time flattering the voices; large-scale ensembles give the opera a comic lift as voices coalesce into alluring, astutely blended sonorities... A dynamic, fast-paced comedy.
George Loomis, Musical America
Resplendent... The deep truth of war is not alone a story of good against evil but also, and more often, of good against good, wisdom against wisdom, duty against duty, principle against principle. That fearful symmetry is the foundation of Mark Adamo's new operatic adaptation of an ancient Greek play not the tragic Antigone, as one might expect, but the bawdiest of farces, Aristophanes' Lysistrata... Both composer and librettist, he served brilliantly in both roles... The opera is a thick mesh of symmetries, the words of one character echoing in the mouths of others, switching contexts from war to love and back again. Adamo's musical structure is built on those symmetries, and the layered textures of his orchestration seem a map of the caroming ideas. His music is rhythmically complex, protean, closely molded to the theatrical moment, capable of wry wit and expansive lyricism, and very American and contemporary in its sound — Sondheim on steroids — (and) the finale is a numinous Brucknerian motet, a hymn to peace shaded by the knowledge that it can only be temporary... Lysistrata soars.
Mike Greenberg , San Antonio Express-News
Provocative, hilarious, bawdy and tender... Friday's world premiere took the utterly engaged audience in a whirlwind tour through great themes: war and peace. The battle of the sexes. Even red state vs. blue state. And all in only 2 3/4 hours on one opera stage!... By inventing characters and adding complicated personal relationships, Adamo shifted the focus from the dramatically flat, if politically charged, idea of protest to the far more vivid and occasionally lurid arena of sexual politics. Dramatically and musically, (he) has stretched far in this new work; his libretto filled with puns, plays on words and intriguing rhyme schemes, and his musical setting tightly unified through constant reuse of key themes... Lysistrata, or The Nude Goddess boldly romps its way through the minefield of domestic and international politics.
Charles Ward , Houston Chronicle
A feisty liberal heroine... Lysistrata’s texture is skillfully varied, alternating rapid-fire comic numbers with passages of beguiling lyricism. Adamo weaves seemingly disjointed fragments of melody into cohesive musical statements, and he makes good use of repetition; the motifs have sufficient contour to be comprehensible at first hearing, and they work to bind the musical continuity. Nearly every bit of text was audible, even in ensemble, a tribute to Adamo’s skill at word setting and writing for the orchestra... Surefooted, vivid, and distinctly modern.
Fred Cohn, Opera News
A sumptuous love story, poised between comedy and heartbreak... It works: a minute after the music began, I knew that I was in the hands of a brilliant theatre composer. Adamo's effortless expertise was on display in his 1998 maiden effort, Little Women, but he has taken several big leaps forward, particularly in integrating his proudly tonal melodies with more dissonant connective material. Adamo's accompaniments would make a good primer for any young composer learning to write for and around singers. Each strand of the vocal line is punctuated by some perfect short gesture: the orchestral writing is often little more — or nothing less — than a play of light around the voices. Slow dotted rhythms, reminiscent of Britten in his ceremonial mode, give the music a sudden grandeur; as the cities work their way toward reconciliation, the women sing radiant, flowing chorales... It's almost shocking how deep this seemingly lighthearted opera goes.
Alex Ross , The New Yorker
A writer of imagination, intelligence, and charm... In this expansion (of Aristophanes's comedy) we are given an opera more about amorous tactics than about universal tranquility. The characters in this Lysistrata are best defined by their weaknesses, not their heroism, but Mr. Adamo works hard on their behalf; Lysistrata's long Act II aria of farewell is beautifully managed, good to Emily Pulley's equally well managed soprano voice and deeply sincere....We should be grateful that Lysistrata made it onstage.
Bernard Holland , The New York Times
Zesty, bawdy, and confrontational.... An understanding of how music-theatre works seems to come naturally to the composer Mark Adamo. His 1998 opera Little Women has had some 30 engagements in North America; (and) at its world premiere, Lysistrata, or the Nude Goddess, proved no less effective... His own libretto is really a new play, with the characters fleshed out, in particular the title heroine; and one arresting number succeeds another in the largely tonal score... His way of finding a drama's emotional nerve and projecting it to an audience is at the root of (his) success.
