February 12, 2012

Who was Orpheus? Don't ask an American...

Corot's "Orphee ramenant Eurydice des enfers"
One last piece about Philip Glass's Orphée before plunging into Gilbert and Sullivan and Mikado.

You know that "No child left behind" thing?  Based on my last couple of months of teaching and lecturing about  Orphée, I've come to the sad conclusion that a whole lotta children in the United States got left wayyyyyyy behind in their formative years.

Americans are kinda sorta illiterate, taken as a group.

Since late December, I've taught classes for seven lifelong learning divisions of various regional colleges and universities, not to mention lectures for church groups, retirement communities, pre-curtain talks before our performances of the opera, and other venues.

At each event, just to engage the crowd with a little bit of good ol' audience participation, I routinely ask if anyone can summarize the story of Orpheus. I just like to get the gist of the plot outline out of the way before I delve into Glass's musical treatment of the Cocteau film.  A bit of review of the story we all know, then on to more complex topics.

Title page to Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice"
At each and every event, the ugly reality of the public's ignorance smacks me in the face.
To date, I'd say one out of a hundred people appear to have any clue - any clue at all - what I'm talking about.  The moment the subject of Orpheus comes up, my question is answered with mute silence while every pair of eyes in the room suddenly begins studying the nearest pair of shoelaces.

Good grief, America, was every single one of you passing notes and daydreaming during the mythology unit in high school???  This is what confronts me at every event:

"Who can tell me, in three or four sentences, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice?"  (silence)

"Okay, what was their relationship; was she his daughter?  His sister?"  (silence)

"Okay, here's a hint:  Jacques Offenbach wrote an operetta called Orpheus in the Underworld.  Who remembers why he went to the underworld?"  (silence)

"Um, how about his profession: what did Orpheus do, exactly?"  (silence)

"Bueller?  Beuller? Anybody?"  (silence)

Just kidding with that last one...  Of course, the sad thing is that probably 85% of any given class would instantly recognize a quotation from Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

The implications of all this are truly depressing.  If they never heard of Orpheus, then I suppose we're a nation of sport fans who know where the Achilles tendon is (athletes are always rupturing it, as L.A. Clippers star Chauncey Billups just did as I write this post), but have no idea why it's called that.  I guess people know that an "Achilles heel" means a weakness, but just think it's an anatomy term.

I guess that people understand what "narcissism" is, but have no idea of where the word comes from.

I guess that Southern California football fans have no concept of why their team is called the Trojans.

I guess guys named Jason just assume they're named after the guy in the Friday the 13th movies.  And some of them probably are.

I guess people think that Neptune and Mercury and Jupiter originated as planet names.

I guess people think that the NFL's Tennessee Titans are named after that big ship that sank with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett on board.

Hmmm... okay, I'm sure I'm over-thinking this, but back to the Trojans: isn't that a fairly counter-intuitive name for a brand of condom?  Think about it; the Trojans hid an army of soldiers inside a big hollow horse, which they sneaked into enemy territory.  Then the soldiers burst out in the middle of the night and went on a rampage.

Do you really want the "soldiers" in your Trojans bursting out and, um, rampaging?

By the way, I hope you've been taking notes because all this material will be on the final exam...  

My new book The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and Other Primates is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online at www.kendallhunt.com/operazoo or by phone from the Customer Service line at 1-800-344-9034 ext.3020.


  1. Your article upset me a little. My Latin students love hearing these mythology stories. They consider them treats even though they are quizzed on them. I guess it depends on how engaging the teacher is when presenting the material. Also, we don't need any more people knocking the teaching profession. We get enough of that as it is. I welcome you to come to my class any time to speak to my students. You'll get a better reception, unless you come in with that negative attitude you seem to have.

    1. Sorry to upset you! I was making a point, and what I said about my experience in speaking to adult audiences is not exaggerated. In 35 events comprising lectures and classes since the first of the year, I could have counted the number of folks who responded with any information on the fingers of one hand. It surprised me. I don't feel that I'm a negative person; but when this is my observation it seems fair and logical to blog about it. I commend your students! I also dispute that I "knocked the teaching profession"; any "knocking" was directed towards those who don't learn. I don't pin the blame on those imparting the information.

