Ben Whishaw and Ren\u00e9e Fleming in a specially commissioned new work by Anne Carson titled \u201cNorma Jeane Baker of Troy,\u201d directed by Katie Mitchell with music by Paul Clark. (Stephanie Berger\/The Shed) At times of transition, art looks to its roots. This spring, a new theater opened and an established theater director left by paying homage to the dawn of Western theater \u2014 that is, Greek drama. The Shed, the new performance space in New York, offered an adaptation of Euripides\u2019s play \u201cHelen\u201d by Anne Carson, the rock star of poet-classicists; called \u201cNorma Jeane Baker of Troy,\u201d it presented Marilyn Monroe as a latter-day Helen of Troy, a famed object of beauty and desire. And at Washington\u2019s Shakespeare Theatre, Michael Kahn\u2019s final production after 33 years as artistic director was a new rendering of Aeschylus\u2019s \u201cOresteia\u201d trilogy, spare and strong, by the playwright and actress Ellen McLaughlin. Two works from the heart of the Western canon \u2014 and yet two contemporary works by women. As a classical music critic, watching my own field struggle with issues of diversity and with a canon that\u2019s perceived as the province of dead white males, I find it fascinating to see another quintessentially white-male tradition \u2014 ancient Greek literature \u2014 flooded with new energy and new voices. The past few years have seen an outpouring of new adaptations, capped with Emily Wilson\u2019s \u201cThe Odyssey\u201d in 2017, the first published English translation of Homer by a woman. Translations aren\u2019t the only avenue for exploring this canon. In the past decade alone, I count at least six significant literary retellings of Homer\u2019s \u201cIliad\u201d in novels and poems, including Madeline Miller\u2019s \u201cThe Song of Achilles\u201d and \u201cThe Silence of the Girls,\u201d told from the perspective of the enslaved woman Briseis, by the award-winning British novelist Pat Barker. As for \u201cThe Oresteia,\u201d there\u2019s Colm T\u00f3ib\u00edn\u2019s 2017 novel \u201cThe House of Names,\u201d as well as McLaughlin\u2019s work, one of a long string of reworked Greek dramas she\u2019s produced. Neither writer actually reads ancient Greek. In short: Although the ancient Greek canon is even more restrictive than that of classical music \u2014 only a shelf of texts have survived, many as tantalizing fragments \u2014 it, and the new art that it\u2019s inspiring, seems more alive than ever. And in all of the critical responses to books such as \u201cThe Song of Achilles\u201d or \u201cThe Silence of the Girls,\u201d positive or negative, I have yet to hear the objection that neither novel is the masterpiece that the \u201cIliad\u201d is. This stands out to me because in my field, which is also preoccupied with continual explorations into the past, I often hear new works dismissed on the grounds that they are inferior to Beethoven, so why should we even bother to\u00a0listen? In music, the stranglehold of the canon, and its continual misuse as a benchmark, is a tremendous obstacle to many female musicians and musicians of color. In literature, the canon appears to represent an exciting challenge. Indeed, the very limitations of the texts, and the overwhelming maleness of the tradition, have become sources of inspiration. Greek drama, like opera, offers a wealth of memorable heroines, written (and originally performed) by men. Yet writers including McLaughlin are acutely aware of the ways that women are effectively silenced in many of the texts, whether because the story is told from the man\u2019s point of view (Penelope in \u201cThe Odyssey\u201d) or because the woman is literally muted (Iphigenia, sacrificed for the sake of a fair wind in \u201cThe Oresteia\u201d). This silencing has become a starting point for many female writers looking to give these characters voices of their own. Margaret Atwood, for example, took Penelope\u2019s point of view in \u201cThe Penelopiad,\u201d commissioned as part of a series of novella-length myth retellings by Canongate in the early 2000s. Literature also seems mercifully free of the idea, so prevalent among music-lovers and opera fans, that reinterpretation poses some kind of threat to the original text. You could say it\u2019s because rewriting and retelling myths was part of the tradition of Greek epic and Greek drama, which spawned countless versions of the Trojan War saga, for instance, over the centuries. (Euripides\u2019s \u201cHelen\u201d incorporates the wacky idea that Helen of Troy never made it to Troy at all, but was spirited off to Egypt while the gods replaced her in Troy with a simulacrum for everyone to fight over.) Yet classical music in the 18th and early 19th centuries was also a field of constant improvisation and borrowings \u2014 but it\u2019s hardened, even atrophied, into the sequence of monolithic inviolable works we are presented with today. In music, textual