It's a battle of the sexes in ancient Greece! They say all's fair in love and war, so is it possible to stop a war by withholding love? The women of Sparta and Athens decide to give it a try.
Classical Greece: Athens vs. Sparta
The original play of Lysistrata, a comic drama based on the Peloponnesian War, was written by Aristophanes for presentation in Athens at the late winter festival of the new wine, the Lenaia of 411 B.C.E. This was the lesser of the two drama festivals in honor of Dionysus (the god of wine and revelry) for which poets competed in tragedy and comedy every year through most of the golden classical era of Athens. It was a time of great troubles for Athenian democracy, as oligarchic Sparta and its allies gained considerable advantage in this war with the remnants of the Athenian Empire. Including time for several ineffective truces, the war between the two city-states had lasted for more than 20 years. Several rash decisions made by the democratic Athenian assembly, climaxed by the destruction of over 30,000 troops in a futile invasion of Sicily, had signaled the end of the ground war for Athens, and it would only be a matter of time before Athenian navy could be destroyed. Oligarchic sympathizers in Athens were ready to dismantle the century-old democracy and restore the rule of the few over many.
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From our vantage point of nearly 25 centuries later, we tend to view classical Greece as a unified culture, but actually, the Greeks were a collection of several hundred fiercely independent city-states spread geographically around the Peloponnese, extending north into mainland Greece, west into Italy, and east across the Aegean to Asia Minor. The Greeks were a contentious society, heavily influenced by the heroic age of Homer and Troy, and they spent many summers neglecting their crops while waging war with one other. A few things united them: their common language, their ancestral gods, and the two quintessentially Greek traditions of the Olympic Games and the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi the history of ancient Greece, the city-states had only once united to face a common enemy – to defeat the Persian Expeditions of the early 5th century B.C.E.
Athens was neither the largest nor the wealthiest of the Greek city-states prior to the Persian Wars, but its central location and thriving economy, based on olive oil, ceramics, and silver coinage, as well as an enormous navy, positioned it to control the majority of the Greek states in a loose empire. At its peak, the Athenian treasury received tribute payments from over 150 Greek cities. The City of Athens was run as a democracy, although civic rights were held by less than 20% of the adult population. Females, foreign-born residents, and slaves made up the bulk of the population. The control of the Empire by Athens could be oppressive and brutal, and the ambitious building program of Pericles, financed with tribute revenues, was offensive to many of the allies who were treated more like subject states. Sparta found numerous city-states ready to confront Athenian authority. Finally, when the Athenian navy was destroyed, Athens was reduced to a second-class city, although it retained its pre-eminence in culture and education until the foundation of Alexandria late in the 4th century B.C.E.
Greek Theater Traditions
Anti-war and anti-democratic feelings were strong in Athens at the time Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata. The comedy writer Aristophanes was younger than tragedians Aeschylus and Sophocles and roughly contemporary with Euripides. (Together these four playwrights represent the classic canon of the ancient Greek theater.) As was the custom, Aristophanes would have been recruited to present a comedy at the Lenaia, and would write the drama and its music, direct the play, recruit the chorus and actors, and arrange for costumes, masks, and minimal scenic decoration. The play would be presented in a theater next to the temple of Dionysus at the base of the Acropolis, which seated a crowd of 15,000 on benches that extended up the hill toward the Parthenon – the temple to the virgin goddess Athena
that had been completed 20 years before Pericles. All the chorus and actors were men with masks used to amplify voices and suggest facial features to the back rows of the audience. The spectators were probably all male; women and slaves were excluded. The chorus chanted, sang, and danced their parts accompanied by a reed flute. The comic actors often interacted with the audience directly, something that was forbidden when tragedy was presented. The original theaters in the Periclean Age were fairly primitive, in the open air with broad vistas of the Acropolis and the surrounding countryside, uniting the audience and players in a celebration of the city and its links to the gods. The performance was intended to celebrate the culture and heritage of Athens and Attica, and to summon the gods, especially Dionysus, to witness the honor they were to be given in the drama, thus persuading them to treat the city and its territory most benevolently.
The great city Dionysia had existed for fifty years before the drama contests evolved. Large choruses of 50 men or boys from each of the ten demes (tribes) of the city would chant lengthy hymns on mythological themes in a competition for prizes awarded to the poet and the tribe. The poet Thespis was responsible for bringing one member of the chorus forward to sing alone, and a rough form of dialogue developed around 510 B.C.E (hence the term Thespian). A second actor was added shortly thereafter, and Greek tragedy was the result. Comedy as a form of drama developed last around 25 years later. In comedies, the protagonist was often a sort of scoundrel with a "Great Idea," offered as a solution to a major societal problem. Working out the details, with frequent references to current politicians and public figures, who were usually in attendance, led to much fun for the audience. The protagonist in a tragedy could be male or female, but a female lead in comedy, like Lysistrata, was quite rare. It is thought that Lysia/Lysistrata is based on a real figure, Lysimache, the high priestess of Athena who presided over rituals in the Parthenon. The name, Lysistrata, roughly translated, means "she who scatters armies."