  2. My high school didn't teach mythology, so I am not familiar with a lot of the stories. However, I was taught a few of the major works of Shakespeare and I could give you are great summary of their plots. Different people are exposed to different information in high school and college. Your experience doesn't necessarily mean that all teenagers and adults are illiterate, it could simply mean that they weren't taught any mythological stories. I am currently attending UCSB as an English major and I am not required to take a mythology class to graduate. I am required to take an array of other courses such as American Literature, Shakespeare and English Literature. If you feel that mythology is a a fundamental subject to be taught, then I understand your frustration. I am unsure why, but for some reason the California school systems don't think it's a core subject. I am also fairly certain that most California football fans know why the Trojans are named as such.

  3. "My high school didn't teach mythology, so I am not familiar with a lot of the stories..."

    (rant mode on)

    Argh! And this from someone claiming to be an English major. I see this attitude all the time: "They didn't teach it to me in school, so how could I be expected to know anything about it?" (along with, "Oh, that was before I was born," as the excuse for not knowing when the Civil War was fought, as if the world was called into creation on the day the speaker was born.)

    E.D. Hirsch, Jr. wrote a book some years ago, before there was an internet, called, "Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know." He saw the increasing cultural ILLITERACY in America, justified by people who claimed "I can always look it up if I need to." His point was that if you don't know anything, it's almost impossible to learn anything. If you don't know the culture you live in, people communicating with each other will leave you totally in the dark about what they're talking about because you don't understand the metaphors they use in everyday conversation. My mother doesn't know a baseball from a tire iron, but if I were to tell her that someone is the Babe Ruth of his profession, she'd instantly understand that he's one of the best, even though she has only a vague idea of who Babe Ruth was.

    Hirsch had a list of names, dates, and events at the end of his book that every American should recognize. Some are more obvious than others, but if you don't know them all, you can't call yourself culturally literate. Examples: 1492, 1776, December 7, 1941 - they should all be instantly familiar to anyone in this country.

    Maybe Orpheus and Eurydice won't be as familiar to Americans as Babe Ruth or 1776. But to say you never learned about them because they didn't teach you about the Greek myths in school is to say your education and thirst for knowledge stop the moment you leave the schoolhouse door and turn on the TV. How sad, to have such a shallow, incurious mind, to be little more than an inert mass of protoplasm, waiting for whatever pig slops the world deigns to pump into you through your TV, smartphone, or computer.

    (rant mode off)

  4. I came upon this as I was Google searching "Was Orpheus mute?" and I have to agree with you there. I love Greek myths and the one about Orpheus and Eurydice is one of my many favorites. A lot of people have no clue or interest whatsoever in Greek mythology in the school that I attend. I'm glad to see the point you have raised. By the way, I think that you know a lot about Greece. Do you happen to recall if Orpheus could not talk but sing? My teacher said that Orpheus could sing but not talk, and this perplexed me. If you can, please shed some light on this. Thank you.

  5. "I am currently attending UCSB as an English major and I am not required to take a mythology class to graduate."


    Please, do not state you are an "English major" in an arguement, if you fail to digest the mythology in the different works of Homer, Beowulf, Virgil, and so many others. You make real English majors look bad. It is not just World/Ancient literature that makes reference to mythology, but many different lit, and humanity classes like art history, or world religion. I do believe even in my husbands engineering degree plan he is required to take humanities classes.

    I found your site(and clicked on it due to curiousity) because I was brushing up my memory on Orpheus for an assignment on Emily Dickinson (American Literature). I was curious because the link said something about Americans. While I will agree wholeheartedly that most people do not recieve a proper education in high school, there are people out there that are educated.

    It is great that you teach others, but I do believe that the reason they are there is to learn, so don't be to hard on them. Perhaps they have all taken classes at USCB? :)