Anaïs Mitchell: Bringing the Underworld to Berkeley

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After tours through New England and a workshop in New York, Anaïs Mitchell's folk opera 'Hadestown' finally comes to the Bay Area. (Photo: Jay Sansone)

When singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell released her folk opera Hadestown in 2009, the vivid reimagining of the Greek myth of the doomed lovers Orpheus and Eurydice clearly seemed inspired by the nation’s economic crisis.

Set in a Depression-era company town painted in the stark colors of a hard-boiled Dashiel Hammett dystopia, the album brought together an immoderately talented multi-generational cast of singers and instrumentalists, including Greg Brown (Hades), Ani DiFranco (Persephone), Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon (Orpheus), and Petra, Rachel and Tanya Haden (the Fates). But Mitchell, who sang the role of Eurydice, says that the project was born long before the bursting housing bubble almost toppled the global financial system.

In fact, it was George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004 and Mitchell’s wavering faith in the power of writing politically topical songs that set her on a path toward Greek mythology. The underworld, it turned out, was an ideal forum for unleashing her vision of a curdling American dream.

“Hades was a way to write about those things in an archetypical way, rather than tied to specific events,” says Mitchell, 34. “When the album was coming out and the recession hit, themes of poverty and desperation really came to the fore. Now we’re on the road to recovery and other parts of the music and imagery feel a little more relevant. It’s an ancient myth that continues to resonate in so many ways.”

Mitchell presents a newly expanded version of the song cycle at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage on June 28, working with album’s two key collaborators: arranger Michael Chorney, who plays acoustic guitar and prepared guitar, and bassist Todd Sickafoose, who produced the album and her acclaimed 2012 followup Young Man In America (Wilderland Records). They’re joined by a stellar ensemble including violinist/vocalist Jenny Scheinman, cellist/vocalist Markia Hughes, trumpeter/vocalist Darren Johnston, accordionist Rob Reich, and drummer Eric Garland.

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Several years before recording the album, Mitchell presented Hadestown in Vermont as a traveling theatrical production with a Bread & Puppet Theater aesthetic, with Chorney on hand. With virtually no funding or institutional support, they toured around New England twice over the course of two years.

“The album was a third draft of a thing that began in a DIY theatrical way, with myself and Michael and a band playing his arrangements,” Mitchell says. “We’d go to a particular town or state and recruit friends and strangers from the music community to sing the roles. We thought of it as a radio novella. I always wanted to see it go back to the theater, because of what can happen working with real actors.”

Anaïs Mitchell
Anaïs Mitchell.

What’s remarkable about the album is the way it evokes the piece’s theatricality, the sense of drama being played out in a physical space, rather than unfolding simply as a collection of songs connected by a narrative. Before he produced the album, Sickafoose joined Mitchell’s cast on the road, “and it was really instructive to be part of the theatricality of it from the beginning,” says Sickafoose (who performs with his own band Tiny Resistors on June 26 at the Red Poppy Art House).

“We tried to make the record have that feeling, having different people singing all the roles, and making sure there was space in the music so it didn’t just go one line to the next, one song to the next, setting scenes and including the kind of transitions you feel like you’re seeing. 'Folk opera' is a beautiful term. It feels like a good cloak to put on and say 'this is what it is,' and move around inside of that. It’s the first genre name I’ve ever liked.”

Mitchell got a chance to revisit the piece’s theatrical roots earlier this year via New York Theater Workshop, the organization that first presented Rent and Once. Sunday’s matinee is another step in that process, as The Ground Floor, Berkeley Rep’s center for the creation and development of new work, selected Hadestown as one of 14 projects in its fourth Summer Residency Lab.

The Berkeley Rep has a long history of productions involving music, from Green Day’s American Idiot to Stew and Heidi Rodewald’s Passing Strange, and Hadestown seemed ripe for a workshop.

“We like things that seep across boundaries,” says Madeleine Oldham, Berkeley Rep’s resident dramaturg and director of The Ground Floor. “Anaïs’s work is perfect that way. She’s taking music and testing the waters of theater. She’s a multi-threat composer, songwriter, and lyricist with an inherently theatrical quality.”