Oracle Hysterical, ‘half band, half book club,’ reincarnates classic works by fusing them with music

Majel Connery ’01 provides the vocals for Oracle Hysterical.
Boris Harss

Euripides’ Hecuba is a bleak and bloody play, but it is rendered with haunting lyricism in a new concert by Majel Connery ’01, Princeton Ph.D. candidate Elliott Cole, and the rest of their ensemble, Oracle Hysterical. 

Setting a 2,500-year-old drama to music is a typical project for the group, which proudly identifies itself as “half band, half book club.” Members have drawn inspiration from other classic works, including those by Sappho, Suetonius, John Donne, and Herman Melville. Their 2017 “Baroque pop” album, Passionate Pilgrim, set to music a series of poems attributed to Shakespeare; The Wall Street Journal praised Connery for giving the works “a thoroughly Schubertian lilt.” (English professor Jeff Dolven wrote the album’s liner notes.)

Hecuba, which will debut on campus next month, is about an enslaved queen of Troy who loses her last two children and wreaks revenge. The piece started as a symphony, but Connery says the group grew bored with that iteration and attempted a more electronic sound by making it into a concert album. It has evolved into a stage performance that is sung, rather than acted, without costumes or makeup. Connery says she hopes the work will turn into a fully staged opera. 

Reimagining classical works and classical art forms is what Connery does best. Last year, she and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw, also a Princeton Ph.D. student, performed Shaw’s Contriving the Chimes — a musical adaptation of a 1662 diary entry by 19-year-old Isaac Newton — then taught a workshop about it at Stanford.

It’s also a fitting juxtaposition for Connery, who has a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from the University of Chicago and describes herself as an artist-scholar. She acknowledges that it’s a hard mix to sustain. “I want colleagues and collaborators who are curious and searching and bright — and artists aren’t always that,” she says. “But they’re free-thinking and unafraid, where academics can be constrained. I want both of those things in my work.”

“[T]here are lots of presenters offering La Bohème for the 999th time. Far fewer are laying the groundwork for a generation of new work.”

— Majel Connery ’01

Connery grew up absorbing the music of everyone from Judy Garland to James Taylor. “I was classically trained, but I have always tried to make classical music sound like pop,” she says. That attitude was partly forged in Princeton’s atelier program in the Lewis Center for the Arts, which unites artists from different disciplines. “That sense of Princeton having the trust and investment in its undergrads to work at such a high level blew me away,” says Connery.

Oracle Hysterical is part of Opera Cabal, an umbrella organization Connery founded in 2006 to sponsor her self-described “wackadoo” musical projects. Opera Cabal tries to upend the notion that operas must be long, musty, and geared toward a certain age and income demographic. “[T]here are lots of presenters offering La Bohème for the 999th time,” Connery said in a 2017 interview with San Francisco public-radio station KQED. “Far fewer are laying the groundwork for a generation of new work.” 

Keeping with the atelier spirit, Hecuba is jointly sponsored by the classics and music departments, the Interdisciplinary Ph.D. Program in the Humanities (IHUM), and the Postclassicisms network, which seeks to redefine the study of classics across academic disciplines. Classics professor Brooke Holmes, who heads IHUM and the Postclassicisms network, sees a musical adaptation of Euripides as perfect for an effort to re-examine the “timeless truths” of Western civilization. 

“I don’t like opera,” Holmes confesses, “but when I listened to [Hecuba] I was transfixed.”

Hecuba will be performed in Taplin Auditorium at Fine Hall on May 6 at 5 p.m.