John Eaton: Involving Audiences in the Sweep of the Music

John Eaton
Interview Excerpt #5

FRANK J. OTERI: You’ve said that contemporary subject matter doesn’t really interest you that much in opera. What do you see the role that opera has as a communicative tool to an audience?

JOHN EATON: Well, opera began with an intent to resuscitate Greek drama, that is, modern opera as we know it. And, of course, the other root would be out of the ritual dramas of the church. And I wish that we had the capacity with our operas to do what Aeschylus did in the Oresteia, for instance; it was really establishing trial by jury. He was making a fundamental statement about the very basis of communal life. And I think that opera, because of the power of music, and because of opening up (…oh, this sounds corny…) both sides of the brain, has the ability to affect people with the vision, has the capacity for bringing a society together that is not found in any other art form. However, like the ancient Greek dramas, I want both sides of the brain to be open, you know, I want it to be a full experience.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it’s so interesting you bring up the Oresteia. The first two plays in the trilogy, Agamemnon and Choephori, are very much like theater as we know it with action, suspence and linear plot scenarios, but the third play, Eumenides is almost like a church service; it really isn’t like theater in the sense that we know it nowadays. It’s very much a sort of call and response between one character and a chorus, which is in fact a much older kind of thing. And I think that’s why probably there are so many productions of Agamemnon and not the whole Trilogy, because modern audiences would have problems with the last part… I saw a wonderful production of Agamemnon a number of years back at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park that Joseph Papp did, that I thought was really interesting because they did all the choral stuff in the ancient Greek and didn’t bother translating it. At first, I thought, God, you know, this is terrible, but it was wonderful because it functioned as ritual instead of functioning as theatre which is the hybrid form that Aeschylus was working with. The theatrical elements were there but so were the ritual elements, and I think that this hybrid ritual theater that we’ve lost can only be brought back in opera.

JOHN EATON: And of course, the Greek dramas were so involved with music, so much more involved with music… If you look at the timing of many of the Greek dramas from the theatrical point of view, it’s all off, and I think the reason for that is that music played a very important part. Dance played a very important part. The choruses used to have to practice for hours, you know, just to get something right. And I’m sure there was a certain amount of pitch inflection involved as well. There’s a classicist who’s a friend of mine who pointed out to me that when the Spartans had taken Athens, the Athenians performed certain choruses of Euripides, and the Spartans were in tears and they decided to save Athens, he said, "if you look at those choruses and read them, you know, they’re not that moving, they’re not that much. There must have been something else involved."

FRANK J. OTERI: It was the music.

JOHN EATON: I’m sure it was the music. We know that there was a great deal of choreography involved in the performances, and we know that there were instruments involved.

FRANK J. OTERI: And we also know that they used quartertones.


FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs] Which is a part of it, too.