Anais Mitchell: Orpheus As Folk Opera In 'Hadestown' The ancient tale of Orpheus searching for his beloved in the underworld has been told many times by famous composers such as Monteverdi and Offenbach. Now, the desolate journey of Orpheus is presented in a new way: as a folk opera written by singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell. Hadestown features performances by Justin Vernon, Ani DiFranco and Greg Brown.

Orpheus As Folk Opera In 'Hadestown'

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The ancient tale of Orpheus searching for his beloved in the underworld has been told many times in many ways. The Greek hero with musical superpowers was portrayed by the composer Monteverdi in the early 17th century.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing)

SIMON: In the 1800s, Jacques Offenbach told the story in his famous opera where gods and goddesses danced the cancan.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Now a CD coming out this Tuesday presents the desolate journey of Orpheus as a polka.

(Soundbite of song, "Wait for Me")

Mr. JUSTIN VERNON (Singer): (as Orpheus)(Singing) ...ain't no compass, brother. There ain't no map. Just a telephone wire and a railroad track. Keep on walking and don't look back 'til you get to the (unintelligible)...

SIMON: Justin Vernon, also known as Bon Iver, Ani DiFranco and Greg Brown are just a few in the musical cast of "Hadestown" by the Vermont singer and songwriter Anais Mitchell. She joins us now from the studios of Cliff House Audio in Montpelier, Vermont. Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. ANAIS MITCHELL (Singer-Songwriter, "Hadestown"): Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: Now, this project dates to 2006, right?

Ms. MITCHELL: Yeah. The very first songs that I wrote for the show actually came from a couple years before that. But the first time we put the show up as a stage production in Vermont was 2006.

SIMON: Is it true that you didn't actually set out to portray the story of Orpheus but the songs just led you there?

Ms. MITCHELL: Yeah, that's true. A few lines kind of came out of nowhere, which sort of happens, you know, in songwriting. And the first one was...

(Singing) wait for me, I'm (unintelligible)...

(Speaking)...which turns up in the opera. And the next lines were in my garters and pearls with what melody did you barter me from the wicked underworld, and sort of followed it into the labyrinth and it seems to want to tell this story.

(Soundbite of song, "Hey, Little Songbird")

Mr. GREG BROWN (Singer): (as Hades) (Singing) Hey, little songbird, give me a song. I'm a busy man, and I can't stay long. I got clients to call. I got orders to fill. I got walls to build. I got riots to (unintelligible) and they're giving me hell back in Hades.

SIMON: We mentioned some of the very gifted artists working with you - Justin Vernon, who sings the part of Orpheus, and you are the voice of Eurydice. You sing a duet with Hades, played by Greg Brown. So Greg Brown's voice is a voice that would make you do just about anything the devil wanted.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MITCHELL: You're right about that. You know, it's funny because I'd envisioned him singing this part for a long time. But every time I listen to that, when his voice comes in on that song, I want to laugh, like, for joy, because you almost feel his voice in your body before you even hear it. You know, it's got these weird subterranean tones. So certainly for the king of the underworld, it's totally right.

SIMON: Let's listen to another of his songs, "Why We Build the Wall."

(Soundbite of song, "Why We Build the Wall")

Mr. BROWN: (Singing) Why do we build the wall, my children, my children, why do we build the wall?

Ms. MITCHELL: (Singing) Why do we build the wall, we build the wall to keep us free. That's why we build the wall, we build the wall to keep us free.

Mr. BROWN: (Singing) How does the wall keep us free?

Ms. MITCHELL: Oftentimes I'll really labor over the lyrics of the song and edit and re-edit things. And that one almost popped out fully formed. And it ended up being kind of like an anthem for "Hadestown." And it's really about Hades and the circular logic that is part of "Hadestown." It's meant to provoke questions rather than provide answers.

SIMON: We're talking to the singer and songwriter Anais Mitchell about her new CD, "Hadestown." You're named after the famous Anais?

Ms. MITCHELL: I am, yeah. I'm named after Anais Nin.

SIMON: Your father was an English professor, right?

Ms. MITCHELL: That's true.

SIMON: And what brought your interest in music, musical theater, songwriting?

Ms. MITCHELL: Well, words have always been really important to me. And you know, they say if you want to be a poet nowadays you better learn to play guitar 'cause there's not much work for you otherwise. And I think for sure learning to write songs was a way of being a writer and being able to be heard.

And I'm also - I've always been really interested in, like, storytelling and kind of narrative songs - old British ballads and stuff. And music theater is one big way to do that, you know, tell a story.

(Soundbite of song, "I Raise My Cup to Him")

Ms. ANI DIFRANCO (Singer): (as Persephone) (Singing) Songbirds sing when a sun shines bright. My praise is not for them, but the one who sings in the dead of night. I raise my cup to him...

SIMON: I want to ask you about, I guess, the last song sung by Persephone. What can you tell us about this song?

Ms. MITCHELL: Well, that song - "I Raise My Cup to Him" it's called - it's a song that Persephone sings along with Eurydice back in the underworld after Orpheus has turned back and sort of lost Eurydice forever. And it's Persephone raising a toast to him and basically saying that it's not succeeding that is important but trying as hard as you can in the face of futility. And that I'd say is as close as you can come to a moral of Hadestown.

(Soundbite of song, "I Raise My Cup to Him")

Ms. DIFRANCO: (Singing) To Orpheus and all that I've got, good night, brothers, good night...

SIMON: Ms. Mitchell, did okay, I've heard there's a story that you once invited Leonard Cohen to dinner.

Ms. MITCHELL: It's true. I made a YouTube video of myself playing a song for Leonard Cohen and inviting him to dinner at my house in Vermont, but I haven't heard back from him yet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: And he's so close, right? Right over the border there in Quebec.

Ms. MITCHELL: Well, yeah. He's in Montreal. You know, I offered to go pick him up if he needed a ride.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, maybe he's listening now. Invitation still stands then, right?

Ms. MITCHELL: Still standing.

SIMON: Okay. Well, thanks so much.

Ms. MITCHELL: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me on the show.

SIMON: Anais Mitchell's folk opera, "Hadestown," comes out Tuesday on Righteous Bay Records. She joined us from the studios of Cliff House Audio in Montpelier, Vermont.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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