Lyric Opera of Chicago

War Follows Everyone Home

Hercules Vets Event

Director Peter Sellars connects with veterans through Handel's opera, "Hercules"

Live Panel Discussion Webcast

Presented by The University of Chicago and Lyric Opera of Chicago

George Frideric Handel’s powerful opera, Hercules, tells a story that could be ripped from recent headlines. The legendary hero has been victorious in battle once again, but there is no peace in the family when he returns home.

Director Peter Sellars has transposed this timeless tragedy to the present, envisioning Hercules as an American general returning from the front lines. “Part of what I want to do with this production is to honor our veterans, and to recognize and discuss what they bring home with them,” he says.

Webcast panelists include the renowned and always-provocative director Peter Sellars; University of Chicago trustee Jack Fuller, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former editor of the Chicago Tribune, who covered the Vietnam War and has written novels about that conflict; John Cacioppo, director of The University of Chicago Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience; and a veteran of the current conflicts in Afghanistan and/or Iraq. The moderator is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Julia Keller, cultural critic for the Chicago Tribune and author of Back Home, a novel narrated by a young girl whose father suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq as a National Guardsman.

Inspiration for Handel’s opera came from the great ancient Greek drama, Women of Trachis, by Sophocles. The theme is civilization’s struggle to stifle the savagery that threatens it from both internal and external sources, but it is also the intensely personal story of a family torn apart by the actions and effects of war. The music is in turn ferocious and heartbreakingly poignant, revealing Handel’s genius as a musical dramatist keenly attuned to the psychological state of his subjects.

Presented by The University of Chicago and Lyric Opera of Chicago, with support from Sylvia Neil and Daniel Fischel.

 

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Sellars

Peter Sellars is a renowned theater, opera, and festival director – one of the most innovative and powerful forces in the performing arts in America and abroad.  A visionary artist, Sellars is known for groundbreaking interpretations of classic works. Whether it is Handel, Mozart, Shakespeare, Sophocles, or the 16th-century Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu, Sellars strikes a universal chord with audiences, engaging contemporary social and political issues. He has also established a reputation for bringing a wide range of 20th-century and contemporary operas to the stage, and has been a driving force in the creation of many new works with longtime collaborator John Adams, including Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, El Niño, Doctor Atomic, and A Flowering Tree. Sellars has staged operas at Lyric Opera of Chicago (Doctor Atomic, Tannhäuser, The Mikado), the Metropolitan Opera (debut with company premiere of Nixon in China, February 2011), Lincoln Center, the Glyndebourne Festival, the Netherlands Opera, the Opéra National de Paris, the Salzburg Festival, and San Francisco Opera, among others. Sellars is a professor in the department of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA and a resident curator of the Telluride Film Festival. He is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, the Erasmus Prize, the Sundance Institute Risk-Takers Award, the Gish Prize, and has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

 

Cacioppo

John T. Cacioppo is a pioneer in the field of social neuroscience and an expert in social isolation, emotional contagion, and social behavior – issues affecting military veterans and their families, among others. He is the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor of Psychology, Director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, and Past-Director of the Arete Initiative of the Office of the Vice President for Research and National Laboratories at The University of Chicago.  More than 20 years ago, John began working with Gary Berntson of the University of Ohio to pioneer a new field they called “social neuroscience.” This is an interdisciplinary attempt to trace how social forces “get under the skin” to affect physiology, as well as how physiology influences social interactions. John’s recent research on loneliness, conducted in collaboration with Louise Hawkley, Ron Thisted, and Linda Waite, has raised questions about one of the pillars of modern medicine and psychology—the focus on the individual as the broadest appropriate unit of inquiry. By employing brain scans, monitoring of autonomic and neuroendocrine processes, and assays of immune function, John an his colleagues have found that the influence of social context is so strong that it can alter genetic expression in white blood cells. This research also showed how the subjective sense of social isolation (“loneliness”) uniquely disrupts our perceptions, behavior, and physiology, becoming a trap that not only reinforces isolation, but can lead to early death.