Aristophanes for the 21st Century
The plot and stagecraft used in the original play would appear rather bare to modern tastes. Mr. Adamo, the composer and librettist (giving co-credit to Aristophanes) has very skillfully constructed subplots to enhance the story and make it more palatable. From the original play, he used the anti-war demonstrations, the anti-sex oath (Lysia's Great Idea), and the amorous combat between Myrrhine and Kinesias ("little kitty" and "the rod" in Attic Greek dialect. wink wink). A love plot is added, between Lysia and the Athenian general Nico, which helps to deepen the anti-war theme and increase our interest in the outcome of the war between the sexes.
Troops barely appear in the original play, with the exception of Kinesias and Leonidas, but they play important roles in the operatic action. Both play and opera feature the Spartan Queen, Lampito, prominent in pulling the women together to form their boycott. While a statue of Peace is revealed in the final tableau of the play, in the opera, Lampito reappears late in the final act as the naked goddess, Peace, in a grand epiphany just before the men concede. The play ends exultantly with celebratory hymns to Peace sung by the Athenian and Spartan forces, but the opera shocks the audience with violence at the end, mercifully resolved in a double deus ex machina climax. Action unexpectedly speaks louder than the calm words and music, as peace and forgiveness defeat war and civil strife.
One last word about sex. Aristophanes is really quite conservative in such matters, despite his bawdy sense of humor. He asks us to assume that the only sexual outlet for men at war is their wives at home, and we buy into that pretense as the Great Idea of the comedy. (Think Lucy and Ethel, where Lucy says “I've got a Great Idea! Let's tell Ricky and Fred...."). And the language is truly ribald, with the Greek equivalent of the "F-bomb" dropped regularly throughout the original text. The resolution of the dilemma, after a lot of "Sex Now" demonstrations on both the male and female sides, is truly morally stabilizing, as the soldiers clean up to feast with their wives and lovers, and head home later for marital sex. As the peace is regained, and the polity secured, the gods are served, and the hearth and home are settled. Another Great Idea, carried to an extreme in a comedy, teaches a lesson of moderation worthy of the Greeks.
Program Notes by John Forestner, a member of the Board of the Fort Worth Opera and Chair of the Endowment Committee.
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Composer’s Notes – Mark Adamo
The Nude Goddess is not your mother’s Lysistrata. It’s not even the one by Aristophanes.
That iconic comedy, unveiled in 411 B.C.E., observes the women of Athens and Sparta, disgusted by an endless, pointless war, who barricade themselves in the Athenian treasury and sear 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 playwright 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.
So I decided to build a libretto not from the Lysistrata Aristophanes actually wrote, but the one I think we remember; a play fascinated by the conflicts between two different kinds of human beings (men and women) damned by fate and desire to love without complete understanding. This play uses civic conflicts to illuminate erotic discords, not vice versa. They raise many of the same questions: is aggression ever justified, in love or by law? What magnetizes eros and thanatos? I wanted to scour this opera clean of sexual cliche-1 think both vice and virtue, surrender and assault. beckon as seductively to women as to men, and "who's on top?" isn't the same question as "who's in control?" As with sex, so with war: I could no more rehearse a familiar rhetoric of the evils of war than I could blithely exult in bloodshed.
So 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 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, was first scheduled to premiere at Houston Grand Opera in March 2002. Things change: an opera begun in peacetime to humanize a then-remote pacifist critique found itself two years later scaldingly topical. No drama can ever resolve a political argument. But hearing all sides of an argument voiced by closely imagined personalities can 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 deepen the compassion of this new singing Lysistrata.
Music and Libretto by Mark Adamo
After the play by Aristophanes
Sung in English
Conductor Joe Illick
Director David Gately
Scenic Designer Richard Kagey
Costume Designer Murell Horton*
Lighting Designer Chad Jung
Makeup and Wig Designer Steven Bryant
Stage Manager Kurt Howard
Assistant Director Michael Yeshion
Repetiteur Christopher Devlin
Supertitle Cueing Keith A. Wolfe
Featuring The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra
Tisiphone Corrie Donovan^
Dalecto Hailey Clark*
Megaer Amanda Robie^
The Spartan Men
Leonidas Seth Mease Carico+
Maron Kevin Newell*
Alpheus Ian McEuen*
Philo John Cabrali*
The Athenian Women
Xanthe Jamie-Rose Guarrine*
Myrrhine Ashley Kerr+
Sappho Liliana Piazza*
Kleonike Meaghan Deiter^
Lysia Ava Pine
The Spartan Women
Lampito Alissa Anderson+
Charito Corrie Donovan^
Dika Hailey Clark*
Arete Amande Robie^
The Athenian Men
First Geezer Joel Herold^
Second Geezer John Cabrali*
Nico Scott Scully
Meleagros Logan Rucker^
Kinesias Michael Mayes
Bion Joel Herold^
Aphrodite Jamie-Rose Guarrine
Ares Logan Rucker
+Fort Worth Opera Studio Alumnus
^Fort Worth Opera Studio Artist
All photos by Ellen Appel.