The very first modern opera was written in about 1400 by a man named Peri–an Italian, of course–called Euridice, which you surely know is the name of Orpheus’s girlfriend. You remember the story? Euridice dies and is carried off to the underworld. Orpheus is so despondent that he will not play or sing anything happy, and everything in the world is sad, so the gods allow him to go to the underworld to get her. If she goes with him all the way out to the sunlit lands, she will be restored to life, but the condition is that he cannot look back to see if she really is following him. If he does, she will be lost to him forever.
If you have not read this tale, go, right now, and read it. Spoilers follow.
Still here? Of course she goes with him. Of course he cannot stand not being immediately reunited with her, and looks back, right on the threshold of life, and she fades away. It’s a great story. It’s so great that when, almost two thousand years later, a dramatist was looking for a subject for his new musical form, he chose this story.
The kicker? The second opera ever written (and the earliest one still performed today) was written by a man named Monteverdi, from the same area of Italy, and he called it Orfeo. That’s when you know you have a terrific story, when everyone is copying it.
Why is this story so powerful? I think it’s the bittersweetness. Some people like their lemonade sour, some like it sweet, but I like Brazilian lemonade (which is really limeade), because it’s bittersweet. I like really good dark chocolate (not Hershey’s, don’t get me started). And I like Pay It Forward and La Vita e Bella, though they break my heart.
I’m approaching the end of writing a new novel, called (right now) The Temple of Sand and Steel, and I can see the ending coming, and it sucks. Hard. It’s a dark novel anyway, filled with death and grief and mayhem, betrayal and lies and hopelessness, but through it there is a core of resistance to the dark, a commitment, in spite of all reasons to abandon it, to doing a quality job and retaining honor. I feel like that should be rewarded, and it will be, to some degree, but I also feel like the classic stories of honor and courage have a bitter tang to them, mixed with the sweet. Oedipus. Malcolm Reynolds. Frodo Baggins. Regulus. So someone is going to die, and probably more than one someone.
Maybe it’s just me, but I think the recipe for joy is happiness+pain. I’m not McCoy. I’m Kirk. I need my pain.
P.S. If you’re one of my beta readers, expect that book to show up in your inbox on Groundhog Day. If you’re not, and you want to read my novels before you have to pay for them, send me an email to chris at iamchrisjones dot com.