 

Fuller

Jack Fuller is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who spent nearly forty years working in newspapers. He became a war correspondent in Vietnam and a political reporter in Washington, working for City News Bureau of Chicago, The Chicago Daily News, and The Washington Post, as well as the Tribune. He won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1986 for his editorials on constitutional issues in the Tribune. During the administration of President Gerald Ford, Fuller served as Special Assistant to United States Attorney General Edward Levi. From 1989 to 1997 he was editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune. From 1997 to 2005 he served as president and chief executive of the Tribune Publishing Company. A graduate of Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism and Yale Law School, he is the author of seven novels and two books on journalism. He currently serves on the Board of Trustees for The University of Chicago and is a visiting faculty member at The University of Chicago.

 

Michael SullivanMichael Sullivan is the Illinois State Director of the Student Veterans of America.  He is a United States Marine Corps Veteran who served as an operator, gunner, and vehicle commander of an LAV-25 with 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion from 2000-2004.  During this time he deployed to Kosovo, Horn of Africa, Iraq, and Haiti. He began attending school in 2009 at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, IL and is currently finishing up his associates in science degree.  His goal is to ultimately gain a bachelors degree in Forensic Chemistry.  He is also the chapter president of Combat to College, the SVA chapter at Moraine Valley.

 

MODERATOR
Keller
Julia Keller, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune and a visiting faculty member at The University of Chicago. She was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and served as McGraw Professor of Writing at Princeton University. She has also taught at the University of Notre Dame. Julia twice served as a juror for the Pulitzer Prizes. Her book Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel: The Gun That Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius Who Invented It, a biography of the man who created the world’s first working machine gun because he thought it would help end war, was published by Viking in 2008. Her novel Back Home, narrated by a young girl whose father suffers a traumatic brain injury while serving with the National Guard in Iraq, was published earlier this year. It was named by Booklist as one of the top 10 debut novels for young adults of the year.

Hercules article 

The story could be ripped from recent headlines: Triumphant return of war hero turns tragic. The final chapter for the legendary Hercules and his wife Dejanira is a timeless tale about what happens when the war follows the warrior home.

Marriage to an absent hero means constant anxiety. Dejanira’s joy at Hercules’s homecoming evaporates when she learns of his infatuation with Iole, the beautiful young princess he’s abducted after sacking her kingdom and murdering her father. Not only that – he’s brought her home. Dejanira knows her husband’s appetite for conquest, but this is unbearable. She resolves to recapture her husband’s heart with a magic charm: blood from the centaur Nessus, mortally wounded years earlier by Hercules’s poisoned arrow when the lusty beast got fresh with Dejanira. The dying centaur claimed this tainted blood was so powerful that Hercules would never covet another woman. Disastrously true: when she gives her husband a garment infused with the supposed love potion, it melts his flesh – the centaur’s posthumous revenge. Hercules dies horribly; now fully mad with guilt and grief, Dejanira kills herself. Fulfilling his father’s last wish, their son Hyllus marries Iole, the orphaned beauty whose presence triggered the tragedy.

The ancient Greek playwright Sophocles told that hair-raising tale in Women of Trachis, a slender play of enormous impact. More than two millennia later G. F. Handel (1685-1759) composed his musical drama Hercules (premiere 1745), using a libretto by the Rev. Thomas Broughton that toned down the story considerably. The vicar’s version places the hero above reproach, making the wife seem irrationally jealous, and omitting her suicide. Fortunately, the ferocity and poignancy of Handel’s music match the original source brilliantly.

Lyric audiences will have an unforgettable experience when Hercules receives its company premiere Mar. 4-21. Expertly guided by Baroque-specialist conductor Harry Bicket and stage director extraordinaire Peter Sellars, Lyric’s stellar cast, orchestra, and chorus will reveal Handel’s genius as a musical dramatist and psychologist. The score teems with eerie half-step scales that snake through the harmonious orchestral and vocal lines, conveying the creeping spread of conflict, anguish, and madness that drives drama. Through the underlying hints of dissonance one hears and feels “the strangeness of what's missing from the [central] relationship,” the director notes. “This is not the world of Messiah.

