Death in Folk Opera

by Carl Pierer

SisyphusGeorge Gershwin's “Porgy and Bess” is probably the first piece that comes to mind in the line of folk opera. However, unlike this early predecessor, modern folk operas are entirely different. The following is an attempt at definition: The term can be applied to concept albums that fall in the vague genre of Indie-Folk-Rock. An album that hosts a couple of different characters, voiced by different singers. Tying each song to the next, they unfold a coherent narrative, divided into several acts. Most of the time, it starts with a pair falling in love, only to take a tragic turn later. Intriguingly, they usually end with the death of one or more protagonists. By combining traditional and modern elements of music with captivating story-telling, they develop a way of recounting a tale in a modern way. The story works on many different levels and its meaning is open to interpretation. While they definitely transport a criticism of society and modernity, they can be read to purport an existentialist parable. To defend this claim, an existentialist interpretation of three folk operas shall be presented.

In 2010 Anais Mitchell released her album “Hadestown”, retelling the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Her narrative takes up the original story and infuses it with several layers of metaphorical meaning. The four main characters are Orpheus (Justin Vernon), Eurydice (Anais Mitchell), Persephone (Ani DiFranco) and Hades (Greg Brown). The first song depicts the love between Orpheus and Eurydice in a very poetic way but the important topic of financial insecurity is already hinted at. Hadestown_A-MitchellAfter rich Hades and his mining underworld are introduced, Eurydice is approached by Hades who wants to seduce her to come with him. Starved and tired, she accepts an offer she could not refuse. While the fates (or Haden triplets) sing an interlude defending Eurydice's decision, Orpheus prepares his descent to the underworld. On his way down, first doubts about Eurydice cloud his mind. Hades, realising that a living man managed to enter the underworld, is enraged and wishes to thwart the riot, which Orpheus' arrival incited. In a duet with her husband, Persephone manages to convince Hades to let Orpheus and Eurydice leave together. However, as a businessman, Hades knows how to set conditions. Since he is primarily concerned with the smooth running of his mining industry, he allows them to ascend together, Eurydice following Orpheus, on the sole proviso that he must not look back. But on his way back, the doubt that she may not be following plagues Orpheus. Finally, it overcomes him and as he turns around, Eurydice, who had been with him all along, disappears.

The folk band “The Decemberists” released their album “The Hazards of Love” in 2009. In it they tell the love story of Margaret and William. As Margaret is riding through the deserted taiga, she comes across a wounded fawn. Upon approach, this fawn turns into William and the two fall in love. Margaret finds herself pregnant with William's child soon after. William confesses his love for Margaret but the mysterious Queen of the forest is already approaching. An unexplained relationship between the Queen and William is revealed. The Queen, having taken care of William when he was in need, demands that he should abandon Margaret. William can convince the Queen to grant him a further night with Margaret if she can reclaim him forever after. Next, the fourth character, the Rake is introduced. His short and tragic story begins when his wife died upon giving birth to their third child. Unable to cope with the responsibility, the Rake kills his children in order to regain his former freedom. The Queen orders him to abduct and rape Margaret. To secure his success and prevent William from protecting Margaret, the Queen rages a river. William cannot cross the water until he finally promises his life to the Queen upon return. Meanwhile, the Rake tries to violate Margaret, but the ghosts of his murdered children suddenly appear before him and interfere. William arrives and can escape with Margaret to the river. This time, the river takes their lives. They proclaim their love once more, now that they have moved beyond the Hazards of Love.

