“Che Faró Senza Euridice?”:
The Role of Greco-Roman Culture in the Creation and Development of Opera

 James E. Betts
Monmouth College

It is one of the commonly accepted facts of music history that the first operas were created in Florence at the end of the 16th. century.  While most music history texts discuss the rise of opera in relation to its musical antecedents, they do not go into much consideration as to why this development should have happened in Florence , nor do they deliberate on why the subjects of the first operas are almost exclusively mythological.   However, given that these early works were created in a city whose leading thinkers had spent two centuries in study and preservation of the classical tradition, by a group of performers and patrons inspired by their studies of music as part of Greek theater, the choice of subject was almost inevitable.  More importantly, this emphasis on Greco-Roman mythological and historical subjects as sources for opera libretti would spread beyond Florence and remain active throughout the Baroque and Classic eras, even after the original artistic goal of reflecting Greek performance practices was lost.  Although composers of the Romantic and later eras moved away from classical themes (with exceptions such as Berlioz), the tradition would survive in parody, paraphrase, and even postmodern deconstruction.  The creation and survival of this tradition is the focus of the presentation.

Using aural and visual multimedia resources, the presentation examines various facets of the relationship between Greco-Roman culture and opera.  First, we consider the origins of Florence’s humanist tradition and how they contributed to its role in the birth of the operatic form, considering the roles of both famous (Dante, Petrarch) and lesser-known (Giovanni Bardi, Vincenzio Galilei) Florentines in this process.  Then a brief survey of the historical development of the operatic form follows, with special attention to operas based on mythological or classic historical sources, taking into account social and musical changes and their reflections in the use of these sources.  This survey is complemented and illustrated by a case study (with musical examples) of one of the most attractive myths to composers, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and its transformations for use in Baroque operas by Peri and Monteverdi, Classic operas by Gluck and Haydn, Offenbach’s parodistic retelling, Milhaud’s humanizing version, Birtwistle’s depiction of parallel realities, and musico-dramatic works by Moraes and Jobim and Amouyal.  These examples serve to show the persistence of Greco-Roman cultural influence throughout more than four centuries of opera composition, as well as composers’ flexibility in employing this influence in reaction to social and cultural evolution.