O Sister, Where Art Thou? Anais Mitchell occupies Greek myth in Hadestown

Boy meets girl, girl gets bitten by a snake, dies and goes to hell, boy goes to rescue her, deals with the devil, but blows it at the end.

The great thing about Greek mythology is that you don’t have to have studied Greek mythology to know the basics: Helen of Troy, the Trojan Horse, you name it. The threads of these tales are everywhere in modern culture. And the stories still hold up 2,500 years later. The Greeks must’ve done something right.

Vermont singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell would certainly agree to that. She based her bluegrass folk-rock opera Hadestown on Orpheus and Eurydice (boy and girl, see above), which she says she was first exposed to in a children’s book. In making O Brother Where Art Thou? – superimposing Homer’s Odyssey on a Depression-era road movie – the Coen Brothers admitted hadn’t actually read the original story at all.

Playing Wednesday and Thursday at the Arden Theatre, Hadestown transports Greek myth to a company mining town somewhere in Appalachia during the Great Depression – or some dystopian future, if you prefer.

“It’s not meant to be historically accurate,” Mitchell says. “It’s an archetypal story out of time. It’s about poverty and wealth and it’s a love story.”

In this case, the devil – Mr. Hades – is the boss of the mining company and the Hadestown it built, “a place of wealth and security, but you have to give up certain things to go there,” Mitchell says. Orpheus and Eurydice are a poor couple exploited by Hades. Instead of a snake, Eurydice is lured into the place of wealth and security. Orpheus goes after her, and all hell, so to speak, breaks loose. Cue the banjo. Mitchell likens the underworld to a mining community in someplace like Virginia, “with all the wealth being under the ground, but also extreme poverty and exploitation,” Mitchell says, adding that the setting of her opera allows for more of a “political streak” than the original myth. While moved by Appalachian region and its rich legacy of folk music, Mitchell says the four years preceding the Obama administration were particularly inspiring, if “inspiring” is the right word.

“I always say that the entire opera was influenced by the W. Bush era – the second term,” she says. “I think for me there was a wrestling with a sense of despair and helplessness that a lot of people were feeling back then. And one of the central themes of the story is: Should you care? Should you try? Or should you just accept that the rules are the rules and not struggle?”

The basic idea in the opera, she goes on, is that common people suffer when business and government become the same thing, and “if it were writ large politically it would be really terrifying.”

Feel free to laugh grimly at this point.

Current events have plenty of resonance for both Mitchell and her ever-changing opera. She was born and raised by hippie parents and no TV on a sheep farm in Vermont, so it’s not hard to see how her values were shaped.

“Vermont is a unique state,” she says. “It’s off the grid. A lot of people go to Vermont to be away from the mainstream, to grow their own vegetables and chop their own wood. There are folks who have been living there forever, generations of people, and they would tend to be more conservative, but often times it leans towards a libertarian idea, which isn’t that far off in a way than the radical leftist perspective. They just want to live their lives without a lot of interference.”

Hadestown was born in Vermont. While originally imagined in a theatrical setting with costumes and lots of movement on stage, the opera has turned into more of a “radio novella”-style concert tour, especially since the soundtrack album came out a year ago (featuring Ani DiFranco and recent alternative Grammy winner Bon Iver). In an unusual move, instead of touring with a very large group, Mitchell recruits local performers to be in the Hadestown Orchestra at each tour stop, which of course necessitates lots of rehearsals. She describes the work involved as “ridiculous,” but calls it a “cultural exchange program” meant to celebrate each city’s music scene. Locals appearing in the Arden Theatre production include Stephen Tchir, Kris Demeanor and Andrea House. Calgary singer-songwriter John Rutherford will play the part of the evil Mr. Hades.

The next step, Mitchell says, is moving Hadestown into a larger, more elaborate musical theatre setting – which is so natural you can almost see it rendered some mad bluegrass sideshow circus on Broadway. It’s not a world Mitchell is used to.

“Musical theatre is a lot different,” she says. “You have these demands of storytelling. And there’s a crudeness of getting the story across that I instinctively shy away from as a songwriter. I love the metaphor, the open endedness of what you can do with language and music. The revision process of this show has been a push and pull. We want to get across what’s happening, but we don’t want to be like (sings), ‘Oh, my name is Orpheus and I’m walking down the street now …’”

No, we don’t want to be doing that. Clearly a delicate touch is called for.

Mitchell goes on, “Our aim is to move it back into a theatre and have a life in a proper theater world. That would be my dream.”