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Composed by Annie Bacon and recorded with the funding of a Kickstarter initiative, the album “The Folk Opera” was released in 2010. Elizabeth (Elizabeth Greenblatt) takes her demented Aunt Sara (Savannah Jo Lack) to a small town to get her car fixed. However, the mechanic is not at the garage, even though Elizabeth called in advance to make sure he would be. As memories come up of how the town used to be and her childhood, Elizabeth starts to talk to her aunt. But stuck in the broken down car and with her dementia, Sara does not even recognise her own niece. While they are having an argument, an old man Henry DeFaunt (Joel Dean) comes along and starts to flirt with Sara. Undeterred by her dementia he persists and takes both Sara and Elizabeth for a cup of coffee. In the café Henry tells the story of Rita (Annie Bacon), the waitress. Elizabeth calls again at the garage where finally the mechanic shows up to fix her car. But at the same time a tragic incident happens at the café: A fire starts in the kitchen and somebody tries to extinguish the burning oil with water. The fire eventually claims the lives of Sara and Henry. In her death, Sara suddenly regains her memory and sings her last song, remembering all her beloved ones and how they had died. In the fire's aftermath, Rita laments the loss of her café. The townspeople comfort both Rita and Elizabeth. In the end, Elizabeth can accept Sara's death.

The three examples of folk operas given can be read to display the struggle for the protagonists' authenticity. Authenticity should not be understood as the shallow recommendation of cheap self-help books, but as the response to the threat of nihilism. Finding all external sources of meaning tumble down, humans have to generate their own meaning. They are fundamentally responsible for their being. The curious fact of folk operas ending in the death of their protagonists can be interpreted as the lyrical elaboration of an idea associated with the early Heidegger.

A very brief sketch of the ideas Heidegger develops in his book “Sein und Zeit” (Being and Time) could run along the following lines: In his inquiry for the meaning of Being, Heidegger finds a very particular kind of being, which he calls Dasein and which corresponds to human existence. It is special because Dasein has the ability to reflect on its being. Therefore, Dasein can actively influence its way of being. This can be done authentically or inauthentically. The former is achieved when Dasein understands what it means to be Dasein. The latter is a failure to do so. An example of such an inauthentic existence is fleeing into an impersonal “They” (Man, in German). Passively following role models perpetuated by what They say means to deny the Dasein's self by unreflectingly accepting Their identity instead. This is where the notion of death ties in. Death, properly understood, is an integral part of Dasein. It should not be seen as the endpoint of a journey but rather as inextricably linked to being. This is to say, Dasein is “being-unto-death”. Death, in this sense, is not the terminating instance of Dasein, it is Dasein's bearing towards its own finitude. The authentic Dasein realises its own temporality and does not flee death. It acknowledges death as its “ownmost possibility”. This insight should not be trivialised. Of course we all know that we are going to do die at some point. But that is not enough for this We here is impersonal. We know that humans die and we have all seen one of our beloved ones pass away, but this does not bridge the gap between the others and us. Demske points out that in saying “sure, I will die one day” we supplement a “but not yet”. Denying our own finitude leads to an inauthentic life because an integral part of Dasein is externalised. Dasein's death is fictitiously deferred to others. If, instead, death is anticipated, Dasein can move beyond the They and achieve its own totality. First, in understanding its proper finitude, Dasein comes to see itself as distinct from the They: Dasein has to die its own death. Second, Dasein then realises that all of its actions could have been taken by somebody else. Somebody else could love my love in my stead, or written this essay, or gone to Paris on a holiday trip. But, while these actions are anonymous, the collection of my possibilities and the attribution of significance to them cannot be achieved by anyone other than me. Therefore, authentic being requires acknowledging death as part of Dasein.

