Award-winning playwright, poet, and essayist Sarah Ruhl (The Clean House, In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), Smile: The Story of a Face) sat down in conversation with Matthew Aucoin (The Impossible Art: Adventures in Opera), composer, conductor, and writer, to discuss their collaboration in the process of transforming Ruhl’s play, Eurydice—a reimagining of the classic myth of Orpheus through the eyes of its heroine—into a libretto. The process was, as Ruhl wrote in the afterword to the new edition of Eurydice from TCG Books, “one of distillation, with effort and grace.” Eurydice premiered at the Los Angeles Opera in 2020, and played at The Metropolitan Opera from November through December 2021. The Center for Fiction was thrilled to continue its collaboration with TCG for their fourth event, with past events featuring Jackie Sibblies Drury and Claudia Rankine; Annie Baker and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins; and Heidi Schreck and Paula Vogel.
By Sarah Ruhl
Published by Theatre Communications Group
In Eurydice, Sarah Ruhl reimagines the classic myth of Orpheus through the eyes of its heroine. Dying too young on her wedding day, Eurydice journeys to the underworld, where she reunites with her beloved father and struggles to recover lost memories of her husband and the world she left behind. A stunning play that breathes fresh life into one of our oldest myths while exploring the potency of language, the ways memory shapes the self, and the transformative power of love and grief.
Smile: The Story of a Face
By Sarah Ruhl
Published by Simon & Schuster
The extraordinary story of one woman’s ten-year medical and metaphysical odyssey that brought her physical, creative, emotional, and spiritual healing, by a MacArthur genius and two-time Pulitzer finalist.
With a play opening on Broadway, and every reason to smile, Sarah Ruhl has just survived a high-risk pregnancy when she discovers the left side of her face is completely paralyzed. She is assured that 90 percent of Bell’s palsy patients see spontaneous improvement and experience a full recovery. Like Ruhl’s own mother. But Sarah is in the unlucky ten percent. And for a woman, wife, mother, and artist working in theater, the paralysis and the disconnect between the interior and exterior brings significant and specific challenges. So Ruhl begins an intense decade-long search for a cure while simultaneously grappling with the reality of her new face—one that, while recognizably her own—is incapable of accurately communicating feelings or intentions.
In a series of piercing, witty, and lucid meditations, Ruhl chronicles her journey as a patient, wife, mother, and artist. She explores the struggle of a body yearning to match its inner landscape, the pain of postpartum depression, the story of a marriage, being a playwright and working mom to three small children, and the desire for a resilient spiritual life in the face of illness.
Brimming with insight, humility, and levity, Smile is a triumph by one of America’s leading playwrights. It is an intimate examination of loss and reconciliation, and above all else, the importance of perseverance and hope in the face of adversity..
The Impossible Art: Adventures in Opera
By Matthew Aucoin
Published by FSG
From its beginning, opera has been an impossible art. Its first practitioners, in seventeenth-century Florence, set themselves the unreachable goal of reproducing the wonders of ancient Greek drama, which no one can be sure was sung in the first place. Opera’s greatest artists have striven to fuse multiple art forms—music, drama, poetry, dance—into a unified synesthetic experience. The composer Matthew Aucoin, a rising star of the opera world, posits that it is this impossibility that gives opera its exceptional power and serves as its lifeblood. The virtuosity required of its performers, the bizarre and often spectacular nature of its stage productions, the creation of a whole world whose basic fabric is music—opera assumes its true form when it pursues impossible goals.
The Impossible Art is a passionate defense of what is best about opera, a love letter to the form, written in the midst of a global pandemic during which operatic performance was (literally) impossible. Aucoin writes of the rare works—ranging from classics by Mozart and Verdi to contemporary offerings of Thomas Adès and Chaya Czernowin—that capture something essential about human experience. He illuminates the symbiotic relationship between composers and librettists, between opera’s greatest figures and those of literature. Aucoin also tells the story of his new opera, Eurydice, from its inception to its production on the Metropolitan Opera’s iconic stage. The Impossible Art opens the theater door and invites the reader into this extraordinary world.
Sarah Ruhl’s fifteen plays include the Pulitzer Prize finalists The Clean House and In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), also nominated for a Tony Award. Her awards include a MacArthur Fellowship, and her book of essays 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Eurydice, named one of the 25 best American plays of the past 25 years in 2018 by the New York Times, was developed into an opera with music by Matthew Aucoin, and performed at The Metropolitan Opera in 2021. Her most recent book, Smile: The Story of a Face, was published in 2021 by Simon & Schuster. Ruhl teaches at the Yale School of Drama, and lives in Brooklyn with her family.
Photo Credit: Gregory Costanzo
Matthew Aucoin is an American composer, conductor, and writer. His opera Eurydice, which premiered in 2020 at the Los Angeles Opera, played at New York’s The Metropolitan Opera in the fall of 2021. He is a cofounder of the American Modern Opera Company (AMOC) and a 2018 MacArthur Fellow.
Aucoin’s orchestral and chamber music have been commissioned and performed by such artists as Yo-Yo Ma, The Philadelphia Orchestra, Tonhalle Orchestra Zürich, the Brentano Quartet, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and the pianist Kirill Gerstein. His two previous operas, Crossing and Second Nature, have been performed across North America, including productions at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the Canadian Opera Company.
As a conductor, Aucoin has appeared with the Los Angeles Opera, the Chicago Symphony, The Santa Fe Opera, the San Diego Symphony, the Rome Opera Orchestra, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, and many other ensembles.
Aucoin is the author of The Impossible Art: Adventures in Opera (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), a book of reflections on the art form of opera. He is a regular contributor to leading publications including the New York Review of Books and the Atlantic.