Composer, conductor, impresario, Medfield native, Harvard alumnus, and 2018 MacArthur “genius” Matthew Aucoin is back in Massachusetts for the third annual Run AMOC! Festival. The two-day event (Dec. 13-14) features three highly original music and dance-theater works at the American Repertory Theater. It’s produced by the American Modern Opera Company, the eclectic ensemble Aucoin co-directs with choreographer Zack Winokur. (Aucoin is also the son of the Globe’s longtime theater critic.)
Next up for Aucoin: The culmination of his three-year stint as Los Angeles Opera’s Artist in Residence. In February, the company will premiere Aucoin’s “Eurydice," based on Sarah Ruhl’s play of the same name (New York’s Metropolitan Opera co-commissioned the piece). We caught up with Aucoin, 29, by phone last month to discuss “Eurydice,” his biggest and highest profile project to date. The conversation was edited and condensed.
Q. How did this “Eurydice” start?
A. Five years ago, I wrote a piece called “The Orphic Moment” for my friend, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo. [It was] a 17-minute explosion of the few seconds before Orpheus turns around. I wanted to delve into my own very dark interpretation of what is motivating him psychologically. In writing that piece I discovered that I am really obsessed with this story in the same way that composers for millennia have been.
Q. Since the origins of opera, right?
A. It really is. Orpheus is the big boss for us musicians. So when LA Opera and the Met approached me about working together on the next opera, I said I think I really need to do something with Orpheus. But it felt so depressing to just approach the story from the perspective of tortured male artistic narcissism, which is essentially how it’s mostly been approached. A few people, including my younger sister [playwright Christine Aucoin] recommended Sarah’s play to me. I read it and wept at how beautiful it was. Very happily, she was willing to return to the play and work with me to adapt it to an opera.
Q. How much adaptation did that entail?
A. No drastic changes. I said to Sarah at the very beginning that I thought her play would make a wonderful opera because it’s already so close to being a libretto. There’s so much poetry, even in the stage directions, that it’s perfect for music. I find that with texts you can sort of tap them to see if they resonate. Sarah’s text has the acoustic of a cathedral.
Q. In the past, you’ve written your own libretti. Has it been different, composing to someone else’s libretto?
A. It’s been much happier. When you write your own libretto, you have to be your own harshest critic and worst enemy. To have someone as wise as Sarah as a collaborator has been both a joy and a relief. I would work for several weeks on a question, and then call Sarah up, and she would have one simple luminous idea that clarified the whole thing.
Q. How do you musically characterize each role?
A. Eurydice is a lyric soprano. There may be a bit of a “Traviata” scenario — people always say in “Traviata” that you need [a different voice for each of the three acts]. There are moments when Eurydice has to float and sing beautiful, quiet, sustained high notes. And there are other moments that require a certain power to convey fury, despair.
Orpheus has a double nature, both human and quasi-divine. He’s this sweet, clueless, rather immature dude, who happens to have this superhuman gift. When Orpheus is being a normal dude, it’s just a baritone who sings. But when he’s in his musical trance, it’s both the baritone and a countertenor, which is alien and ethereal and wonderfully mysterious.
The father, who is a sage, older presence, is a baritone or bass-baritone.
Probably the other surprising choice is that Hades is a very high tenor. We first meet him in the guise of a skeezy middle-aged businessman, and only later see his true form in the underworld. He’s a freaky and absurdly funny, though also scary, figure. When he approaches Eurydice outside of her wedding, the first thing he says to her is, “Hello, are you a homeless person?” There’s a persistent sense that he has no idea how to communicate with a human being. So I wanted to create this sense that he’s on helium, that he has no idea how absurd he sounds.
Q. How about the Stones?
A. One thing I’m really grateful to Sarah for, in terms of my own musical development, is that this is a tragedy, but it is full of humor and joy, a kind of “Alice in Wonderland”-esque sense of the surreal, and the Stones are an essential part of that. They are a sort of Greek Chorus who comment on the action, and they’re also these bureaucratic gatekeepers in the underworld who police everyone’s emotions. They have this sinister role that’s also really funny. In terms of the color palette of the opera as a whole, there are so many scenes of tragedy or emotional vulnerability, that I’m glad to have the Stones as an absurd counterweight. So they’re musically painted in very bright colors. They sing very loudly, very obnoxiously. Sometimes when someone else is having a difficult moment, they burst in and shatter the texture.
Q. How does this piece sit in your body of work?
A. “Eurydice” is the first thing I’ve done that I’m uncomplicatedly excited for. Engaging with Sarah’s sensibility has unlocked other elements of my musical personality. My first full-scale opera, “Crossing,” is an archaeological dig of my progress from student to adult composer, because there are [parts] that I wrote when I was 21, and [parts] that I wrote when I was 25, two weeks before the premiere. I think for any artist those years are full of volcanic changes. I have a lot of affection for “Crossing” but I can also see the ways in which it is internally not consistent, and I think the big difference is that “Eurydice” is very much of a piece, musically, aesthetically, dramatically, and I have Sarah’s play to thank for that.
Q. What’s next? Another opera in the pipeline?
A. AMOC is a huge part of my present and my future. The company is made up of some of my closest collaborators and friends. There is so much music that I want to write for [them] — more chamber operas and chamber music and strange pieces that have a shape I don’t know. We’ll be touring with San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra next fall in a piece that features a lot of my new vocal and orchestral music.
Q. Are there any stories that you think would lend themselves to your operatic language in the future?
A. I don’t think I should name specifics just yet, but I will say that the combination of Sarah Ruhl and a mythological source feels right. I think I speak for both of us when I say we want to create more operas together. Great myths reveal something that is in our psyches. They need to be reimagined, reclothed, redrawn with every generation.
CJ Ru is on Twitter at @cjruse.