Sellers considers Women of Trachis “one of the greatest plays in the history of drama” and Handel “simply the greatest dramatic genious in the history of music theater.” In Lyric’s new production of Hercules, he’ll create “a direct collaboration between Handel and Sophocles that will be red-hot. We’re cutting the padding and the speed bumps to [restore] the shape of the play, which takes you from shock to shock. Sophocles and Handel are heartbreaking and emotional; they give you the story in extreme closeup, [revealing] these people in their most private and psychologically charged moments. Those arias capture how people get lost in the labyrinth of their own emotions, how much we’re prisoners of our own imaginations when we’re waiting (like Dejanira). The same is true for those on the battlefield and the way they think of home. This opera is so beautiful and touching because it deals with how separate those worlds are, and how intense and deep the disconnect is. It’s really powerful and dark and extraordinary. The central characters have tragic stature, and the music takes story to a place of high tragedy.”

The director’s previous triumphs at Lyric — Doctor Atomic, Tannhäuser, The Mikado — have all channeled the cultural zeitgeist into riveting music theater. Sellars sees haunting parallels between Hercules and America’s current wars. In Lyric’s new production, the title character is an American general whose “palace” is a California mansion. “This beautiful Aegean-holiday picture turns into a smoldering hell on earth,” Sellars says. “You thought you were fighting the war far away in a foreign land, but you’ve brought it home.”

Handel describes Hercules as a “charming brute,” and much of his music has a jaunty swagger. Sellers, however, says he’s come to appreciate “how beautiful those arias can be — they can be made soulful instead of public-relations statements. [American bass-baritone] Eric Owens will make Hercules a more complex character; this music will speak in new ways. Hercules is genuinely in anguish. The characters are in all kinds of states of denial — just as when the current wars’ vets come back — and we — don’t know how to talk about it.”

Dejanira’s journey from depression to hope, jealousy, and despair plays out in six arias and a breathtaking mad scene equal in intensity and technical difficulty to those of Lucia and Ophelia. Hercules’s mad scene precedes Dejanira’s, as the unintended poison takes effect; as they’re bound in marriage, so their music is linked, especially as each becomes unhinged.

The chemistry between Owen’s Hercules and English mezzo-soprano Alice Coote’s Dejanira should be incendiary: “When Alice sings, it invades my very soul,” raves Owens. “It’s so good, you almost can’t take it. She shines in Handel and Mozart — she really surrenders herself to the work, and her passion is unparalleled. She’s the star of this show, big time!” Having created General Groves in Doctor Atomic, Owens adds, “I enjoy working with Peter so much — he’s a brilliant and compassionate soul.”

David Daniels recalls working with Coote when she sang Sesto in Julius Caesar at the Met: “She’s a really amazing performer, incredibly electric to be onstage with and to watch. Dejanira is a perfect role and an amazing vehicle for her. I’m thrilled to work with Peter again. He’s so knowledgeable and passionate; it’s always a learning and spiritual experience working with him.” Lichas, Hercules’s messenger, Daniels adds, “is probably the whole character I’ll ever play who’s neither heroic nor the lover! He’s a presenter of news, whether it’s good or bad.”

“We’ve got extraordinary singers — such a brilliant cast,” Sellars enthuses.  “I’ll be thrilled finally to be in the same room as Alice Coote! David is the most celebrated countertenor in the world, and for a reason! He has such charisma and vocal allure — he was just incredible when I directed him in Handel’s Theodora. Richard Croft [Hyllus] sings the music like no one else. I’m really looking forward to working with Lucy Crowe — Iole is a character with her own ideas and her own complex and intense sense of destiny. And Eric is literally a titan of the stage, one of the great, great singers of his generation. It’s a very compelling group.” The creative team has worked with Sellers since 1980: George Tsypin (sets), Dunya Ramicova (costumes), and James F. Ingalls (lighting). “It’s beautiful to have collaborators who understand each other very deeply, which gives a freedom to our work,” Sellars notes. “Each is a very creative artist, so they each make bold and inspired contributions.”

Sellars proposed doing Hercules at Lyric 15 years ago, and is grateful the moment is finally right. “It’s a good time in American life for us to do this — the piece has special resonance right now. For me the primary thing is finding the emotional thread and elevating some of the topics we are genuinely struggling with now in America into the kind of mythic scope and grandeur that we rarely detect in the headlines.

