Persephone in the Late Anthropocene

Movement I: May 2015, Apohadion Theater
Premiere: May 2016, SPACE Gallery

Persephone in the Late Anthropocene is a modern spoken opera that combines poetry, music, installation, and movement/theater to re-imagine the Persephone myth (the ancient story of why we have winter months) to reflect our contemporary experience of climate change and unprecedented human impact on the earth.

Audiences of Persephone experienced the project as an immersive opera performance (with a live quartet and actors), as an interactive art space, and as a platform for community conversations with representatives from fields vital to the discussion of climate change, including environmental science, agriculture, art, education, and human rights.

Persephone in the Late Anthropocene is a collaboration of Librettist Megan Grumbling, Composer Denis Nye, Visual Artist Jenna Crowder, Theater Director Tess Van Horn, and Lighting Designer Corey Anderson.

A run of the first movement was performed at the Apohadion in Portland, Maine, in May 2015. The full opera was performed in May 2016 at SPACE Gallery in Portland, Maine.


Movement I: May 2015, Apohadion Theater
Premiere: May 2016, SPACE Gallery

Created by
Megan Grumbling and Denis Nye

Production Team
Megan Grumbling: Librettist
Denis Nye: Composer
Tess Van Horn: Director
Jenna Crowder: Installation/Set Design/Costumes/Graphic Design
Corey Anderson: Lighting Design

Production Team
Elliot Nye: Assistant Director
Rene "Goddess" Johnson: Stage Manager
Kristen Sheehy: Installation Assistant (Movement I)

Bridgette Kelly: Persephone
Deb Paley: Demeter
Ian Bannon: Chorus ("We")
Paul Haley: Chorus ("We")
Marjolaine Whittlesey: Chorus ("We")

Cameron John Prescott, Conductor (Premiere)
Sarah Hoag, Violin
Victoria Hurlburt, Violin
Leigh-Ashley Milne, Viola (Premiere)
Ben Meiklejohn, Oboe (Premiere)
Volkhard Linder, Cello (Premiere)
Devon Colella, Cello (Movement I)

Premiere-Specific Cocktails
Nan'l Meiklejohn for the Bearded Lady's Jewel Box

Premiere-Specific Edibles
Genevieve Johnson

The Persephone Myth

Persephone is the ancient Greek goddess of Spring. Demeter is Persephone’s mother and the goddess of Harvest. Hades is Persephone’s husband, God of Death and the Underworld.

In the OLD STORY: Persephone, pulling at a root, opened up a hole in the ground, and out came Hades, who seduced her to the Underworld. Above ground, mourning Demeter shut down the harvest. Underground, Persephone fasted, but then swallowed four pomegranate seeds. Finally, a deal was struck: Persephone would spend four months of each year underground with her husband, one for each seed. This gave us the seasons.

In our NEW STORY: Persephone comes and goes erratically between the two worlds and indulges herself, drinks too much, and takes a human lover. This gives us strange and extreme weather, false seasons.

The Anthropocene

anthropo–: “human” (eg, “anthropology”); –cene: “new” (suffix for a geological epoch, eg: “Holocene”)
Anthropocene is a proposed name for our current geological time, during which human activity is considered to be the dominant influence on the environment, climate, and ecology of the earth. Geoscientists debate its starting point, but possibilities include the mid-20th century (dams, nuclear fallout, spike in water use, industrial fertilizers), the late 18th century (Industrial Revolution), 1570–1620 (Europeans arrive North America; forests cleared), 3000 years ago (spike in mining), and 5000 years ago (expansion of agriculture/herding). It was popularized by atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen in 2000, and added to the OED in 2014. Though not yet an official term, it is widely used, and The Working Group on the Anthropocene (a sub-committee of the International Commission on Stratigraphy) plans to seek formal approval from the ISC in 2016.

The “Mysteries”

The ancient Greeks paid homage to Persephone, Demeter, and the earth’s fertility cycle in rituals known as the Eleusinian Mysteries, which had three parts that corresponded to the myth: “The Descent,” “The Search,” and “The Ascent.” In Persephone in the Late Anthropocene, because it is not Persephone’s disappearance but her unseasonable appearance above ground that incites the story, it is the the first movement that’s called “The Ascent.”

Opera Synopsis

Movement One: The Ascent
Persephone comes above and goes below whenever she wants, drinks and indulges too much. For a while, everything seems fine and fun, but soon things turn sick, sad, and scary.

Movement Two: The Search
Things have gotten so sick, sad, and scary that everyone is searching: Demeter, for her daughter, who’s never where she’s expected to be. The We’s, for who to blame. And Persephone, for how to atone and make things right. By the end, everyone realizes that it is “we” -- and not really any gods -- who are doing all this searching.

Movement Three: The Descent
Things are bad. The We’s have given up gods and stories. They feel so much grief and guilt that they regret being human. They give up each other and themselves. All they can tell is the bad. But then, they hear a little voice, asking questions, and it bring them back to stories. And then they find that even in the horrors, they can still laugh, and it brings them back together. They decide to go down to Hades to ask him what to do, and to maybe stay there. But he cannot solve their problems, and they must come back above, to all the shine and clamor.

Food Pairings

Movement I & II
Lost Meadow
seeded rye lavash, roasted carrot soil, spring shoots, wild flowers & colony collapse dressing

Slack Tide
Damariscotta oyster, Atlantic seaweed salad, tar balls

from local producers: Aurora Mills, Bumbleroot Organic Farm, Homegrown Herb and Teas, Tom's Honey; Norumbega Oysters Inc, Atlantic Holdfast Seaweed Co.

Movement III
Chocolate Underground
dark chocolate bon bon, pomegranate caramel, rose & lemon thyme bouquet, felt

from local producers: Smiling Hill Farm, Homegrown Herb and Teas, and Genevieve's personal herb garden

Drink Offerings
flower liqueurs, gin, citrus vodka, dry vermouth, Campari, bitters, grapefruit juice
Inspired by the alertness and rejuvenation one feels on those first few really warm days in spring & by those freakishly warm mid-winter days. The end result is a lilting, floral beverage with lingering bitterness.

single malt & blended scotches, sweet vermouth, averna amaro, creme de cacao, ancho chile liqueur, "black" bitters, and "leather" bitters.
Inspired by all of the wonderful and horrific things that happen in darkness. Sipped slowly, this drink will reveal earthy funk, spicy heat, and deep dark roastiness.

HINGE/WORKS creates experimental opera through both classical and modern lenses, fusing abstract composition, poetry, and movement for performance in site-specific installations and non-traditional venues. Hinge/Works: arching the joint of word and sound.

Support for Persephone came from
Moser Family Foundation
Maine Arts Commission
Puffin Foundation Ltd.
Sam L. Cohen Foundation
Quimby Family Foundation

and from our generous Kickstarter backers:
Jonathan and Nancy Aldrich, Zack Anchors, Ian Bannon, Adam Bertocci, Joshua Bodwell, Maureen Booth, Doug Bruns, Brendan Bullock, Christopher Byron, Ian Carlsen, John Cariani, James Chute, Hal Cohen, Michael Daley, Ralph Davis, Joan Dempsey, Emily Dennis, Anna Dibble, Mary Dowd, Erin Enberg, Rich Entel, Cynthia Eyster, Gibson Fay-LeBlanc, Yves A. Feder, Ward Feurt, Rachel and Patrick Flynn, Rebecca Morgan Frank, D. Fulton, Kathy Gallant, David Greenham, Fritz Grobe, Gerhard Gross, Audrey and Owen Grumbling, Emily Grumbling, Bruce Guernsey, Patty and Cyrus Hagge, Luc Hale, James Halverson, Lawrence Hayden, Lesley Heiser, Meghan Henshall, John Highstreet, James Hoban, Jeff Inglis, David Kaufman, Matthew Kraus, Bree LaCasse, Carl Lakari, Lightbox Lab, Steve Madigan, Andrew Mandelbaum, Carmen Mandley, Sibyl Masquelier, Nat May, Elaine G. McGillicuddy, Blainor McGough, Molly McGrath, Michael McInnis, David Meiklejohn, Ross Metzman, Cathleen Miller, Grant Nicol, Jackie Oliveri, Sarah Paley, Mary Plouffe, Christopher Price, Nadia Prupis, Joe Quinn, Pam and David Rawson, Rene Risher-Kelly, Craig Robinson, David Robinson, Lewis Robinson, Joan G. Rogers, Kevin Roy, Julie Poitras Santos, Dick Scott, Linda Shary, Julianne Shea, Jeff Spiegel, Susan Staples, Lottie Stevens, Tess Taylor, Ann Tracy, John Tumiel, Susan Webster, Bess Welden, Jason Wilkins, Kathryn Williams, Sally Wood and Matt Kennedy, and Daniel J. Wuenschel

Special thanks to the following indivduals:
Brian Allen, Greta Bank, Patrick Corrigan, Jacob DeRaadt, Audrey Grumbling, Derek Kimball, Marianne Kroon, Nat May, Douglas W. Milliken, Dave Noyes, Nance Parker, Elise Pepple, Kelly Rioux, Craig Robinson, Kristen Sheehy, Kate Digby Skinner, Maia Snow, Adam Stockman, Koren Sullivan, John Sundling, Ian Toal, and Henry Wolyniec.

and to these organizations and businesses:
SPACE Gallery & SPACE Studios, Shoestring Theater, The Apohadion, Chronos Ananke Productions, Lorem Ipsum Theater Collective, Mayo Street Arts, the Theater Department at the University of Southern Maine, Skillins Greenhouses, Good Theater, LFK, Word Portland, Congress Square Park, the Wrangell Mountains Center, the Hawthornden Writers Fellowship, and Hewnoaks Artist Colony (where some of these poems and ideas for the installation began).
Persephone in the Late Anthropocene
SPACE Gallery, Portland ME
May 2016
L–R: Marjolaine Whittlesey, Paul Haley, and Ian Bannon as the Chorus of We; Deb Paley as Demeter
costumes by Jenna Crowder

Persephone in the Late Anthropocene
SPACE Gallery, Portland ME
May 2016
installation detail, house right

Persephone in the Late Anthropocene
SPACE Gallery, Portland ME
May 2016
installation process detail (screenprinted herbs on wall), house right

Persephone in the Late Anthropocene
SPACE Gallery, Portland ME
May 2016
window installation detail (screenprinted herbs on glass, sod, foliage, plastic tubes with pumped water, mirrors, filament with gold leaf and rose petals)

Persephone in the Late Anthropocene
SPACE Gallery, Portland ME
May 2016
window installation detail (foliage and plastic tubes with pumped water)

Persephone in the Late Anthropocene
SPACE Gallery, Portland ME
May 2016
detail of Demeter's wheat cape (wheat on canvas)

Persephone in the Late Anthropocene
SPACE Gallery, Portland ME
March 2016
sketch detail of Demeter's preliminary wheat cape test

Persephone in the Late Anthropocene
Movement One at The Apohadion, Portland ME
May 2015
immersive installation views of house left (L) and stage (R)
paper mache "cave" over audience and plant installation; live sod, opened citrus fruits, live herbs, and sculptural forms

Persephone in the Late Anthropocene
Movement One at The Apohadion, Portland ME
May 2015
immersive installation views of house rear
paper mache "cave" over audience