News, Culture and NPR for Central & Northern Michigan
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
91.7FM Alpena and WCML-TV Channel 6 Alpena are off the air. Click here to learn more.

Monteverdi's 'Orfeo'

Is it possible for one person to invent an entire form of art? It would seem like a tall order, by any standard.

For example, there is cave art as old as 30,000 years — the earliest paintings ever discovered. But it would be hard to claim that the artists who created them actually invented painting. Surely there were earlier painters whose work simply hasn't survived.

What about music? Courses on the history of western music often start with Gregorian chant — or even earlier, with the "Delphic Hymns" from ancient Greece. But those are just the earliest examples of music that was written down and preserved, not the earliest music ever created.

Still, there is one composer, Claudio Monteverdi, who sometimes gets credit for inventing opera — which just may be an art form entirely unto itself. Opera is more than just music combined with storytelling. It's also stagecraft, poetry and even philosophy — all rolled into one unique form of artistic expression. But, could Monteverdi really have invented it?

Technically, the answer is no. Opera evolved amidst a community of Italian artists in the last years of the 16th century. But nearly all of their earliest works have been lost. The ones that are still around aren't very satisfying, and they're almost never performed. That is, until you get to Monteverdi's Orfeo, in 1607.

With Orfeo, Monteverdi created the first opera that both survived the centuries and stuck in the repertory. It's the earliest example of opera's uncanny ability to present the straightforward words of its characters as well as their anguished and chaotic emotions — and to express all of this simultaneously, with the remarkable clarity and insight that are the trademarks of any great opera. You might call it the first opera that actually "works," and it's still working in opera houses all over the world 400 years after Monteverdi wrote it.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us Monteverdi's Orfeo — arguably the single work from which all other operas are descended — in a production from the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam, featuring some of the world's finest performers of early music. Stephen Stubbs is the conductor, with tenor Jeremy Ovenden in the title role and soprano Judith van Wanroij as Euridice.

See the previous edition of WORLD OF OPERA.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit