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Anais Mitchell: A Greek Tragedy In Song

At least on paper, Anais Mitchell's folk opera Hadestown is pretty forbidding: It tells the story of the musically inclined Greek hero Orpheus, who travels through the underworld to reclaim his lost love, Eurydice. But Mitchell, a singer-songwriter who adapted the ancient story with Michael Chorney and Ben Matchstick, knows how to make her source material relatable and contemporary, whether she's expressing universal emotions or choosing a stable of relevant collaborators. The deep-voiced folksinger Greg Brown takes a comically menacing turn as Hades, for example, while Ani DiFranco, The Low Anthem's Ben Knox Miller and others make high-profile appearances.

Singing in a deep voice of his own -- a change of pace from the falsetto he employs as leader of Bon Iver -- Justin Vernon plays Hadestown's legendary protagonist, whose tone of resignation, denial and doubt reflects a complicated swirl of emotions in "If It's True." Oozing self-pity amid sweeping strings, Vernon/Orpheus dramatically mourns a loss of which he's just heard. But he soon finds himself doubting the messengers: "The ones who tell the lies are the solemnest to swear / and the ones who load the dice always say the toss is fair." His is a grim view of humanity, but at least it's in the service of a twisted sort of hope: Vernon's best-case scenario is that he's been duped by cruel, vicious liars.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)