My first online Odyssey performance (in March, shortly after the nationwide coronavirus shutdown) was…
So more than a month later as I embarked upon my second full online Odyssey performance, for a group of myth students at UIC, I was… excited but a little wary as to what virtual monsters might lurk this time around.
My wariness turned out to be misplaced: this second performance went off without a hitch.
I felt more comfortable performing into the eye of Zoom, my host professor and audience were both wonderful, and I was able to sing all 24 songs start to finish without interruption or mishap (phallic or otherwise).
As I finished singing, the chat interface exploded with applause emoji and encouraging words and there it was: my first true virtual ovation.
This was followed by my first Odyssey discussion in which students submitted questions via chat in real time and it was… amazing. Different from in person but no less invigorating and satisfying.
Even in a forum as informal as a Zoom chat, the act of writing a question has a more formal feel than an oral question and the inquiries I fielded felt subtly but substantially different from those I typically get during an in-person discussion.
After the performance and discussion ended, I sat in my office thinking about the show and the Odyssey. The way my Classics brain works is that when something, anything, of note (or even not of note) happens, it starts looking for parallels or insight in the Homeric texts I cherish so much.
(Hence why I’ve spent the last few weeks yammering at my wife about how the Michael Jordan documentary has Homeric characters and ring composition).
With respect to the coronavirus pandemic and my first virtual epic performances, several things have dawned on me.
First of all, as I wrote in the SA piece, the oral tradition and these stories are powerfully malleable and adaptable. They are little viruses themselves, changing and inhabiting humanity in new and novel ways as the times and circumstances change. You don’t survive thousands of years without this particular type of durability. I had a professor who posited that the written Greek language was “created” in order to preserve the oral Homeric epics, a suggestion that is generally an outlier in terms of current scholarship.
But now, living through a titanic cultural paradigm shift and watching how effortlessly the stories compel the tellers to adapt, I wonder if there’s something to that. I wonder if the stories are so powerful and important that they spur humans to innovate in order to preserve and relay the truths contained therein.
Second of all, the Odyssey is a story about how plans can change. In book 10 we learn that Odysseus and most of his men almost had a mostly very ordinary homecoming, making it in a short amount of time to within eyesight of the shores of Ithaka before ruinous set back after ruinous set back. All of us (in particular those in the field of performing arts) had the courses of our lives and work change almost overnight. We can only hope certain of our journeys and homecomings are delayed and not erased entirely. The Greeks had a good sense that while we think we happen to life, life most often happens to us, which is a feeling I think many if not all can identify with very acutely at the moment.
And finally, the Greeks were also aware that the human condition is inseparable from suffering. In fact, suffering is the human condition. In the Odyssey, there’s hardly a mortal character who does not suffer in some form or another and in the pandemic the same is true. Not all suffering is equal, but all suffering is real and valid to the person experiencing it. Clearly the loss of a loved one is the harshest suffering, but the loss of a company or business, the loss of the experience of a senior prom or graduation ceremony, the loss of performances, the loss of a job and income, of travel, of events like weddings… all of this suffering is valid and real.
And it’s in the story of another Trojan War homecoming, that of the Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, that Zeus says “Pathos mathei”: suffering teaches.
Well, this pandemic suffering has taught me that my life’s work in telling the story of Odysseus (and now of Achilles as well) in song is much more adaptable than I thought it was.
I hope to perform in person as soon as possible but in the meantime, I’ll hone my Zoom chops and cherish each and every opportunity to sing my songs for audiences wherever they might be.