Famed early music maestro Stephen Stubbs (left, photo with Baroque harp and chitarrone by Bill Mohn) discussed the origins of opera, Monteverdi and the music of our new chamber opera pasticcio, The Combat, with me (Seattle Opera Dramaturg Jonathan Dean). Performances of The Combat run April 1-9 at Seattle Opera Studios in South Lake Union—the old warehouse we’re leaving once Seattle Opera At The Center is ready next year.
Maestro Stubbs made his mainstage Seattle Opera debut in the earliest opera we’ve presented to date, Handel’s Giulio Cesare (1724), in which he played chitarrone. That was in 2007, when he had just moved back to his native city after three decades working in all the early music capitols of Europe. Now he’s a credit to Seattle as Artistic Director of Pacific MusicWorks and Senior Artist in Residence at the University of Washington. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation on March 21, 2017, part of our monthly series at Seattle University:
Opera had been around for centuries, before most of the familiar “standard rep” operas were composed. In America, many of the fascinating pieces from the early chapters of opera history are still unfamiliar, although my sense is they’re more mainstream today in Europe.
It’s hard for me to judge, because the world of ‘early music’ is the world I’ve lived in for the last forty years. Seems mainstream to me!
Theater size can be a limiting factor. Most of our big American opera houses were built to showcase those grand nineteenth-century Romantic scores. That’s why we’re excited to present the music of The Combat in a chamber-opera format. Our performances will take place in a big chamber, not an opera house, and it’s really more authentic, because they didn’t have opera houses when this music was written!
That’s right, the centerpiece of The Combat, this “Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” of Monteverdi, was written in 1624, in Venice, where they’d build Italy’s first opera houses starting about ten years later. Monteverdi was maestro di cappella at San Marco in Venice, and the patron for whom he wrote this piece was a senator there, who later also sponsored his first opera in Venice. The composer was in his 70s, but this creation of a new art form was too exciting an opportunity to pass up, and he got in on the action.
Let’s talk about the creation of opera. How does a community go about inventing a new art form?
In this case, opera came out of a foment of intellectual activity happening in Florence in the 1570s and 80s. A group of intellectuals—historians, musicians, literary people—got together. They called themselves the Camerata, “a bunch of people who gather in a room,” to discuss the art form of ancient Greek theater, which they believed was sung from beginning to end. They knew about it from these ancient sources that had just come their way. At least one of them could read ancient Greek. And they understood that this kind of theater had supposedly miraculous effects. Not just entertaining audiences by moving them to tears and laughter, but also by bringing them to a higher level of consciousness. This was really heady stuff! They wanted to re-invent ancient Greek drama for the (then) modern world, and hoped it would have the same effect, raising the consciousness of the audience.
Fascinating. What has changed? In a recent podcast Seattle Opera General Director Aidan Lang asserted that it wasn’t enough for opera simply to entertain. He said, basically, that art must also make us think and feel. How did the ideas of the Camerata evolve into opera?
What happened right then, in the 1580s, was a big dynastic political alliance between Italy and France, the marriage of Ferdinando de’ Medici with Christine of Lorraine. This was a huge, Europe-wide event, which encompassed a week-long celebration, full of performances. One of the things they performed was a play with little interstitial entertainments, filler pieces between the acts, with music and dance and costumes and splendid scenery. The next real step was to take a play and find a way to sing the entire thing. This happened in the 1590s; the first example we have is a show called Euridice, by Jacopo Peri, on the old myth of Orpheus and Euridice. The Camerata built this new art form around the story of Orpheus, the super-hero singer, because they were worried about verisimilitude: if these characters could speak, why were they singing all the time? Well, Orpheus sang because he was the greatest singer in the world. Also, the story was taking place in Arcadia, the mythical land of nymphs and shepherds, and the idea was that in that land, everybody communicated through song. That’s how they got around any nay-sayers who might object to opera in terms of suspension of disbelief.
It’s interesting that these audiences were, in fact, used to spoken theater. The 1590s, for instance, was a great period for Shakespeare in London. Except, the Elizabethans were Protestants, and in Italy everyone was Catholic. We should talk about the contemporary push, within Catholicism, to simplify church music, as that also influences the invention of opera. The liturgical tradition had gotten so elaborate, in its coloratura and polyphony, no one could possibly understand the words that were being sung in church.
