In Cassandra, Bernard Foccroulle’s first opera, the young climate activist Sandra struggles to make her voice heard, clearly mirroring the original Greek myth of Cassandra. But how exactly did that story go?
Who is Cassandra?
In Greek mythology, Cassandra is the daughter of King Priam of Troy and his wife Hecuba. Cassandra is so beautiful that even the sun god Apollo falls head over heels in love with her. In a bid to seduce her, he endows her with the unique gift of prophecy. However, she spurns his advances and an aggrieved Apollo retaliates by ensuring that nobody will ever believe her predictions – not even her own family.
When her mother falls pregnant with Paris, Cassandra predicts that the child will signify the end of Troy, so her mother keeps Cassandra’s younger brother out of the city for a while. Later on, when he is allowed to return, Cassandra warns him that on his expedition to Sparta, he will abduct Helen, the wife of King Menelaus, thereby unleashing a bloody war between the Greeks and the Trojans. When Paris does bring Helen back from Sparta, Cassandra is the only one to predict misfortune; the Trojans are all stunned by the young Greek girl’s beauty.
For ten long years, the Greeks try to secure Helen’s return by holding the city of Troy under siege. They then come up with the idea of offering the Trojans the famous horse that will lead to the destruction of Troy. In vain, Cassandra warns that the horse is a trick to gain entrance to the city.
The more accurately Cassandra predicts the future, the less she is listened to. She begins to foretell horrors in such a frenzied manner that she is declared insane and everyone gives her a wide berth. Cassandra is the archetypal cursed prophet, condemned not to be believed. She even has a vision of her own death (she will be murdered by Clytemnestra, wife of the Greek commander Agamemnon), but makes no attempt to prevent it. After the Trojan massacre in which so many of her family members lost their lives, she loses the will to live.
The Cassandra syndrome
The ‘Cassandra syndrome’, an extension of this myth, refers to a person’s legitimate warnings or concerns not being believed and therefore ignored. The term is still used in a variety of fields: from medical science, through the media and psychology to politics.