Monday, April 13, 2015

The Mythic Background to ARIADNE

Greek mythology is a weird and wild world, full of lust-crazed deities, tormented princesses, wayward heroes, and misunderstood monsters. A perfect place for opera! Ariadne auf Naxos spins a single strand from a complex web of mythological characters, locations, and adventures. Here, just for fun, we've collected visual representations of other strands from that web. Imagine setting this entire saga to musicyou'd create a work to rival Wagner's mighty RING in scale!

In a mythic age, long before Pericles politicked at the Parthenon, or Aeschylus authored magnificent tragedies, or Socrates drank hemlock, Athens had to send seven young men and seven young women to Crete every few years to be sacrificed to Crete’s Minotaur until Prince Theseus ended this shameful tradition of tribute.

Image: Wikipedia

Aegeus, King of Athens and father of Theseus, killed himself by leaping off a cliff and into the sea that today bears his name when a ship with black sails returned from Crete, implying that his son was dead. Theseus had forgotten to switch to the white sails of victory, as his father had requested.


Prince, hero, slayer of monsters, and Ariadne's deceitful lover. After the events of this saga, Theseus goes on to wed Hippolyta the Amazon (in A Midsummer Night's Dream). Their son, Hippolytus, comes to a bad end in the myth of Phaedra (set beautifully to music by Benjamin Britten).

Image: Troy

Island kingdom in the Mediterranean. The Bronze Age Minoan civilization centered on Crete predated the golden age of Athens by a thousand years. Twentieth-century archeology has unearthed evidence that a sport known as bull-dancing or bull-leaping, pictured above on a Cretan fresco, was a popular entertainment and ritual (something of a cross between gladitorial combat and modern bull-fighting). Perhaps that's the origin of the legendary combat between Theseus and Crete's Minotaur.

Image: wikipedia

King of Crete and father of Princess Ariadne. Later one of the judges of the dead in the underworld. Crete's embarrassing curse begins when he fails to sacrifice a beautiful bull sent to the island by the gods.

Image: William Blake's illustration of Dante, who kept Minos in the Inferno.

Minos’ Queen and mother to Ariadne, the Minotaur, and Theseus' second wife Phaedra. She falls in love with the bull sent by the gods and, with the help of the clever inventor Daedalus, figures out a way she can have sex with it.


The monstrous offspring of Ariadne’s mother and the divine bull, the Minotaur was a half-man, half-bull who dwells in Crete's Labyrinth and eats people.

Those sacrificed to the Minotaur enter this inescapable maze from the castle of Minos on Crete.


Daedalus, clever inventor and slave to King Minos, invented both the bull-disguise Pasiphaë used to couple with the divine bull and the Labyrinth that imprisoned their demon-offspring. Daedalus also told Ariadne the secret of the Labyrinth“Unroll a spool of thread as you go, so you can find your way back out." She passed the information on to her beloved Theseus, who killed the Minotaur and eloped with her. Minos, furious, imprisoned Daedalus and his son Icarus in the Labyrinth.

Image: David Vance

Inventor and son were lost in the Labyrinth, and this time without a spool of thread. So they made wings from wax and feathers and escaped by air. But young Icarus, delighted by the ability to fly, flew too high; the heat from the sun melted his wax, his wings disintegrated, and he plunged to his death in the sea. Set to music by Daron Aric Hagen in Seattle Opera's 2010 world premiere, Amelia.

Painting by Frederic Leighton

Daughter of Minos, she takes pity on handsome Theseus—doomed to be sacrificed to her family’s Minotaur—and helps him defeat the monster and escape. But he maroons her on a desert island where, like so many opera heroines, she becomes donna abbandonata.

Painting by Evelyn De Morgan

Nowadays it’s a popular tourist destination in the Greek islands. But for poor Ariadne, it was a barren, desolate place, with only a Naiad, a Dryad, and an empty Echo for company.

Image: wikipedia

A water nymph.

Painting by Henri Fantin-Latour

The nymph of a tree.

Image: Photo, c. 1910, by John Cimon Warburg

Nymph who fell in love with Narcissus, a beautiful young man who wasted away lusting after his own reflection in a pond. Echo did her best to reflect Narcissus’s love back to him, but he never saw her and eventually she became invisible. You'll hear her echoing many of the other characters in Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos.

Painting by John Waterhouse

BACCHUS (aka Dionysus)
God of wine, born from the explosive final encounter of Jupiter and Semele. Always a popular god, since worshipping him involves drinking wine! His first adventures take him to the islands of Circe and then Ariadne.

Painting by Simeon Solomon

Seductive witch, sister to Pasiphaë. Loves to invite sailors who visit her desert island to join her at a feast, only then to transform them into pigs. Odysseus resisted her wiles, as did Bacchus.

Image: Katerina Art

Princess of Thebes and beloved of Jupiter, who inadvertently kills her when she asks for it. Our last opera, Semele, concluded with the announcement that her child by Jupiter, Bacchus, would make all people happy forever after. 

Photo of Seattle Opera's February production by Elise Bakketun

Finally, we get to the plot of Strauss's little opera! Ariadne has been marooned on Naxos by the faithless Theseusor was it because Bacchus, who had fallen for her, told Theseus to take a hike? In Titian's famous painting Ariadne, left, yearns for the departing ship of Theseus, while Bacchus (with his entourage) approaches her. A crown of stars, overhead, indicates how Bacchus and Ariadne will be transformed into constellations when love makes them both divine.

Painting by Titian


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