Monday 8 June 16:00 via Zoom
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In the third act of Striggio's and Monteverdi's Orfeo (1607), Orfeo seizes the boat of Charon, the ferryman of the dead, and propels himself across the river Styx. As he does so a chorus of Infernal Spirits extols Orfeo's courage in penetrating the underworld, comparing it to the navigational feats of Jason and the Argonauts, Daedalus’s mechanical conquest of flight, and Phaeton's seizing of the chariot of the sun. Although such exploits were commonly deployed in classical and medieval times as warnings against curiosity, hubris or political overreaching, by the early modern period Jason and Daedalus/Icarus were more commonly being adduced to represent the navigational and scientific achievements of the era. Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci were regularly represented as Jason by poets, painters and theatre-makers, and in turn all of these explorers navigational and intellectual, mythological or historical, came to stand for Galileo (e.g. Kepler’s reference to Galileo as “the Florentine Argonaut”). Furthermore, although historians have often noted the co-incidence of early modern science and early modern opera, the sheer extent of the relationship has not been adequately documented. Galileo himself was not present at the performance of the first surviving opera, Euridice, in Florence in 1600, but Nicholas Till demonstrates that the event brought together a remarkable constellation of Galileans amongst both its creators and the audience.
In this colloquium, Till wants to explicate these relations in detail and wants to attempt a hypothesis as to what lays behind these relations in terms of social, cultural and intellectual synergies, examining the function of science and experiment in early absolutist courts, the epistemological presuppositions of early science and early opera, and Claudio Monteverdi’s own scientific interests.
The title of the talk is taken from an essay by Francis Bacon in his De Sapienta veterum of 1609, his reading of the Greek myths as allegories of science, an Italian translation of which was published in 1618 and dedicated to Galileo’s employer Cosimo III de’ Medici. In this essay Bacon proposes that Orpheus’s descent into the realm of the dead should be read as an allegory of the scientist’s “noblest work of all, nothing less than the restitution and renovation of things corruptible”. In place of the esoteric/occult Orpheus of the Renaissance, Till will propose an understanding of Orphic opera as an artform well aware of the new scientific paradigm that constituted the modern age, and of its own modernity.
Nicholas Till is Professor of Opera and Music Theatre at the University of Sussex, and Pierre Audi Chair at the University of Amsterdam. His publications include Mozart and the Enlightenment (1992) and The Cambridge Companion to Opera Studies (2012), in addition to numerous articles and book chapters involving historical, theoretical and critical studies of opera and music theatre. His current research includes projects on early opera and modernity, cultural representations of nomadism and nation, and a history of one of London’s oldest working-class music halls.