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Don't Look Back: Ozarks Lyric Opera's Concert Performance of Monteverdi's "L'Orfeo"

OLO orfeo_orig.jpg
(Poster design courtesy Springfield Regional Opera)
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Complete with an instrumental ensemble featuring theorbo and sackbuts, Ozarks Lyric Opera presents a concert performance of Claudio Monteverdi's 1607 masterpiece based on the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.

The earliest opera still in the repertory, dating from 1607, will provide an exotic treat for opera lovers Dec. 17 at University Heights Baptist Church.

Ozarks Lyric Opera will present a concert performance of one of the first operas, in the modern sense of the term, that was ever written: L’Orfeo, a setting of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth by Claudio Monteverdi, dating from 1607. It may not have been the first “real” opera, but it’s certainly the earliest one that remains in the “standard” repertory around the world. I talked by phone with Christopher Koch, OLO’s Music Director and conductor of this performance, which will take place at 7:30pm on Friday, December 17, at University Heights Baptist Church, corner of National Avenue and Grand Street.

“Monteverdi was a very well-known composer during his time,” Koch said, “and L’Orfeo is not the very first opera. The honors for that kind of jostle between whatever has been uncovered most recently.” But, he continued, L’Orfeo is certainly “the oldest opera to be considered a masterpiece, and also to be performed regularly today, and to have a performing edition that is more or less not going to make everyone go insane. It definitely has the honors there.”

Dr. Koch said the process that resulted in this concert performance of L’Orfeo makes for “a long, convoluted story that has the word COVID in it.” But Koch has a special, personal interest in this particular project. “My secret side identity—when I'm able to—is I'm an early music aficionado and performer. Unfortunately I don't get to do very much early music, but I love it.”

How much in the way of period instruments or HIP (Historically Informed Performance practice) is available to Springfield area musicians? According to Koch, “there is a small group of people that is also interested in early music, and there are a few string players that participate in early music projects. Our trombonists for this event are using sackbuts, sort of the precursor to the trombones. We're bringing in a guest theorbo player from the University of Indiana. The theorbo is a fascinating instrument. Imagine a lute and then add another neck to it that's about seven feet long; and add some more strings to it. And you have this instrument that can play bass notes, but also play sort of lute-type figurations as well. And it was before keyboard instruments became so prevalent, that these sort of all-purpose massive string instruments that could play both a bassline and chords and figuration were in use. So Monteverdi actually specifies something like 41 different instruments in his original notes for this piece that could be used, between different types of string instruments and different types of brass instruments and intermediate instruments like cornettos and recorders, and different types of organs. I mean, it's fascinating, actually.”

One period-instrument/HIP practice Koch and his band will utilize is to tune their instruments down a half-step from modern A=440 (Hz) concert pitch, to a pitch said to be prevalent in the Baroque era: A=415. “So ‘A’ for us will actually sound like an ‘A-flat.’

"And that is something that we're doing to enable us to use theorbo and some other instruments. So we're tuning down and we're using (a) theorbo. We're using a combination of harpsichord and chamber organ, and then we're replacing our trombones with sackbuts. So we're not using ‘period instruments,’ exactly. But we're doing a lot of the things that would have been done historically.”

Certainly, if listeners are not familiar with late Renaissance/early Baroque music, L’Orfeo will sound rather exotic. I wondered how the singers are adapting to this early-music style?

“Probably the biggest adjustment for any singer,” said Christopher Koch, “is when you're not singing in standard pitch, where an A is an A. You have years of experience where your body goes to a certain place when you see a certain pitch on the page. So for them, singing in a non-standard pitch is the biggest challenge.” The use—or avoidance—of vibrato is the “second challenge,” said Dr. Koch. “Now we sort of think of (vibrato) as a constant in performance practice, but definitely even through the 19th century, it really wasn't something that was always present. So removing some degree of vibrato and using sort of a pure, clear sound in many places is an adjustment.”

Trying to describe the sound of early 17th-century music, Christopher Koch said “I always sort of think of music from this period as sort of ‘chaos music,' in the sense that it sounds ‘familiar’ because the forms and organizational structures of music from this time is actually very similar to popular music or jazz, in the sense that it has sort of strophic forms that have lots of repeating motives that come back. And on the level of it feeling familiar in that way, I think it is. But all of the rules that got developed later about, ‘Okay, what chord should go to what chord?’ Those rules were very much not present at this time.” I suggested composers of the day were really “feeling their way through them,” and Dr. Koch agreed.

