The Orphic Death of Ray Johnson
an opera by Elodie Lauten
Libretto by Michael Andre

Composer's notes


Orfreo was premiered on June 2, 2004 at Merkin Concert Hall. It was produced & commissioned by Harpsichord Unlimited, and performed by the Queen's Chamber Band featuring Elaine Comparone, harpsichord and Marshall Coid, countertenor, conducted by Robert Palmer. The CD was released in December 2004 on Studio 21.

What's in a name… Orfreo is Orf-Ray-o, Orfeo reenacted by Ray…Ray Johnson, the conceptual artist who created mail art, disappeared in 1995. We know that he planned the date and time at which he would jump into the Peconic River, but the exact motives of his suicide remain a mystery. I have never known Ray personally, but I can relate to his despair. I found out about Ray and his art through his friends, Bobby Buecker and Michael Andre, who wrote the libretto. Paradoxically, Ray's art is about attitude and humor: puns, absurdity and fun in daring. In the Soho art scene of the sixties and seventies, Ray Johnson was an important player who deserves to be remembered.

Orfreo relates Ray's experience to the classic myth of Orpheus and Dante's Divine Comedy. The river is the Lethe, the water that makes you forget, borderline between the dead and the living. The action takes place by the river at the moment he is about to cross over to the other side, to join his beloved Euridyce/Beatrice. It is in real time, in one short act. Orfreo interacts with characters from hell: Lethe the River, a Crow who is actually Persephone in disguise, and a Cat (or Lion).

The mood of the piece is complex as there are two sets of subtext: the lyrical subtext of Orfeo, metaphor of the artist's despair and longing for his beloved, and the iconoclastic subtext of Ray's attitude and humorous approach to art. The Crow lightens the mood with off-the-cuff comments and quotes: "I'm not going to be a poet, that's for sure…"; as the lion declares: "Death is the only emperor" the crow replies: "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream" (quote from Wallace Stevens); the harpsichordist suddenly speaks: "lawyers lie but lyres - and lions - tell truth" (quote from Gregory Corso). In the exuberant finale, Orfreo is helped across the river by his new found friends and returns from hell with the two women - only one thing is certain, neither of them is Eurydice.

In the fall of 2002 Michael Andre sent me a two-page poem. He kept sending me countless, slight variations of these two pages, which inspired me to use the text freely. I broke it up into scenes, assigned the lines to the characters. I suggested the animal characters and Michael liked the idea. The two Orfreo arias are each built from three lines of the poem. I used both repetition and deconstruction in the vocal setting. The four singers: countertenor (Orfreo), mezzo (Lethe), soprano (Crow) and bass-baritone (Lion) act in turn as soloists and chorus. Contrasting dynamics are built into the piece to express a certain ambiguity of mood, neither light nor dark, but bitter and sweet: from very soft parts with harpsichord and cello to excited tuttis (harpsichord, string quartet, contrabass, oboe and flute). The musical style is neo-post-minimalist, an evolution of minimalism with neo-Baroque elements and fast moving chords over an implied fundamental.
Elodie Lauten December 2004

Countertenor, soprano, mezzo, bass-baritone,
harpsichord, string quartet, contrabass, flute, oboe.
Time: 30'

The poet: Michael Andre
The composer: Elodie Lauten
The artist: Ray Johnson
Orfreo/Orfeo: Marshall Coid, countertenor
Crow/Persephone: Meredith Borden, soprano
Lethe: Charlotte Surkin, mezzo-soprano
Lion/Cat: Peter Castaldi, bass baritone
The harpsichordist: Elaine Comparone
Conductor: Rudolph Palmer

Copyright Elodie Lauten 2005