To commemorate the 450th anniversary of Claudio Monteverdi's birth, conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir, and English Baroque Soloists will perform the composer's three surviving operas—Orfeo, The Return of Ulysses, and The Coronation of Poppea—in semi-staged performances over a single week (October 18, 19, and 21) to open the 2017 White Light Festival.

Audience members' appreciation of "the birth of opera" is enhanced by an understanding of the cultural context in which it originated. At the time Monteverdi (1567–1643) began to flourish as a composer and musician, the Italian peninsula was a collection of city-states with ruling families presiding over various territories. The seeds of "rebirth" planted by Michelangelo and Leonardo in the preceding century had begun to spread, becoming part of a much larger humanistic Renaissance movement. Building on this foundation, a group of intellectuals and artists now known as the Camerata gathered in the salon of Count Giovanni de' Bardi in Medici-ruled Florence to discuss music, poetry, and science.

Included among the group's members was the composer and musician Vincenzo Galilei, who, in 1581—based on research done by music theorist and fellow Camerata member Girolamo Mei—suggested that ancient Greek dramas had been entirely sung through. This theory led to the development of the stile recitativo, and in 1598 Jacopo Peri's Dafne became what historians now consider the original opera. A short time later, and more than 100 miles north, Monteverdi's 1607 opera Orfeo premiered in Mantua, where the composer was living alongside neighbors such as the astronomer Galileo Galilei (son of Vincenzo) and the painter Peter Paul Rubens.

Although Mantua did not share Florence's reputation for being a cultural hotbed, connections—and competition—between ruling families of different city-states, such as the Medicis of Florence and the Gonzagas of Mantua, meant that innovations spread quickly. "It creates a very exciting environment in which the arts can flourish," explains Tim Carter, a musicologist and author of Monteverdi's Musical Theatre. Reflecting on the larger intellectual circle that brought this rich art form—and other modern concepts—to life, Gardiner notes, "It's an extraordinary generation of people, of artists, and philosophers, and mathematicians who ushered in the new world as far as we're concerned. They transformed our understanding of the planet we live on and our place in the whole cosmology." He adds, "Man and woman become the center of artists' and philosophers' universes now. It's no longer music of the spheres or a God-scented world."

Monteverdi's operas teem with “gluttons and sycophants and parasites and shepherds, as well as the gods who are making mischief all the time.”

Given this new perception of the universe, which placed humans at its center, perhaps it's not surprising that artists began to examine and highlight humanity in all its complexity, not only in the newly created art form now known as opera, but also in theater and visual art. Shakespeare captured the essence of both nobility and commoners. Caravaggio brought an underworld element into religious paintings. And, as Gardiner puts it, Monteverdi's operas teem with "gluttons and sycophants and parasites and shepherds, as well as the gods who are making mischief all the time."

The three operas that will be performed at the White Light Festival illustrate Gardiner's point: Orfeo presents the story of the demigod of music—a flawed but beloved character; Ulysses, written in 1640 and based on the final chapter of Homer's Odyssey, includes the gods, but places them alongside nobility and lower classes; and in Poppea (1642), the gods become a framing device to tell the very human drama of an affair between a tyrannical emperor and an ambitious courtesan.

Musicologist Carter has described the role of drama in the 17th century as a vehicle for the audience to make moral, ethical, and political judgments while having an emotional experience. "In a way that's one of the things that makes this stuff relevant to the early 21st century," Gardiner explains. Poppea, he continues, is "the most immoral opera until Lulu. And that's a kind of magic that can only be compared to Shakespeare, in which he takes an unsavory pair of lovers and makes you want them to succeed."

What is it about the humanity of these three operas—and the art form as a whole—that continues to resonate after more than four centuries? Countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim, who will sing Nerone in Poppea and Speranza in Orfeo, points out, "We can simply generalize that it's human nature to be selfish, it's human nature to be ambitious, it's human nature to love, whether the power of that love is positive or negative."

Indeed.

For tickets and information, visit WhiteLightFestival.org.


Eileen Willis is the editorial director for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

Monteverdi: The Birth of Opera is made possible in part by The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.