Yes, they called it a ‘laceration’ of the poetry, when too many voices were singing different words at the same time, or one word was extended so long you couldn’t understand it. The Camerata had a radical new idea about music, which had always been understood as a branch of mathematics. No, they said, music was a form of communication, it belonged with the liberal arts, and they aspired to this marriage of words and music. When properly fused, the music will carry the words, they thought, in such a way that people understand it NOW. It’s a very immediate thing. It puts the solo singer, not the ensemble or chorus, at the center of the event. The solo singer becomes the carrier of the words, the music, the drama, and the ideas; the singer becomes the magnet for everything that goes into this new art form. In a nutshell, that’s how opera is born.
One singer, carrying both the words and the music in one voice. By singing the words, a singer gives them even more power, more meaning.
Right. But now they needed a technical device to make it all possible. By this time the use of multiple voices had made possible a rich harmonic language, in European music. They didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bath-water; how do you connect the solo voice with all those wonderful harmonic juices? And so they invented the basso continuo: a bass line that carries the harmony, with a vocal line above that, carrying the text. These two simple-looking lines replace the complex five-part harmonic writing of motets and madrigals. But that simplicity is deceptive; the notation in the bass line was shorthand for a whole orchestra, of lutes, harps, harpsichords, organs, and viola da gambas, all of which can be part of the continuo—so long as they don’t obscure the solo voice.
Genevieve Hathaway, photo
This basso continuo developed in Florence with these composers of the Camerata. Monteverdi wasn’t part of that crowd; he joined the movement a few years later, in a different city. Why do we still perform his music today, and not that of his predecessors?
It’s a great question, and all I can say is that Monteverdi is our first great musical dramatist. He’s the first one, not only to fuse music and words in this new way, but to use that fusion to carry intense drama. It’s something that very few people were ever able to do. Later in the century, maybe Lully and Purcell get there; and later Handel, and Mozart after that. The people who can really do it at that level of genius are few and far between.
Yes, we have our “Mt. Rushmore” of opera composers—Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini—and in each case we’re talking about dramatic geniuses, people born to write for the theater, who happened to be musicians. Writers who had something important to say, about the experience of being human, and the place they found to say it was the opera house.
(At this point in the discussion we heard and saw an excerpt from Mo. Stubbs’ 1999 recording of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, with John Mark Ainsley as the legendary singer, appealing to Caronte for access to hell.)
There you have it—the virtuoso power of a great singer’s performance, even in opera’s earliest incarnation. What were you playing, at that moment in that opera?
Chitarrone and harpsichord, changing from one to the other. As I said, you realize these scores with a “sea” of continuo instruments: we had me and two other chitarrone players, me and one other player on harpsichord, someone on organ, a regal for Caronte. This kaleidoscopic, ever-changing accompaniment isn’t officially written down, as with later opera. You figure out the orchestration each time you perform the opera. We do have a score, printed at great expense two years after the first performance of Orfeo, with some instructions, almost like stage directions, of which instruments played at which point. But it was much more free than it later became.
We heard a few characteristic little orchestral interjections, in that example.
Those are ritornellos, short passages in which the orchestra sets up a little atmosphere or mood. Then the orchestra disappears, while the singers and continuo co-dramatize the story. One of the things that’s a little confusing here: Orfeo was earlier in Monteverdi’s career, and it calls for his most sophisticated orchestra. The idea was to show the prowess of his patron at the time, Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga of Mantua. He must be a big deal, if he could afford all those players! Later on, when Monteverdi writes Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and L’incoronazione di Poppea for opera houses in Venice, they spend all their money on sets and costumes and singers, and saved money when it came to the pit. The orchestra for Ulisse and Poppea was two violins, two harpsichords, two lutes, and maybe a cello. That’s all. It seems almost unacceptable to us, because we think of orchestras increasing in size, as opera history unfolds. But in Monteverdi’s career it was the reverse.
Monteverdi began his career as an underpaid musician in the service of this Gonzaga, the real-life Duke of Mantua (familiar to Verdi fans as the playboy scumbag in Rigoletto).
Yes, that was his court position, and he was only too glad to leave that job to become maestro di cappella at San Marco, a much more prominent international position, in Venice, the crossroads of the world. Everybody came from all over Europe to Venice each year for Carnival. That’s where this opera tradition really caught on: entertainment for the huge crowds that came to party each spring.
Right, and it’s so successful in Venice, they start imitating this new art form in Rome and Naples. And the Italian opera tradition is underway. But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. When Monteverdi first moves to Venice, his first major work is the amazing Vespers of the Blessed Virgin, for the Basilica di San Marco, where he works. You’ve led this piece here in Seattle at St. James. It’s almost an opera.