“It makes me very happy to be back at Lyric again after Doctor Atomic, and it’s great to be bringing in something with its own strange apocalyptic energy that is also heartwarming,” Sellars says.  “After all this horrifying stuff, Handel ends with the love duet of the young people, Hyllus and Iole, saying ‘We’re not going to do what our parents did.’ They meld even though his father has killed her father, which is pretty intense. Handel’s final image is actually very beautiful, and doesn’t just end in ashes. A new generation is going to have to start from here, and is ready to go. Which is great.”

The war follows everyone home.

This emotional shocker was inspired by a Greek tragedy written more than 2,500 years ago...and director Peter Sellars blows the lid off any idea that it isn't piercingly relevant today!

Handel's brilliant music matches Sophocles's drama every step of the way as Dejanira, wife of supreme warrior Hercules, waits years for him to return from battle. Finally, he does — and it's to a hero's welcome. But there's danger in his latest victory. This time Hercules didn't kill some mythic monster; he's killed a mortal enemy and enslaved the man's lovely daughter. Now he's brought her home...threatening everything Dejanira holds dear.

Mad with jealousy, she sends her husband a gift that promises to rekindle his passion. And burn he does — engulfing himself and everyone around him in emotional devastation!

Alice Coote! Eric Owens! David Daniels! Lucy Crowe! Richard Croft! These celebrated artists — Baroque masters all — possess all the vocal allure and acting charisma this incendiary masterwork demands!


LYRIC OPERA PREMIERE 

NEW PRODUCTION

New Lyric Opera production generously made possible by Julie and Roger Baskes, Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson, Richard P. and Susan Kiphart, Sidley Austin LLP, American Express, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Alice Coote Hercules 

Dejanira
Alice Coote

Hercules - Eric Owens - ST 

Hercules
Eric Owens

Hercules - David Daniels 

Lichas
David Daniels

Lucy Crowe - ST 

Iole
Lucy Crowe*

Richard Croft - ST 

Hyllus
Richard Croft

Hercules - Harry Bicket 

Conductor
Harry Bicket

Hercules - Peter Sellars 

Director
Peter Sellars

 


Set Designer
George Tsypin

 


Costume Designer
Dunya Ramicova

 


Lighting Designer
James F. Ingalls

 


Chorus Master
Donald Nally

 

*Lyric Debut

On the Record

Roger Pines, dramaturg at Lyric Opera, recommends these recorded performances. 

 

On CD 

von Otter, Daniels, Dawson, Croft,  Saks; Les Musiciens du Louvre, cond. Minkowski (DG Archiv)

Walker, Denley, Dawson, Rolfe Johnson, Tomlinson; English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, cond. Gardiner (DG Archiv)

Highlights 

Hunt Lieberson, with J. West; Orchestra of Emmanuel Music, cond. Smith, Harbison (Avie)        

 

Neither of these performances is complete, although there are fewer cuts in Gardiner’s version than Minkowski’s. I have a preference for Gardiner’s native English chorus over Minkowski’s French ensemble, although the orchestral forces are entirely comparable. The choice between the vocal teams is an impossible one, for the singers — all impeccable as to style — are so radically different in timbre; for example, in the Minkowski performance the role of Lichas is assigned to  the matchless American  countertenor David Daniels (who sings it in Lyric’s production), whereas Gardiner assigns it to an admirable — if rather cool-voiced — contralto, Catherine Denley. It’s also purely a personal preference when choosing between two portrayals of such high quality as the Dejaniras of the regal Sarah Walker and the fiery Anne Sofie von Otter — each sings with complete command of both the vocalism and the psychology of this highly emotional character. As with the singers previously mentioned, when one considers the two tenors and two sopranos, one finds Handelians of the absolute first order. The sopranos, Jennifer Smith (Gardiner) and Lynne Dawson (Minkowski), both devastate the listener in the powerful opening aria. Gardiner’s Hercules, English bass John Tomlinson, has an advantage over his counterpart on the Minkowski recording, Gidon Saks, in singing his native tongue, but both singers are similarly vigorous and forthright as Hercules. If you want a more complete version, go with Minkowski, but otherwise I would suggest going on line, finding clips of each performance, and let listening to them decide your choice.