In Hadestown, death comes in many guises. First of all, it is Eurydice's going with Hades. Her death resembles suicide, but the death is rather intellectual than actual. Going with Hades, giving in to her material desires means to forsake her more ideological convictions. Her whimsical decision to die does not amount to an understanding of death. Rather paradoxically, it is her fear for death that makes her go with Hades, since she cannot support the ever present threat. Orpheus, on the other hand, is just as inauthentic a player in this story as Eurydice. They both flee death, they conceive of death as something external and incompatible with their existence, so they live an inauthentic life. Orpheus goes to great expenses, he even descends to the underworld in order to recover Eurydice and to affirm life. Despite his heroic act, his venture is doomed for it is based on a fundamental misconception. Instead of accepting death as an integral part of Dasein, he tries to defy it. The opera's profundity becomes apparent in how far he gets with it: He makes his way down to Hades, his love for Eurydice and life, his denial of death strike a chord with Persephone and he incites a riot. A life in inauthenticity is possible. In the end, Hades even lets them both leave together. But eventually, as Orpheus's investigation comes to a close, the moral of the story is presented: death is not to be defeated. It cannot be escaped and to conceive of it as something external is bound to fail. In the last song, Eurydice and Persephone intone a tune that calls Camus and Sisyphus to memory: “Some flowers bloom when the green grass grows/ my praise is not for them/ but the one who blooms in bitter snow/ I raise my cup to him.”

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The Hazards of Love, too, can be understood in existentialist terms. If we understand Margaret and William to collectively represent Dasein, their love at the end of the story is Dasein's full understanding of its own being. Yet, Margaret and William first have to undergo a transformation, because only in the face of death does the love story become the protagonists' deliberate choice. Their falling in love at the beginning is equivalent to Dasein's asking the question of being. In loving they try to discover the meaning of Dasein. But soon the Queen, the existential conscience intrudes, proclaiming that self-forlorn love is not the right response. It is she, who saved William from an inauthentic life, she secured that he could set out on this journey in the first place. She reminds William of this fact and in the ensuing exchange William promises to give himself over to her. Yet, this promise only reveals his misconception. Existential conscience, the imminence of death is not something to be dealt with later. Just as in Hadestown, this denial causes Williams inauthenticity. He fails to see that his own death cannot be avoided by saying “we all die at some point”. Only after Margret's abduction, when he is forced to trade his own life for being with her, does he fully accept death. This insight renders them and their love authentic. By accepting death, he manages to cross the river and to be reunited with Margaret. Eventually, they both move beyond the hazards of love and inauthenticity in their understanding of death.

Annie Bacon's Folk Opera, despite its lack of supernatural beings, conveys a similar message. The central topic in this opera is memory and forgetting. While Elizabeth is reminded of her past, Sara is continually forgetting. With their preoccupation with their current situation they ignore death and put it off. Frantically living in the moment and burdened with everyday tasks, the question of death does not even arise. The conflict between Elizabeth's dwelling in the past and Sara's captivity in the present can be read this way. This incompatibility is based on their ignoring of the future. Since neither of them is willing to understand death, their being is incomplete and not fully their own. They fail to appropriate the Dasein by falling into an impersonal “they”. However, even while the two are confined to their respective time, their grip on it is incomplete. Elizabeth's own memory seems to betray her. The mechanic is not at the garage even though she remembers him saying that he would be. Sara is not completely enveloped in the present with Henry DeFaunt's arrival. His presence instantiates a past. This becomes clear when Sara starts to remember an earlier love in a duet with him. Their temporal incompleteness points to their inauthenticity. Without understanding the full extent to which Dasein is temporal, it fails to take responsibility. Only when death imposes itself and takes Sara away do they manage to acknowledge the true meaning of Dasein. Sara, dying, sings about the death of her beloved ones and suddenly she can extend herself beyond the present moment: She remembers past and is able to embrace future. Having understood death, she comes to a full being and overcomes her dementia. The fire and Sara's death enable Elizabeth to step outside her contemplative mood and to realise the temporality of being. She breaks out of the prison of memory and can accept Sara's passing away.

Folk operas, if accepted as a genre of their own, take up and lyrically elaborate the topic of death. Using traditional instruments and music, they tell a story of existential struggle for authenticity. Through love and with a distinct project the protagonists try to affirm life, as opposed to death. However, their ventures are doomed, for they are based on a misconception. Ultimately, the protagonist's death serves to demonstrate that understanding Dasein's finitude is required for an authentic life.

Demske, James M. (1970): “Being, Man & Death – A Key to Heidegger”, The University Press of Kentucky

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