I think of it as a sister-piece to Orfeo. In 2001 we did both works in rep, in Vancouver, and it turns out the needs, in terms of singers and instrumentalists, are almost the same.
Both pieces, Orfeo and the Venetian Vespers start with the same exact music, that wonderfully noisy, celebratory toccata.
Right, that was the “tattoo” of the Mantuan court. Like a family coat-of-arms; here’s the family emblem, in music. Orfeo begins with that music. Everybody else would already have been seated, but now the court, the Gonzaga family, processed in and took their seats, to that music.
So we have Monteverdi there in Venice, composing for that amazing and bizarre space, the Basilica di San Marco. He writes “Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” after about a decade in Venice. And we should point out, it’s not a very long piece. It’s about twenty minutes, so we’re going to do it as the centerpiece of a triptych, with two other pieces surrounding it on both sides. We start with one of the Monteverdi madrigals: voice and text, but not exactly theater music.
Right, originally our first piece, “Tirsi e Clori,” was a madrigal about love, the dialogue of a shepherd and a nymph, talking about fields and flowers and love and all that Arcadian bliss. Our singers start as Arcadian lovers and then immediately become, in “Il combattimento,” enemy warriors. Monteverdi took the text for that piece from a then-famous epic poem by Torquato Tasso, Jerusalem Liberated, where Clorinda is a Saracen maiden, and this Christian knight, Tancredi, falls in love with her. They meet, later, in full warrior regalia, so they don’t recognize each other. They just start fighting, and they fight to the death. It’s very touching. He kills her, and only when he takes off her helmet does he discover it’s the woman he loves.
“Each man kills the thing he loves,” quoth the poet! So that’s where all those later opera composers got the idea. We’ve added “Tirsi e Clori,” re-conceived as a prequel to “Il combattimento,” so we get a chance to see these two as lovers before they start trying to kill each other. But tell us a little about these Monteverdi madrigals, which come from a very different tradition than opera.
Yes, “Tirsi e Clori” was actually written for Mantua, before he moved to Venice. Madrigals were written so that anybody could take pleasure in singing them at home, with friends. They’re not so difficult that only professional musicians can perform them. If you were a wealthy aristocrat, you’d hire professionals to sing madrigals to you. The artistry lies in the shaping of each note, each line, rather than performing amazing feats with your voice.
Musically, that first piece is lovely, but it didn’t particularly break new ground. As I understand it, “Il combattimento” was much more experimental. Monteverdi achieved many “firsts.”
And a few “lasts,” as well! Some things he pioneered here became important in the history of opera, whereas other things fell by the wayside. He is making music mimetic: “Il combattimento” is the soundtrack for a battle. He says, specifically, that when you perform this, the Tancredi and Clorinda must enact the battle exactly as described in the music, which is extremely specific. The orchestra indicates where they cross swords, where they butt heads together, where they grab onto each other and struggle. Monteverdi is using the orchestra for the first time NOT for atmosphere; they’re not simply playing little ritornellos and then going away. Here they are illustrating the story of this fight, move by move. That’s a first, and very important for the future of opera.
It’s totally cinematic. The text comes from this epic poem, so there’s the poetic voice of the narrator, telling the story of the battle, like Homer: “Achilles charged onto the field, and look, here comes Hector, down from the walls of Troy...” But when you dramatize it, what happens is you have two people playing Tancredi and Clorinda, but they have barely any lines. The person with all the lines is this other character, simply called “Text.” He’s the storyteller, or the narrator, or maybe he’s the poet Tasso himself, and he goes into extraordinary detail, who stabbed whom where and who crushed whose skull.
Tasso and Monteverdi actually met, in Mantua in 1591. Monteverdi was in his early 20s and Tasso in his late 40s. Tasso was all about grand, epic poetry. He felt that Italian musicians, in those days, were wasting their time with these silly little love trinkets, these madrigals. He challenged the musicians to come up to the level of epic grandness, and I believe “Il combattimento” was Monteverdi’s eventual answer to that challenge. Tasso was long dead, when it was composed, but Monteverdi hadn’t forgotten.
Among the many musical "firsts" in this piece: a very harsh, two-fingered pizzicato, for the stringed instruments, and a tremolo (zillions of little back-and-forths on the same note) all to connote the frenzy of battle.
Yes, and there’s even a name for it: stile concitato, “provoking style.” The idea is that hitherto, musicians may have sounded the experience of love, but here he was trying to capture the experience of war, combat and battle, by dividing the whole note into sixteen little bits.
