Actor Maria-Christina Oliveras brings all the power and energy. She’s the total package in her latest role as Persephone in the much buzzed about musical HADESTOWN. You can catch her in the award-winning musical currently on stage in Toronto at the Royal Alexandra Theatre until August 20, 2023.
With Greek Mythology inspired stories and characters this fresh new musical discovers, and rediscovers, what love truly means with a mega dose of heartfelt energy. Singer, songwriter Anais Mitchell created the music and then expanded the concept into a stage production. It first ran in Edmonton as an “off-Broadway” style musical then moved onto London (UK), and landed on Broadway in 2019. The audiences and critics loved Hadestown and it earned nine Tony Awards. No surprise! It’s a story that sounds familiar and the cast is incredible. So, what’s it all about?
Characters in this storyline were inspired by the gods in Greek mythology but blended into a more relatable modern-day story of love and tragedy. And it’s not just one love story but two. One is between Hades and Persephone. The other is Orpheus and Euridyce. The story, explores what it means to find and keep love and the risks we are willing to take. The concept is timeless but what makes it relevant in the world we live in is how we can see the similiarities worked in. What makes it unique is how it resonates with audiences members at different levels. It’s as though we take what we need adjust ourselves accordingly.
Who is Persephone?
Persephone was a the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. Known as the goddess of Spring, she was thought to bring back the flowers and nature back to life whenever she returned. According to Greek mythology, Hades had surfaced from the underworld one day and discovered Persephone and was attracted by this ray of sunshine that brought life to the world and the people. Eventually they were married but agreed that she could return above ground every six months — the reason why seasons change.
I chatted with Maria-Christina Oliveras (Persephone) recently to learn more about the production and her character.
Tell us about Persephone?
Maria-Christina: She is queen of the underworld and goddess of nature and the seasons. She is married to Hades, who she deeply loves. They have an arrangement. She gets to spend six months up above bringing sunshine and summertime, and the other six months down below. When we start the play, their marriage is on the rocks after millenia together–the world is out of tune, in essence, because of their domestic disputes.
In Greek Mythology Hades takes her away from the life above to bring her down to the underworld for half the year, but this arrangement works for them?
Maria-Christina: I do think the arrangement was wonderful and ideal at first. But they started to drift apart. At the start of the piece, we see them in a moment where they don’t know how to love each other anymore.
In the underground Hades was building this electric grid in hopes that Persephone would stay. What more can you tell us about that?
Maria-Christina: I think Hades is doing everything he can to love her in his way, but he has become so distrustful of her and the seasons and the world up above. He turns to relentless building underground to keep her there. He also brings her down to Hadestown earlier and earlier, so the seasons are off.
Hades builds Hadestown, and gets workers to build this place to try and keep her down below. That wasn’t the arrangement and not what their marriage was about. But this is still a gendered world. Persephone thinks if he comes and picks her up earlier than the arranged six months then she has to go without question.
So, she thinks this is what love looks like? How does she deal with being in the underworld?
Maria-Christina: She self medicates with alcohol. But then, their love is reawakened by the young unadulterated love of Orpheus and Euridyce. Orpheus, a poet and a dreamer, reignites their love and brings the world back into tune with his epic love song, which is the recurring “La La La La’s…” which you hear throughout the show.
Oh yes that song seems like it shifted the mood. It’s so raw and tender and this is such a deep and tragic love story on so many levels!
Maria-Christina: Yes! And the tragedy between Orpheus and Euridyce is so deeply sad. But we tell it again and again in the hopes that it might turn out differently. Ultimately, it is a love story of both of these couples, and how love, art, community and music can recalibrate the universe , if only for a moment.
Ultimately, it all comes down to a love story between both of these couples. It’s how they recalibrate the universe for them and for the world — even if only for a moment. It literally brings the world back into tune including for the workers at the end who are humanized and they get to take off their caps when Orpheus inspires them. We hope that feeling is also felt by the audience in this moment.
I hope that the audience feels that sense that love is the most powerful force above everything else in the universe. Truly it’s that one moment we all share in this live space. We hope that everyone walks out with embers of that kind of love. Life, as we know, is moment to moment to moment. So, for one moment I hope we can all recalibrate and see this potential.
I noticed Anäis Mitchell has mentioned the value of “trying” and that relates to all characters in this show. (seen in the programme). What are your thoughts?
Maria-Christina: Yes, and trying because otherwise what is life? We would all just give up! We are all putting one foot in front of the other. We are all lifing. Life happens to us no matter what. And we all know that if we take a chance on love there will always be a chance of heartbreak as well. But we have hope and resilience and have to believe that maybe next time things might be better.
I also love how diverse the casting is! From my view as an audience member, your talent shines through first and foremost. Same goes for so many in the cast includes Orpheus, Euridyce, and Hermes all lead characters. And you’re all damn talented performers and actors!