fidelity is seen as some kind of inherent artistic good \u2014 even though some of the most interesting and lively performances result from engaging more actively and creatively with the material. In literature, however, new books and plays are generally received as an enrichment of tradition, rather than a countervention of it. Anne Carson has become a literary star with her quirky approach to retooling stories and text fragments \u2014 starting with the bits of Sappho\u2019s poetry that still exist \u2014 into distinctive new works. Wilson has encountered some fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of translation \u2014 partly because of, she thinks, the introduction and translator\u2019s note included in the book. \u201cI want to make the process of translation visible,\u201d she says, \u201cengage people in thinking about the choices I made. But it\u2019s dangerous because people think, \u2018Oh, she made choices; that\u2019s not legitimate.\u2019 \u201d Many evidently don\u2019t understand that every translation is an act of interpretation. This, at least, is an area in which music does a little better: understanding what\u2019s involved in interpretation, and how each one is different. One reason there\u2019s less tut-tutting about new tellings of Greek myths than to, say, reinterpretations of Beethoven may be that there\u2019s a greater divide between classical scholars and creative writers than there is between musicologists and musicians. Although a few noted writers, such as Carson and Wilson, are also classics professors, classical scholars may still tend to regard all of this literary activity not only as slightly less serious than what they\u2019re doing, but as existing in a different realm entirely. Musicology and musical performance are more closely linked \u2014 musicians often work with musicologists to refine and unveil new critical editions of composers\u2019 scores, for instance. This may well contribute to the current emphasis on textual fidelity \u2014 which is effectively prioritized, in many cases, over the things people actually want and need to say. All too prevalent in both fields is the idea that because we need more women\u2019s voices, women are writing in response to that need. Creativity tends to be born of much more personal responses. \u201cI don\u2019t think people are turning back to the past to correct the scholarly record,\u201d Wilson says. \u201cIt\u2019s about connecting with our culture in a broader way.\u201d She certainly didn\u2019t set out to translate \u201cThe Odyssey\u201d because she thought a woman needed to do it. She also offers a reminder that the ancient world was less white and less Western than we may often remember. \u201cThe narrative that \u2018We need these stories because they justify our narratives about ourselves, we\u2019ve always been powerful white people at the edge of Europe,\u2019 that\u2019s a really bogus, ahistorical narrative,\u201d she says. \u201cPart of the attraction of the ancient world in general, which includes the ancient Near East, ancient China, ancient Greece, involves these very distant cultures which at the same time have these recognizable human forms of storytelling accessible to us through art that survives. The remaking of these ancient myths to show that they\u2019re telling stories very different from our stories and at the same time stories that we need to tell now.\u201d There\u2019s another key difference between music and literature: For most people, music exists in performance, while literature exists on the page. This difference was illuminated in Katie Mitchell\u2019s production of \u201cNorma Jeane Baker of Troy,\u201d which ended up obfuscating a text that, while dense, remains eminently elegant. In performance, despite two strong actors \u2014 Ben Whishaw, transforming himself into Monroe, and Ren\u00e9e Fleming, playing a dowdy secretary and making supportive musical sounds that hovered at the edge of speech \u2014 there was a constant and no doubt intentional sense of trying to reach past the obstacles to make out what was meant. Between her creative treatment of Euripedes\u2019s crazy play and her short exegeses on individual Greek words and their meanings \u2014 \u201cimage,\u201d \u201cslavery,\u201d \u201cbarbarian\u201d \u2014 Carson compressed pithily, into an hour-long performance, a tome\u2019s worth of thoughts on translation and adaptation, women and their role in myth, the uneasy interference patterns that result from overlaying past and present. The play, it turns out, is all about women dealing with the canon and its challenges. Perhaps it\u2019s hardly surprising, for all the progress that we\u2019ve made, that very few people seemed to get it. Read more: Beach reading for the music lover: a definitive (crowdsourced) guide. A beginner\u2019s guide to enjoying classical music. No snobs allowed. Opera plays its Trump card: yes, the president is showing up in Verdi.