SANTA FE, N.M. — In Greek mythology, Narcissus and Echo both come to tragic ends.
Narcissus, who harshly rejected numerous other nymphs who had fallen for him and his beauty, eventually fell in love instead with his own reflection in a pool of water. Details differ depending on different versions of the myth, but in nearly all of them Narcissus kills himself. He realizes the reflection could not reciprocate his love, but he can’t look away from it.
Echo, on the other hand, was one of those who fell in love – and was rejected – by Narcissus. She withered away out of grief until the only thing left was her voice. As her name suggests, the creature could only repeat the last parts of the phrases spoken to or around her.
“They don’t do very well,” Santa Fe-based composer Janice Simmons says of the two classic characters.
But in an original opera, Simmons has flipped the script and gives them both a happy ending, using themes of true love and eternal life.
A condensed, concert-style performance of “Narcissus and Echo” will be performed at Temple Beth Shalom next Sunday afternoon. The event is in honor of the synagogue’s late rabbi emeritus Ben Morrow, an opera fan who died last year at the age of 90.
“The idea that there’s unconditional love, not obsessional love, and when you receive that, you’re accepted,” Simmons said about a main message of her production. “You accept yourself as part of a bigger picture … of who we are and how love connects us.”
The opera premiered in October 2018 at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, N.M., after an approximately eight-year creative process for Simmons. She wrote the music and libretto as an extension of an hourlong piano piece she composed and performed in Santa Fe back in 2009, also inspired by the Greek tragedy.
Simmons describes herself as latecomer to the music world. In 2009, she had no training in composition. She had pursued other careers before moving to the City Different more than a decade ago and pursuing her musical dreams. Simmons has a master’s in French literature, and also worked as a gourmet chef and caterer. But as a kid, she had taught herself to play piano by ear, listening to songs and echoing the notes.
“There was no writing down of music, no understanding of notes or anything life that,” Simmons said of her 2009 piece.
Her concerts performing that work were well-received, she said. After those performances, feeling a need to better “understand the language” of music, she took private lessons with local professionals in composition and music theory. After years of the tutoring, she felt ready to turn the work into what she had always envisioned it to be: a full opera.
Even when she was writing that first piano composition a decade ago, Simmons said she always imagined it with singers. The self-described “opera fanatic” said her experience listening to other works, particularly as a seasonal employee at the Santa Fe Opera for the past 12 years, helped her form “Narcissus and Echo.”
“It goes on this huge journey,” she said of the characters’ arcs. “For it to just be a piano piece isn’t enough.”
In Simmons’ updated version, the characters still attempt to give up on life, as in Greek mythology, but they are saved from their “delusions” by the ocean and the moon.
Using elements of nature as catalysts for their awakenings, she said, was a nod to the ancient Greeks’ reverence for nature. She said this part of her opera is also inspired by the Buddhist teaching of “Prajnaparamita.” Simmons, a practicing Buddhist, said the mantra translates to “the perfection of wisdom” and refers to seeing the reality of life.
Narcissus, who tries to drowns himself, is rejected by the ocean. The ocean then becomes his teacher, steering him away from his destructive ego. The devastated Echo, on the other hand, is saved by the moon and has an awakening that what she was feeling wasn’t love, but rather infatuation.
“She learns another lesson of, you could call it true love if you want, but what love can be besides this obsessional, needing-this-security blanket kind of thing,” Simmons said.
Without giving too much of the ending away, Simmons explained that after the characters find their inner peace, the opera also becomes a meditation on themes of death and afterlife.
“I don’t solve anything; I’m not solving a puzzle here, I just say this (life) keeps going,” Simmons said. “That’s the best way I can describe it.”
When she premiered the show in October, a member of the Temple Beth Shalom was in the audience and approached Simmons about bringing the show to the synagogue as a way to honor the late rabbi. Simmons said the commemoration exemplifies the themes of her piece because it honors someone who is part of the “continuous cycle” of life referenced in the opera.
“It honors (Morrow’s) life and honors his death,” Simmons said.
The cast of the concert, the same one that participated in the full staging, includes Andre Garcia-Nuthmann – NMHU’s choral and vocal program director – as Narcissus. Local opera signer Jennifer Perez will play Echo. Kelli Dahlke-Fuentes will sing the part of the ocean. The piano, played by Luke Gullickson, represents the moon. The sounds of a flute, played by Dorothy Bowers, will represent the wind, birds, and Echo’s echo.