The University of Iowa

UI ‘Re-Creation’ Conference Will Include Free Performances of the Oldest Surviving Opera

October 26th, 2011

“Re-Creation: Musical Reception of Classical Antiquity,” a conference hosted by the University of Iowa Department of Classics and School of Music, will include free Oct. 28 and 30 performances of the oldest surviving opera, Jacopo Peri’s “Euridice.”

( – “Re-Creation: Musical Reception of Classical Antiquity,” a conference hosted by the University of Iowa Department of Classics and School of Music, will include free Oct. 28 and 30 performances of the oldest surviving opera, Jacopo Peri’s “Euridice.” The performances by the UI Opera Studio, conducted from the keyboard by faculty member Gregory Hand, will take place at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 28 and 2 p.m. Oct. 30 in the Riverside Recital Hall.

The conference will include several other free, public events:

–Wendy Heller of Princeton University will speak on “Orpheus and the Origins of Opera: Looking Back at Peri’s Euridice,” co-sponsored by the Opera Studies Forum, at 5 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 27, in Room 2520D, University Capitol Centre (UCC).

–The Center for New Music will perform vocal settings and responses to Sappho, Catullus, Plato, Anakreon, and other writers from classical antiquity by composers including Purcell, Wolf, Rorem, and Dallapiccola at 8 p.m. Oct. 27 in the Senate Chamber of the Old Capitol.

–Simon Goldhill of King’s College, Cambridge, will speak on “The Ideal Chorus: Opera, Philosophy and Tragedy,” co-sponsored by the Eighteenth/Nineteenth-Century Interdisciplinary Colloquium, at 4:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 28, in the International Programs Commons, 1117 UCC.

–Jon Solomon of the University of Illinois will speak on “The Music of Ben Hur,” with the assistance of pianist Andrew Simpson and tenor James Thompson at 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 29, in 1117 UCC.

–Silent films with live piano music by Andrew Simpson from Catholic University of America — “La caduta di Troia” (The Fall of Troy)(1911), “Cupid and Psyche” (1897), “Ben Hur” (1907), and the Mutt and Jeff cartoon “A Roman Scandal” — will be screened at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 29, in the Englert Theater.

Conference organizer Robert Ketterer, a classics faculty member, says, “This event is a combination of an academic conference that has attracted scholars from all over the world with a series of public lectures and performances that feature important but seldom heard music. It is possible in the course of three days to hear one of the first operas ever as well as settings of ancient poetry from the 20th century.”

“Jacopo Peri’s ‘Euridice’ is the first extant opera (Peri wrote one before it, but the music and the text do not survive) and it was written for the wedding of Henry IV of France and Maria Medici in October 1600,” Hand explains. “It concerns the Orpheus myth: Orpheus loses his wife, and travels to Hell to retrieve her. He uses the power of music to convince the god of the underworld to return his wife, and this is undoubtedly why Peri chose this topic, so he could show the power of music. Peri and his colleagues had recently invented a new type of music, the recitative, which is sort of a combination between speech and singing.”

The first production did not have we would recognize as an orchestral score, but rather a line for the singer and a bass line with continuo figures to guide the players in improvising the accompanying harmony. Hand points out, “This means that no two performances of the opera are alike, since so much is left up to the individual performers.”

In this production, the continuo group include two harpsichords, two violoncellos and a lute. “The harpsichords are copies of early baroque Italian instruments and are very similar to what were probably used in the first performance,” Hand says. “We will be performing at historic pitch (a half-step down from modern pitch), and using meantone temperament, the tuning system that was in place in Italy around 1600.

In modern times, opera is usually an elaborate spectacle performed in a large hall and featuring lavish sets and costumes, but Hand says this early example was chamber music, which has guided the UI production: “It was meant as entertainment for a wedding. There was no special lighting, no orchestra pit, no conductor, and probably not elaborate costumes or staging. So our performance will be taking place at Riverside Recital Hall rather than a theater. It will be minimally staged, with only simple costumes.”

Ketterer says, “I am very excited the way this conference has garnered support from so many different units on and off campus, including the Classics Department, the School of Music, International Programs, the Obermann Center, and the Iowa Arts Council.

“A grant from the Iowa Arts Council has made it possible for public to see free of charge at the Englert a group of silent films like the 1907 “Ben Hur” and a 1913 “Fall of Troy” the way they were meant to be seen, with live piano music, performed by composer and performer Andrew Earle Simpson, film accompanist at the Library of Congress. Come in ancient costume and stay for the midnight show of ‘Rocky Horror’!”

The Department of Classics and the School of Music are academic program in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.