I wonder how people reacted at that first performance, in a ballroom in Venice in 1624, when they thought they were getting together for yet another lovely evening of madrigals.
Monteverdi describes the scene, and he says they’re listening to normal madrigals, you know, duets and trios and so forth, and suddenly Clorinda arrives in full armor; and then Tancredi enters on a cavallo mariano. Nobody knows exactly what that means, but it’s some kind of horse! Whether it’s an imitation horse or a real horse, the idea was to have this theatrical event suddenly thrust into what had been billed simply as an evening of musical pleasures. The surprise was part of it.
A flash mob effect! I suppose that’s what we’re going for in our production, which is a progressive theater piece: the audience follows the performers from room to room through Seattle Opera’s Studios. We should talk about the choice of space, for performances of early music. In your career you’ve performed in a wide variety of facilities.
Yes, I’ve had the good fortune in Europe to perform in many of the original spaces where these pieces were first done. Many of them are still in great condition. The Drottningholm Theatre, in Sweden, and the theater in Český Krumlov, both of them date from the 1760s and are in ideal condition. In Vicenza there’s the Teatro Olimpico from 1587, Monteverdi’s time, which is intact and still serviceable. What they have in common is these spaces are NOT the size of McCaw Hall. The early opera houses, too. Many were built in the 1640s and 50s, because opera caught on like wildfire. But all those houses resemble 1920s Broadway halls in that the stage is long and the seating area is short. The audience wanted to be near the stage, near the sound, near the action. That’s an important element to the success of a Baroque opera: the audience should be up close. We certainly have that with The Combat.
Genevieve Hathaway, photo
That’s right, it’s a visceral experience for the audience. We’re singing it in English, and when Tancredi and Clorinda start fighting you’ll see their sweat, their hair flying all over the place. It’s very intense. Our terrific fight choreographer, Geoff Alm, has created an amazing performance with our two singers. The clatter of their swords is a percussion section all unto itself!
We did Monteverdi’s Orfeo a few years ago, with the Boston Early Music Festival, and at a preview the audience was right up close. At the end they were speechless, completely overwhelmed. That was the effect of having the singers singing a few feet away, their deaths happening right in front of you.
Stephanie Berger, photo
The Combat concludes with a wonderful piece by François Couperin for two sopranos and continuo, from the Leçons de ténèbres, with a liturgical text sung in Latin, drawn from the Old Testament “Lamentations of Jeremiah.” This piece follows the terrible end of the “Combattimento,” the devastating death scene for Clorinda. (She has a lot to say before she dies, which sets up another familiar Italian opera tradition!) The Couperin helps us process the impact of this death. It’s almost cleansing.
Genevieve Hathaway, photo
Yes, including the Couperin was the idea of Barbara Lynne Jamison, Seattle Opera’s Director of Education and Community Engagement. Barbara, perhaps you could talk about the overall idea behind the program.
BARBARA LYNNE JAMISON: Yes, the objective of this community engagement series is to open up meaningful dialogue in the community with and through opera, much like the Camerata sought to do. Last fall, we began our series with As One, a transgender woman’s story. With this project, we’re choosing to look at the relationship of the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The epic poem by Tasso—Jerusalem Liberated, set in the Crusades—inspired Monteverdi’s "Il combattimento." But we’ve added the madrigal for context to explain the relationship of the lovers, since our audiences aren’t as familiar with Tasso’s poem as Monteverdi’s audience was. Couperin’s setting of The Lamentations of Jeremiah was added to explore the fall of Jerusalem, set intentionally in juxtaposition to a piece based on Jerusalem’s “liberation,” yet both clearly describing war and death. We’re exploring how the world’s major religions have historically turned their backs on peace and care for one’s neighbor, even though these are core tenants of those religions. We’re aiming to open up dialogue around this topic, through opera, and encourage our community to engage in deeper empathy, listening, and learning, particularly in light of current events.
The Couperin offers counterpoint, two independent vocal lines interacting and playing with each other, which isn’t something we’ve heard in the first two pieces. It’s breathtaking, heart-shatteringly beautiful.
We cross the divide into religious music, instead of secular music, and into French music, instead of Italian music. It’s quite different. They sing these little florid coloratura duets simply pronouncing the names of the Hebrew letters that begin each verse. It’s like an illuminated manuscript, with giant capital letters. The ornaments are carefully written out, typical of the French tradition. (In the Italian tradition, singers prided themselves on being able to improvise different ornamentation at each performance!)
Stephen Stubbs, thanks very much for joining us tonight. We look forward to hearing you lead this wonderful music starting next week!