The Tale of Orpheus: A Twenty-First Century Take on the First ‘True’ Opera

In September 2017, 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 Jane Davidson explains her reasons for staging the work. 

By Frederic Kiernan (The University of Melbourne)


The Tale of Orpheus by Claudio Monteverdi. By Sarah Walker.
The Tale of Orpheus by Claudio Monteverdi. Image by Sarah Walker.

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 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 on the Orpheus myth written over the centuries, Monteverdi’s setting is a standout masterpiece.

The Tale of Orpheus – Melbourne Conservatorium of Music from Kade Greenland Film + Content on Vimeo.

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 sixteenth century, and during the first decades of the seventeenth 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 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 they 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 2017, 7.30pm–9pm. Visit Eventbrite for ticketing and show information


Frederic Kiernan is a PhD candidate in Musicology at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, and a research assistant to Professor Jane Davidson at the Melbourne node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. His thesis traces the ‘afterlife’ of Zelenka’s music and reputation through a series of snapshots from eighteenth-century Dresden to present-day Melbourne, in order to demonstrate how emotional investment in music, and emotional responses to it, are shaped by cultural, social and political regulation of musical practices. He has published articles on Zelenka and on approaches for studying emotions in music in Clavibus unitis, Context: A Journal of Music Research and Emotions: History, Culture, Society.

Jane Davidson is a Professor of Creative and Performing Arts (Music) in the Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music at The University of Melbourne. In her role as Deputy Director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions she oversees industry partnerships, media and marketing, education and outreach and matters relating to intellectual property for CHE. She is also leader of the Performance Program, interrogating how emotions were performed and expressed in pre-modern dramatic, literary, artistic and musical performances. Jane’s own CHE-related research projects explore: i) how music was used historically and is used today for emotional regulation from personal through to collective ceremonial activities; ii) how emotional affect can be achieved through historically informed opera production practices, employing reflective practice techniques.

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