George Loomis , Financial Times (London)
Ingenious... It was hard to come away from tonight's premiere without a sense of renewed faith in the possibility that contemporary opera can deal with both the baggage of genre history and the demands of a contemporary audience. Adamo, in only his second big-stage piece, neatly proves that it can be done -- and with a show that's genuinely entertaining, to boot. Adamo's almost unceasingly funny first act doesn't stint on lowbrow humor; (but) despite an opening chorus sung by outrageously priapic soldiers, the second act darkens considerably. Just as Lysia's resolve wavers almost fatally, a chorus of Athenian and Spartan women offers a wrenching chorus tallying the cost of war in purely human terms. "I am not my own," Lysia sings in the evening's show-stopping aria, at last truly comprehending the cost of personal denial in service of the greater good… In spite of its antique milieu, I haven't seen any other new opera recently -- not An American Tragedy, not Doctor Atomic -- that felt more wholly present than this one.
Steve Smith, Night after Night
Impressive: a postmodern operatic version of a Greek comedy classic. Purists may bristle at the grab-bag structure of the score, a compendium of accessible mid-20th century styles with echoes of Anton Webern, George Gershwin, Darius Milhaud and Bernard Herrmann as well as jazz, Latin-American and Broadway elements. Adamo synthesizes these effectively, however, developing his themes and playing them off against each other in an ironic manner. And his amusing, slang-strewn libretto uses the Aristophanes original only as a point of departure… Adamo posed a bigger, broader challenge to himself with this ambitious work-- of balancing farce with the weighty moral and spiritual issues at its core--and he's up to the task.
Eric Myers, Variety.com
Succinct and swift… There is the scent of a Broadway musical in the opera's pacing, clever word play, and dramatic layout, but the sweep of opera in its vocal writing and orchestration. Take Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods," map out its dramatic structure -- a loose, frivolous and highly comic first act, a second that fleshes out characters and converts their actions into moral commentary -- and you'd have a perfect match to Adamo’s concept. (Yet) "Lysistrata" is nothing like, say, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," or even Gilbert & Sullivan. It has more depth and seriousness of purpose, and the music slowly evolves into a noble serenity, culminating in the duet of the gods Ares and Aphrodite as they descend into the action to restore fallen heroes and alleviate another war -- for the time being… Witty, likable, and eloquent.
Willa Conrad, Newark Star-Ledger
A rapid-fire Billy Wilder comedy on speed... In Adamo's free adaptation of Aristophanes's staid classic, initial scenes of high farce yield to more serious matters. The men come off much better in Adamo's version than in Aristophanes; also, even though Adamo completed his libretto before the war with Iraq, there's an undeniable topical resonance to Aristophanes's antiwar comedy.... The composer's facility is awe-inspiring, his machine-gun counterpoint keeping several vocal lines aloft in a dizzying sleight of hand; his libretto, equally smart and breezy, avoids easy polemics... The playful love scene interruptus of Lysia and Nico manages to be witty and sensual, and Adamo's way with a nostalgic bittersweet lyricism stays in the memory... There is probably no opera composer currently before the public who can match Mark Adamo for cleverness or flexibility.
Lawrence A. Johnson, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
A serious, ambitious, and creatively generous piece of work... It’s to Adamo’s credit that he has written a completely different kind of opera from his recent adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved Little Women, which enjoyed a big success and has already had an amazing number of productions all over the country. (Lysia and Nico’s) relationship is beset with one conflict after another as civic disorder continually threatens to horn in and take total control over their own highly charged erotic wrangling — which, in a delicious way, is an exact turnabout of Aristophanes’ much simpler premise. Just who calls the shots in love or in war, and why, is the central issue here, and the human stakes suddenly become very high... Adamo’s Little Women, only eight years old, is already looking like a repertory piece. With luck, Lysistrata might well do the same, even when the world finds itself at peace again and can find the time to savor the opera’s ironic complexities.
Peter G. Davis, New York Magazine
...he can write for the female voice with grace, expression and beauty...In his newer work, Lysistrata, again with women at its center, he tackles comedy...Music and text, both by Adamo, make for a winning evening at the theater.
...the opera opens with busy cross-rhythms and stinging harmonies that keep the ear fascinated; some melodic and rhythmic ideas seem secondary, as if the opera were a layer-cake of musical ideas...The text is simply brilliant and will remind many of Sondheim with its internal rhyming and sheer invention...Adamo has scored another success.
Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com