The Tale of Orpheus: a 21st-century take on the first ‘true’ opera

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In September, a cast of singers and musicians will perform Monteverdi’s groundbreaking opera, L’Orfeo, in a landmark production by the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music in association with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. In this interview, Artistic Director Professor Jane Davidson explains her reasons for staging the work. 

By Frederic Kiernan 

Jane, why did you choose to stage this opera?

Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 opera L’Orfeo (sometimes called La Favola d’Orfeo, or The Tale of Orpheus) is a remarkably beautiful work, and is technically quite challenging, so I wanted to explore this work’s creative possibilities in a modern production. This year is also the 450th anniversary of the birth of the composer, so we also wanted to take the opportunity to celebrate this Italian master’s wonderful musical legacy. Even though there have been a number of operas based upon the Orpheus myth written over the centuries, Monteverdi’s setting is a standout masterpiece.

What makes Monteverdi’s opera so special?

Monteverdi was very much a musical innovator. He composed music at a time when great shifts were happening in the way people thought about music, and what people wanted music to do – this was all happening towards the end of the 16th century, and during the first decades of the 17th century, in Italy. Italian composers at that time, and especially Monteverdi, were exploring music’s power to express the emotional meaning of texts, whereas previously, more strict rules were in operation about how melodies and harmonies were supposed to behave. Those rules didn’t relate much to the text being sung. When the text became an expressive priority, opera was born. Monteverdi’s work is probably the first “true” opera (although scholars continue to debate this, of course).

Why is The Tale of Orpheus the first “true” opera?

Some scholars argue that the first “true” operas didn’t emerge until the first public opera houses opened up in Venice in the 1630s, and there is merit in this argument. But discussions about opera’s origins still invariably return to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. Other composers had written theatrical productions that were sung through from beginning to end before Monteverdi. Jacopo Peri had written Dafne in 1598, which is now lost, and he also composed an opera based on the Orpheus myth, Euridice, in 1600, which also included music by Giulio Caccini. These were, in a way, early “experiments” in operatic writing.

While they did use new musical styles such as stile rappresentativo, or the “representational style”, where the melody was geared towards expressing the emotional content of the text, these early operas never really achieved the stylistic synthesis that Monteverdi achieved with L’Orfeo. In this opera, we see a vast array of musical styles at work – both old and new, side by side – and they all somehow come together in a remarkably cohesive way. That was a historical turning-point in music history and, in many ways, marked the beginning of what is often called the “baroque” period.

What is your vision for the current production?

In this production, I want to bring historical ideas into the present in a creative way. I’m an opera director, but I’m also a music psychologist, as well as leader of the Performance Program at the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, so I want to focus especially on emotions, and how these have been expressed in music historically. The current production explores the significance of historical ideas about music’s relationship to the planets and mood regulation through innovative staging, direction, and other design elements. By doing this, I hope the audience comes away with a greater appreciation not only for Monteverdi’s wonderful opera, but also how it represents an important shift in the way people thought and felt in the past.

The Tale of Orpheus by Claudio Monteverdi will be performed at The Meat Market, 5 Blackwood Street, North Melbourne, on 7 and 8 September, 7.30pm–9pm. Visit Eventbrite for ticketing and show information

Main image: The Tale of Orpheus by Claudio Monteverdi. By Sarah Walker.