“And so sometimes it sounds very familiar. And then sometimes it sounds very unfamiliar, because one chord goes to another chord and you're just not expecting it. But,” he added, “we hear these sounds all the time. This kind of Renaissance-y/early Baroque sound is present in basically any medieval fantasy epic you've ever watched! So it's actually very accessible to the listener. To the performer, it can be frustrating, because Monteverdi and everyone around him had not really developed the rules for how to notate music, either. So you're reading along and suddenly there's more beats or less beats—or more notes or less notes in a measure—than there should be, or it'll suddenly change meter. But there's nothing to tell you that it did that. So it's one of the things that you just kind of have to feel your way through.”

Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo dramatizes the Orpheus and Eurydice story. Does Eurydice die at the end, or are she and Orpheus reunited? I tried to draw Dr. Koch out on this point, but he sidestepped it just a bit. “The traditional Orpheus and Eurydice story, of course, does not have a happy ending,” he admitted. “This particular version that Monteverdi created with his librettist, I'd call it a ‘mixed’ ending. So without giving it away entirely, I would say that it maintains the dramatic arc of the original myth, but that it contains a little something extra at the end that was for sure designed to not leave audiences too depressed.

“In the Renaissance," Dr. Koch continued, "entertainments and public spectacles were very multifaceted, you know, coming out of the Renaissance. The people that would develop Baroque opera decided that opera should often have mythic or legendary themes, and often Baroque opera is very depressing! I mean, it just often is. So this is a little bit different and things aren't entirely lost as they are in the actual legend.”

Koch described the cast for this performance as being “kind of a combination of some of our stalwarts and a few guest artists. So our own Anne Marie Daehn is singing multiple roles, including Eurydice. And she is, of course, our resident stage director, but also a wonderful mezzo-soprano. Andrew Curtis, who's performed in many OLO events, is singing Orpheus. And Michael Payne will sing both Pluto and Charon in this particular version. Steven Baumgartner is singing the role of Apollo. And then we have a variety of local artists who are forming essentially a madrigal chorus. If you've ever seen a modern production of Orfeo—or ‘modern’ in the last 30 years—it's kind of gotten bigger and bigger, and it's not uncommon to see a chorus of 30, 40, 50. But when Monteverdi did it, he used four or five people. It was not supposed to be this big ordeal. So we've actually taken this and reinterpreted Monteverdi’s original intention. So, a chamber chorus. And we have a wonderful young artist coming in. She's our second young artist of the season, Joanna Pope, coming in from New York to sing the role of Persephone. And then, of course, our other big guest artist is Adrian Murillo. He's coming in to play theorbo. And he is one of the absolute bedrock parts of this entire performance and something that makes it extra special, because I don't think any of our musicians have ever played with a theorbo player. So we're very excited to welcome him."

As mentioned earlier, this will be an unstaged “concert” performance—but that is not unusual in the history of this opera, according to Christopher Koch. “We are doing pretty much a straight concert version of this. Actually, until the 20th century, when anyone would perform Orfeo it would always be a concert performance. Even when you stage it, the nature of this kind of opera, it's really a public story-telling with music. That's essentially what it is. And when Monteverdi had first created it, it was really evolving out of this tradition of when a theatrical performance or other type of live theater was given, there would often be music at the intermission or music as interludes between scenes. And this began to evolve into a much more robust art form, which would become opera. So even if we did stage it, it wouldn't really be that much different than what people will see next Friday.”

Dr. Koch will conduct the performance. Well, sort of, he said. “'Conducting' is probably too large a word for what I'm doing. There were no such thing as conductors in the early 17th century. But for sure, the original performances of Orfeo were done the way jazz musicians would perform. The musicians just did it—they just came together and they just did it, and they took cues from each other as needed. So I will conduct the sections with the most instruments, so I conduct a portion of the opera. But most of the opera takes place with just a few instruments accompanying different singers. And in those sections, I will either completely stay out of the way (or) I'll sort of be assisting our instrumentalists a little bit just to navigate from one section to the other.”

General admission tickets for Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo on December 17 are $30, and are available online at https://www.ozarkslyricopera.com, or by calling their office at (417) 863-1960, Monday through Friday 11:00am-3:00pm.

Randy is in his 43rd year at KSMU (45 if you count his student days!)--first as Music Director, later under the the title "Arts Producer."