If you’ve walked past Jordan Hall within the past several weeks, you might have noticed a poster advertising Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Odyssey Opera’s Nov. 19 concert performance of a new opera called “The Lord of Cries.” Its title gives away little, but the accompanying list of dramatis personae provides several hints, including characters named Seward, Lucy, Harker, and van Helsing.
“Ah, it’s ‘Dracula,’” you might think — but wait, the cast list also includes Autonoe, Agave, and Dionysus, names drastically more Hellenic than any that appear in the pages of Bram Stoker’s genre-defining gothic novel, and the Count himself is nowhere to be seen. What’s going on here?
Not your everyday English class “Dracula,” and not Francis Ford Coppola’s bodice-ripper cinematic adaptation either. In “The Lord of Cries,” composer John Corigliano and composer-librettist Mark Adamo consider the 125-year-old novel through a millennia-old lens, blending the narratives of “Dracula” and Euripides’s wild tragedy “The Bacchae” to construct what they intend to be an eternally relevant story.
“It’s about repression, and how dangerous it can be,” said countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, for whom the central role of Dionysus was crafted. “One line of the libretto comes back over and over with a musical theme: ‘Ask for what you want. Ask it in.’”
With a gay married couple as composer and librettist and the openly queer Costanzo portraying the title character — not to mention the abundant homoerotic subtext in “Dracula” — it’s easy to see what Costanzo called a “queer trajectory” in the opera. But that is not the opera’s lodestone, said Adamo. “It’s really about anything you’ve repressed … I like to think that it’s queerness that gave us the insight into this larger problem.”
“It’s written to be specific, but also to be general,” Corigliano added.
Corigliano and Adamo have been a couple since the mid-′90s and married since 2008, but “The Lord of Cries” is their first major project together. Adamo had never considered bridging “Dracula” and “The Bacchae” until a conversation several years ago with his friend William Hoffman, who wrote the libretto for Corigliano’s first and only other opera “The Ghosts of Versailles.” At the time, Adamo was struggling to create both music and libretto for an operatic adaptation of “Dracula” for another company, and he shared an idea: Imagine if the title character were a stand-in for “your animal nature,” he recalled in a phone interview.
Hoffman’s response to that was, “You’re writing ‘The Bacchae.’ You realize that, don’t you?’”
Adamo had not realized anything of the sort. Despite an adolescence spent enthralled by Greek theater, he wasn’t familiar with “The Bacchae.” But as soon as he read poet C.K. Williams’s translation of the play, he thought, “This is absolutely it,” he said.
In “The Bacchae,” the king of Thebes repeatedly refuses to pay tribute to the god Dionysus, who retaliates by appearing in the guise of an eerily beautiful young man and enticing the women of the city — including the king’s own mother — into his own bloodthirsty band. “You’ve got this repressed [male] leader in the city — London in the case of Stoker, Thebes in the case of Euripides — and the women are being persuaded and recruited, if you will, by this charismatic and androgynous disordering god from the east,” Adamo said excitedly.
“The idea is that Dionysus, as a Greek god, has to keep returning and telling the same story to teach people his lesson,” said Costanzo. That lesson: Obstinately denying one’s desires leads to ruin.
Adamo took the crossover idea to the other opera company, which declined. “They were expecting something much more conventional, and it went into the folder!” he said and laughed. Then, some years later, he and Corigliano were thinking of doing a project together, and he suggested they revive the dormant “Dracula,” with Corigliano taking over the music.
As soon as Corigliano saw Adamo’s outline for the project, he readily agreed, and Costanzo was an instant lock for the title role of Dionysus. “This is an opera written for his voice,” said Corigliano. “It goes up to a high G, but also below the treble clef, almost like a baritone. … It’s very good to write for someone because your imagination jumps at hearing that person singing inside your head. I’ve known his voice for a long time, and I love its androgynous quality.”
Corigliano defines himself chiefly as a symphonic composer, for whom “opera is a whole other world,” and “The Lord of Cries” has been more than 10 years in the making. To capture the feral hedonism represented by Dionysus, he turned to a few techniques he used to evoke the de-evolution of man in his score for the 1980 sci-fi/horror film “Altered States” such as slow glissandos, chords descending through subtle microtones, and creating “boiling clusters of music” by having several players alternate between two notes very quickly. He credited his husband’s “absolutely brilliant, surreal libretto” for sparking his creativity: “I was able to live in the world of the gods and travel down to man … it gave me the freedom I need to compose.”
BMOP and Odyssey Opera conductor Gil Rose expressed his admiration for Corigliano in a phone interview. “He doesn’t rest on his laurels, and he has a lot of laurels,” Rose said. “It’s not a formulaic piece. I think I called it an ass-kicker.”
The Boston performance is a one-night event, but afterward, cast and orchestra will decamp to Worcester’s Mechanics Hall for three days of recording, with the target of a July release on the label Pentatone. “I thought it might be nice to work for somebody else for a change,” said Rose, who also presides over the orchestra’s prolific in-house label BMOP/sound.
THE LORD OF CRIES
Presented by Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Odyssey Opera. At Jordan Hall, 7:30 p.m., Nov. 19. www.bmop.org
A.Z. Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.