Death Becomes Her
High-flying soprano Erin Morley has dazzled Met audiences in Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Der Rosenkavalier, Dialogues des Carmélites, and more, but her Met career reaches new heights in the current production of Matthew Aucoin’s new opera Eurydice, in which she sings the Underworld-bound heroine. Amid the bustle of rehearsals for this new take on the ancient Orpheus myth, which reimagines the familiar story from Eurydice’s point of view, Morley spoke with the Met’s Jay Goodwin about learning what she calls the most difficult role of her career, and why she thinks Aucoin and librettist Sarah Ruhl’s work exemplifies “what 21st-century opera should be.”
How did you first get involved with Eurydice?
I got a call about the project from Peter Gelb about three years ago. I remember because I was very pregnant with my third child, and he just turned three. So I spent some time with the score, and I fell in love with it. When I got to the end, I remember writing Peter back to say that it was an absolute privilege to be one of the first people to look at this score because it felt very special to me, uniquely beautiful and smart and heartbreaking.
Could you immediately see yourself as Eurydice?
Actually, the role was a little too low for me. But I had a really nice conversation with Matt Aucoin, and we talked about the tessitura. I also asked him if he could add high notes here or there in moments where I felt like the drama called for it. So it was a process that evolved over the past three years, and then we really dove into the details this past summer. I think it takes a very mature composer to understand that if the singer sounds good, then his piece sounds good, and he’s been so game to talk through these things with me.
How does the process of learning a role change for you when you’re working on a completely new contemporary work?
It takes exponentially more time, and I have to be very patient. But also, this is just the hardest thing that I’ve ever had to learn. I’ve never sung an opera preimere, but I have done a fair amount of modern music. This was the hardest challenge I’ve ever faced.
Why is that?
Matt writes atmospheric music a lot of the time, and it’s difficult to understand until you hear the orchestra do it. And he uses unique instrumentation. For instance, he uses so much percussion in Eurydice that it’s hard to fit into the Met pit. So, alone in a practice room with my piano, that’s really hard to grasp. He also writes very mathematical rhythms to mimic natural speech patterns. Once you’ve learned it, it becomes very organic and natural, quite lyrical actually, but it’s hyper-complicated on the page.
Do you have any favorite moments?
In Act II, when Eurydice first enters the Underworld, she sings an aria called “There was a roar,” recounting what she can remember of her experience of dying. Both words and music are brilliant in this moment. Sarah Ruhl has a gift for expressing things in a way that is so unexpected but that makes perfect sense. The way Eurydice describes witnessing her body leave her is so vivid, and the music is just soaring—somewhat Wagnerian in its scope. There are these waves of sound, with an underlying heartbeat that feels like a sort of unsettling anxiety. She doesn’t know where she is, she’s lost her memory, and she’s trying to grasp onto anything she can. So the aria has both emotional and musical range. It’s all over the place, and it gives me so much to express.
What is Eurydice’s personality in this version of the myth?
She’s a deep thinker and a deep feeler. She’s always trying to engage Orpheus in conversation, and he’s always resistant. But I think what’s really interesting is how she’s caught between the relationship she has with her deceased father and the one she has with Orpheus. On her wedding day, she really can’t think of anything except the absence of her father. And when she reunites with her father in the Underworld, we see a little bit more of who she really is. Being with him allows her to be her best self, we might say. I think that’s why she ultimately maybe chooses her father over Orpheus. But it’s not totally clear, even to her, what she wants, and that’s what makes it interesting.
Morley with Nathan Berg, who portrays Eurydice’s father
As you’re describing it, what strikes me is the detail that Sarah and Matt have put into the characterizations and relationships.
Exactly. All those beautiful little details are so delicious. And the opera is not trying to be grand. It’s not self-conscious, or worried about who’s watching it. It just gives us this great dose of honesty. When Orpheus comes to the Underworld to sing his way in, Hades responds with a great line. He says, “Don’t you think you’re enjoying your grief just a little bit too much?” As a composer, you have to have a sense of humor about yourself to really embrace that line.
You already have many triumphs at the Met behind you, but this seems like a major milestone in your career with the company.
It’s not only a milestone in my Met career but also in my career, period. I’ve not done many title roles, or a ton of new opera, and I’ve certainly never been part of a premiere like this. Every day is a pinch-me moment, and I’m having the time of my life. It’s totally bizarre to see my face on these massive posters—I don’t think I will ever get used to that. My first time attending the Met was to see Renée Fleming in Susannah, and I remember standing next to her poster out front and trying to mimic her pose. I still have those pictures from over 20 years ago. So it’s mind-boggling that I’m in this position now. It’s the dream, and I’m hugely honored.
Jay Goodwin is the Met’s Editorial Director.