Highlights from Hercules are included in a CD of Bach and Handel sung by the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. This is essential Handel singing by one of America’s most profoundly expressive artists.  In addition to all seven of Dejanira’s arias, Hunt Lieberson performs the “Joys of freedom” duet with Jayne West singing Iole. This material was recorded with a Boston-based ensemble, Emmanuel Music, with whom Hunt Lieberson was closely associated (as she was with the disc’s two conductors, John Harbison and the late Craig Smith).

 


On DVD 

DiDonato, Bohlin, Ernman, Spence, Shimell; Les Arts Florissants, cond. Christie, dir. Bondy (Bel Air Classiques)

 

Only one choice here, but fortunately the performance is exceptional. Luc Bondy’s relentlessly stark, modern-dress production focuses attention squarely on the individuals, especially Dejanira. Joyce DiDonato has immersed herself heart and soul in this complex character, giving a blazing, ferocious performance bursting with dramatic commitment and astounding musical imagination. The team surrounding her is similarly memorable: William Shimell (handsome and hugely charismatic in the title role), whose big scene with DiDonato is riveting; Toby Spence (Nanki-Poo in The Mikado at Lyric in 2010-11) as Hyllus, Malena Ernman (looking somewhat androgynous but very striking nonetheless, and singing Lichas with a very pure-toned  mezzo) as Lichas, and the lovely Ingela Bohlin, whose Iole makes her first entrance clutching her father’s ashes before launching into her first aria. The whole of this cast — and the musically and dramatically very accomplished chorus — make a coherent and dedicated ensemble, under the baton of one of today’s most distinguished Baroque specialists, William Christie.

  

BOLD TYPE = Artist appearing in this opera at Lyric in 2010-11

Video

Audio

Sir Andrew Davis Previews

Hercules

Mighty Hercules has triumphed in war again. But while the hero celebrates, his wife Dejanira seethes — convinced that her husband has been seduced by a winsome captive.

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Backstage at Lyric #114

Discovery Series: Hercules

March 3, 2011

Hercules DiscoveryHercules  languished in obscurity for almost two centuries and didn’t receive its first modern performance until 1925! Director Peter Sellars gives us a new production with a fresh perspective on Handel’s 1745 creation. For this Discovery Session, The University of Chicago’s renowned mythologist Wendy Doniger and the ever-brilliant Sellars delve into the timeless themes and compelling characters of the work now considered one of the supreme achievements of its age.

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Hercules Commentary

Part 1

Hercules
by George Frideric Handel

Commentary by Roger Pines
in collaboration with Nicholas Ivor Martin, Director of Operations

Lyric Opera
Commentaries on CD
2010-2011

2010 Lyric Opera of Chicago
Original sound recordings of musical excerpts used by permission of EMI Classics, courtesy of Angel Records, a division of Capitol Records, Inc. All rights reserved. Post-production services provided by WFMT, Chicago. Mark Travis, Producer.

 

Hercules Commentary

Part 2

Hercules
by George Frideric Handel

Commentary by Roger Pines
in collaboration with Nicholas Ivor Martin, Director of Operations

Lyric Opera
Commentaries on CD
2010-2011

2010 Lyric Opera of Chicago
Original sound recordings of musical excerpts used by permission of EMI Classics, courtesy of Angel Records, a division of Capitol Records, Inc. All rights reserved. Post-production services provided by WFMT, Chicago. Mark Travis, Producer.

 

Hercules Commentary

Part 3

Hercules
by George Frideric Handel

Commentary by Roger Pines
in collaboration with Nicholas Ivor Martin, Director of Operations

Lyric Opera
Commentaries on CD
2010-2011

2010 Lyric Opera of Chicago
Original sound recordings of musical excerpts used by permission of EMI Classics, courtesy of Angel Records, a division of Capitol Records, Inc. All rights reserved. Post-production services provided by WFMT, Chicago. Mark Travis, Producer.

 

Hercules Commentary

Part 4

Hercules
by George Frideric Handel

Commentary by Roger Pines
in collaboration with Nicholas Ivor Martin, Director of Operations

Lyric Opera
Commentaries on CD
2010-2011

2010 Lyric Opera of Chicago
Original sound recordings of musical excerpts used by permission of EMI Classics, courtesy of Angel Records, a division of Capitol Records, Inc. All rights reserved. Post-production services provided by WFMT, Chicago. Mark Travis, Producer.