a theocritean ogresse at the met

Last night’s world premiere of Ogresse at the Metropolitan Museum combined a stunning array of musical styles–from banjo-driven Americana to Parisian jazz–into a unified tale of loneliness, companionship, and revenge. Performed by lyricist/vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant and composer/conductor Darcy James ArgueOgresse tells the story of a beastly woman who “lived alone / with the birds and the trees / with her memories.” When a man goes to the forest with plans to murder the ogresse for devouring a girl from the neighboring town, they develop an unexpected love for each other and must sift through their hostilities.

Much richer than just a reconceived Beauty and the Beast, this one-woman song cycle is a dense, virtuosic showcase of musical talents of all stripes: vocalist, pianist, saxophonist, percussionist, and a dozen others. Paralleling the variety of the skills and instruments on stage, Argue’s score surveys a huge number of genres and textures, well beyond his earlier big-band recordings. Some songs in Ogresse call to mind the lyricism of Cole Porter tunes in the Great American Songbook, buoyed by foot-tapping arrangements:

She’s big
She’s bigger than a tree
She’s vast
She’s vaster than the sea
She opens her mouth
It’s the size of a planet
If you get too close
Then she’ll fit you right in it

Warren Wolf’s xylophone playing–both as backdrop and solo–stands out in many of these songs, as does Brandon Seabook’s work on the guitar and banjo, which drives Ogresse‘s narrative moments.

There is so much to say about Ogresse on its own terms, but as a classicist watching last night, I could not stop thinking about Theocritus’ Idyll 11, a poem that narrates the cyclops Polyphemus’ unrequited love for the sea nymph Galatea. I’m not sure if Salvant and Argue know Theocritus’ poem–if they do, they have beautifully reinterpreted this ancient bucolic through another woodsy outcast and (sometimes-)comically poignant melodies.

Back to Theocritus. Conscious of his one-eyed ugliness and isolated in his unpolished rusticity, Polyphemus finds solace in his wistful singing for Galatea (you can find a good, readable translation by Diane Arnson Svarlien at Diotima):

He often sat alone, awake at dawn
Among the piles of seaweed by the shore;
Melting with desire he sang to her,
Leaving his sheep to find their own way home.
Wounded deep, the barb beneath his heart
Of Aphrodite’s arrow, he found this balm;
From the high cliffs staring out to sea
He sang this song:

“White Galatea, whiter than cottage cheese,
Why cast away the one who loves you?
Softer than lamb’s wool, springier than the knees
Of a newborn calf, bright as an unripe grape,
Why come near when sweet sleep holds me still
Then disappear when sweet sleep lets me go?
I wake to see you bolting up the hill
Like the sheep who saw the gray wolf.


Delightful girl, I know why you run away.
My looks are frightening. I know it’s true,
One long shaggy eyebrow runs from ear to ear
With one huge eye below. My nose is flat
And wide. Yet, as I am, I keep a thousand head
Of cattle, and from them I fill a vat
Of the best milk to drink. All year round
I never run out of cheese, not even in
The coldest winter. My baskets are always full.”


And so the Cyclops shepherded the ills
Of his desire with song, the Muses’ salve,
More surely than he could with doctor’s bills.

There are moments in Salvant’s libretto that recapture this lonely, idyllic sadness. To take one example, Salvant’s ogresse echoes Polyphemus’ disgust with his own appearance and resignation to a life of solitude:

But who’s gonna love
A big black beast like me
Who’s gonna love me
But a freak like me

Ogresse‘s title character even reenacts Polyphemus’ attempts to soothe his longing for Galatea through song:

And now, when you’re gone
I try to soften the sting
By singing the songs that you sing
I sing to you, my darling

Salvant’s story is, of course, not a straight retelling of this Theocritean vignette, and in fact the conclusion of Ogresse takes a page from something like Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men rather than a serene Hellenistic idyll. But the perennial themes and complex character at the center of Theocritus’ poem suggest that Salvant and Argue have produced something not simply of the literary moment. Instead, they have captured the richness of the bucolic tradition and successfully coupled it with the sonic bustle of big city jazz.

Cécile McLorin Salvant and Darcy James Argue will perform Ogresse in Newark, Washington, and Princeton in November.