An axiom that proves particularly true in the performing arts is that no matter how hard we try, nothing can ever be as great as it was the first time around. There is just something about premieres—the anxiety, the atmosphere, the surprise—which is almost impossible to replicate.
But the students, faculty and community members behind the Harvard Early Music Society’s (HEMS) production of Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, going up November 18–22, are trying to do just that.
The opera is being music directed by Morton B. Knafel Professor of Music Thomas Kelly, whose popular core class “First Nights: Five Performance Premieres” focuses heavily on Orfeo’s debut. It will be presented in the somewhat unusual setting of the Horner Room in Agassiz Theatre, an environment which producers hope will be similar to that of Orfeo’s premiere in 1607.
“We know that the piece was first given in a room in a palace for a very elite audience,” Kelly says. “So we’ve decided to present it in a room, in a palace, for a very elite audience. And the room is called the Horner Room. And the palace is called Agassiz Theatre. And the very elite audience is this entire community.”
Speech Through Music
L'Orfeo is recognized by most as the first great opera, a genre so unknown at its conception that Monteverdi originally chose to describe it as a play where the actors sung their lines, a concept Kelly refers to as “speech through music.”
The opera is based on the ancient Greek legend of Orpheus, the greatest singer in the world and a demigod deeply in love with his wife, Euridice.
Shortly after the pair’s wedding, however, Euridice is bitten by a snake and dies. Orpheus, convinced this is unfair, travels to the underworld and uses his musical talents to persuade Hades to let him lead Euridice back to the world of the living.
Hades agrees on one condition: Orpheus must not look back at Euridice as they leave. Though all goes well for a while, Orpheus eventually doubts that Euridice is indeed behind him. He turns around to reassure himself and loses her.
Kelly frames the opera as a metaphor for many decisions humans are forced to make, especially when choosing between logic and intuition. “The dilemma Orpheus faces is a dilemma we all face every day—the brain says one thing, the heart says another,” he says. “So do you trust your brain or do you trust your heart? It’s central to the human condition.”
Monteverdi’s emulation of the Greeks was not confined to the opera’s plot; indeed, the inspiration for having actors sing their lines came from the tradition of Greek drama. And though Kelly describes the theme of the legend and the opera as “don’t look back,” Harvard’s production is, in some sense, a revival of a revival, an attempt to replicate a performance of 1607 which was itself duplicating a tradition of thousands of years prior.
Sackbuts, Cornetti and Regals
In choosing to make the production as historically accurate as possible, the Early Music Society and others involved in the opera have faced their share of difficulties. Finding the early instruments Monteverdi used and musicians to play them has been one of the greatest.
“You’ll see instruments you’ve never seen before,” says Michael V. Givey ’06, who is one of the co-producers of the opera and the president of HEMS. Indeed, the show will make use not only of traditional strings with a slightly altered sound, but also the cornetto, a curved finger-hold trumpet which sounds similar to the voice; the regal, an Italian organ; and the sackbut, a precursor of the trombone.
HEMS has borrowed many of these instruments from private collections or other institutions, including Oberlin College and the New England Conservatory of Music.
Producers and directors have also had to face the challenges of working in a space like the Horner Room and finding singers who could remain true to the light, lyrical quality of the opera.
For the latter, they chose to open auditions not only to Harvard students and graduate students, but also to members of the Boston and Cambridge community. Although many parts will be played by Harvard affiliates, Orfeo, a role which Kelly describes as “stupendously beautiful, stupendously difficult” will be portrayed by singer Aaron Sheehan.
The decision to use a translation of the opera into English rather than singing it in the original Italian also presented a quandary. In the end, Givey says, Kelly and stage director Zoe VanderWolk ’05 decided that communication between the cast and the audience was most important, and therefore decided to perform it in English.
Funding was also an issue, as the decision to present Orfeo in a much smaller venue than usual means that producers cannot count on ticket sales for the majority of their revenue. HEMS has managed to make this portion up through donations from supporters, balances from previous shows and the work of volunteers.
Despite their challenges, participants remain optimistic and enthusiastic about their production and the opera itself, eagerly looking forward to their own first night.
“How do you describe great art? It’s exciting. It’s envigorating,” says Givey when asked about his favorite aspects of L’Orfeo. “There’s nothing better. I love this opera.”