Maria-Christina: Yes! Thank you for that. The entire cast and company reflects the world we dream about, and embraces equity, diversity and inclusion in a way that is not often seen. As a Puerto Rican and Filipina woman, I am honored to step into the green dress, and re-define what leadership and power looks like. And it’s even more special, playing in such a diverse city like Toronto, where the audiences have been amazing!
What does this show mean for you, personally?
Maria-Christina: The show for me is about resilience. When I wasn’t part of the show and saw the production as an audience member, one of the most profound moments for me personally was when Hermes says, “it’s an old song, it’s a tragedy. It’s a sad song. But we sing it anyway,” because we have to. We unfortunately repeat the same stories over generations, but we keep trying and we keep going. Like the moment when Orpehus looks back–I think we will always hope he might not. We have to.
Do you need to read up on Greek mythology to follow this storyline?
(psssst… read the programme for a quick overview)
Maria-Christina: Absolutely not! It’s a love story, and our need for love and connection and community is something all humans can understand and relate to. To love is hard and complicated, but we always go back to it. Whether it’s a romantic comedy or a tragedy, we revisit these stories over and over again, because love is always worth trying for. We still have hope in marriages even though divorce is so prominent in this culture, right? We keep trying and that goes for the artists including Anäis who believe in hope. That hope is what makes us go above and beyond and is what inspires us to keep moving forward! #Trying #Lifing !
What I find interesting that even when Persephone is in the darkest moments she still is finding the light between the cracks?
Maria-Christina: Yes, that’s the goddess and leader in her. It’s also part of Persephone’s constitution. I think she, like Orpheus, has an open heart and loves her people and the world. She believes in it. She believes in love and its potential to change the world. I’d like to think of her as a revolutionary optimist. She will always have that revolution in her spirit. Also, because she’s a goddess she can gift that.
In this piece, you see her beautiful journey of re-awakening–she struggles with depression and being in this unhappy marriage. But then she sobers up in the second act when Hades says to her “have another drink why don’t you?” before their duet, “How long.” And she says “no, I’ve had enough.” That’s the first time she sobers up and realizes what’s happening and fights for change.
Persephone realizes it’s not just about her and Hades –this is about the universe. She also sees that this is about a kid deeply in love with a girl…like Hades once was. She sees the love like what they had once. She thinks to herself, “What are you doing? We’re screwing up the world.” I think that’s when she reclaims her power and reaffirms, “I am still your wife. I still have power.”
The energy of the room was so incredible the night I was there. What do you hope audiences will get out of this?
Maria-Christina: People walk away with so many thoughts and feelings that are profound… or not. Even if they think it’s just about young love or it reminds them of a really big fight they had or compels them in some big or small way, everyone gets something different out of this.
Also, depending on what’s happening in the world like the union strikes happening now–that might affect people’s experience and what sticks out for them. This show is also about the power of community. Orpheus basically inspires the workers to riot–to have a young voice that brings that power in this moment is deeply moving for me. As an artist, I understand how dehumanizing negotiations can be and how devalued we are even by seemingly good people. So to have a leader with the courage to fight against the machine is deeply moving to me.
And the audience the night you came was amazing! Theater is a communal art form–LIVE–and the audience is our scene partner as well. As the goddess bringing sunshine, you are my people too–you are included in the party! And each night can feel different from the last. It’s like a dance, sometimes it feels like a Polka then another night can feel like a Fox Trot and other times it can feel like Tango.
What’s your favourite to line from this show?
Maria-Christina: In this moment, for me when I sing, it’s “How long – just as long as I’m your wife?” because it speaks to the profound love between them, which is what her journey is centered around.
The other is “but we sing it anyway.” it’s an old song from way back when. As mentioned, even though history often repeats itself, we always try again with hope that it might turn out better.
And finally, while you’re here in toronto on your must see and do list?
I’m definitely going to hit up the Distillery District, St Lawrence market, CN Tower when my family is in town. I did hit up Bar Chef for that signature cocktail. It was unreal. I’ve had amazing Thai at PAI and Khao Sao Road. The Art Gallery and the ROM are on my list as well. I love Toronto! It’s fabulous and diverse. The food culture is great. We have everything in New York where I’m from and Toronto does too — only it’s chiller here which I need. My must do list is really seeking out the culture and soaking up the city by wandering the neighborhoods. I’ve been to Kensington Market and want to go back there.
HADESTOWN is now playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre until August 20, 2023. For dates and tickets please visit www.mirvish.com
About the production….Winner of eight 2019 Tony Awards including Best Musical and the 2020 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theatre Album, this acclaimed new show from celebrated singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell and innovative director Rachel Chavkin (Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812) is a love story for today… and always.
*this interview was slightly edited for clarity/content.