Change the universe until Iphigenia lives (November 3 newsletter)

A woman walked by carrying an instrument case. I was sitting with an old friend in the Mass MoCA courtyard, both of us in winter jackets and drinking coffee in the sun, and we were laughing in clear pleasure and astonishment, because the place was alive with people. Musicians took pictures with arms around each other, tech crew wheeled a gaggle of music stands — and I realized why they were all here on a November Monday morning. They’re here for Iphigenia.

This week, they are rehearsing a new opera, or challenge to opera. Wayne Shorter, internationally acclaimed composer and saxophonist with 11 Grammy awards to his name, and esperanza spalding, bassist, vocalist and four-time Grammy winner, are taking on a Greek classic and giving her a new voice.

Iphigenia is Agamemnon’s daughter, born in Mycenae about 1250 BCE. And until today, almost the only thing I knew about her was that she died. In Greek drama, her father sacrificed her for a wind to get his ships to Troy.

But it turns out, in some stories, she lives. Artemis steps in and leaves a deer in her place, and Iphigenia walks away, like Isaac saved by a ram. As they write their new work, spaulding and Shorter say, they are opening to all Iphigenia could be, if she were not forced to die in her early 20s — and what opera could be if women lived.

Iphigenia means strong-born, born to strength. She would have lived near the southern coast of Greece when Troy was a city of gardens and open courtyards, wooden flutes and fountains, a short sail away before the raiding army leveled it.

Shorter imagines a refrain to her in low rippling, climbing tones. And the collaboration is growing. As spalding has worked on Iphigenia’s words, she has asked Joy Harjo, Safiya Sinclair and Ganavya Doraiswamy to write with her.

I read that and almost stopped breathing, and then wanted to dance around the living room — and to hear them. Imagine this for a moment. Joy Harjo, the National Poet Laureate, joining her voice with Ganavya Doraiswamy, a widely recognized vocalist, writer and translator who sings jazz with lyrics from Tamil poetry, and Safiya Sinclair, a nationally acclaimed writer holding the Carribean in her own a tough, supple, contemporary poems.

Safiya took time to talk with me on a November day in 2016, just after the election — it was a hard and vulnerable time, and she was here in the year she won the Whiting Award for her first book, Cannibal, and came to Lenox as an Amy Clampitt Fellow. We talked about fear and strength and survival.

She opens that book with words I can imagine Iphigenia saying to the man who promised her a wedding and led her to another kind of altar.

‘Father unbending father unbroken …
father I was forged in the fire of your self …’

And then she goes on, a young woman away from home, feeling the pull of her roots without a way to return.

‘Have I forgotten it,
wild conch-shell dialect …
if somehow our half-sunken
hearts could answer, I would cup
my mouth in warm bowls
over the earth …’

Iphigenia leaves home, leaves her father and his wars. Where can she go then? In some stories she comes to a temple of Artemis, to an island — what would that sisterhood have looked like? In some stories, her brother is equally exiled and finds her. I wonder now where can she go when she has time to make her own choices, and how it would feel to hear her voice here in the old mill on the Hoosic River, with the late oak leaves shining copper and bronze at dusk.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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