HEMS and Cavalli's Arcadian Romp

Harvard Arts Blog, December 9, 2011


This weekend, the Harvard Early Music Society presents Francesco Cavalli’s 1651 opera La Calisto. Cavalli’s lusty romp is based on a myth drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and tells the story of Callisto, a nymph of Diana who loses her virginity to Zeus and is turned into a bear for her transgression. This semester, it has been brought to life by stage director Giselle Ty and music director Ryaan Ahmed ’12, who leads a period band in HEMS’s four show run, which continues 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 9 through Sunday, December 11 at Farkas Hall (formerly New College Theatre). I sat down with Ahmed to ask him about the production, HEMS and early music at Harvard.

Hargis Broaches Baroque Opera

The Harvard Crimson, November 7, 2008


Opera is a vocally-driven performing art. But this past Tuesday, Ellen Hargis—a “Baroque-music diva” according to The New Yorker—proved that sleight of hand can improve even the most skilled voices. During a lecture and masterclass hosted by the Office for the Arts (OFA) at the New College Theatre (NCT), soprano Hargis demonstrated the importance of performance gestures.

Hargis spoke about Baroque performance practices in opera, and concentrated specifically on the physical gestures used in that period, working with cast members from the Harvard Early Music Society’s presentation of Francesco Cavalli’s opera “L’Ormindo.”

'Semele' Succeeds in Making Opera Feel Modern

The Harvard Crimson, October 26, 2009


There’s nothing inherently modern about John Eccles “Semele.” Written at the beginning of the 18th century, the Baroque opera narrates an Ancient Greek myth about a mortal protagonist whose jealousy for her divine lover costs her her life. But Harvard Early Music Society’s production of “Semele,” which ran this past weekend at the New College Theatre, manages to spruce up the antiquated setting quite a bit, perhaps predictably arranging the action in America’s own period of mythical free love and divine (ahem, drug-induced) revelation: the groovy 1970s. Nuanced but still exciting, “Semele” shows that Baroque opera can still be fun.

L'Ormindo Laughs and Romances

The Harvard Crimson, November 17, 2008


“Una donna, due uomini.” Italian for “one woman, two men,” this timeless dramatic formula of the calamitous, star-crossed love-triangle has inspired almost every classic opera in the grand tradition—from “Manon Lescaut” and “Eugene Onegin” to “Carmen” and “Tosca.” But its tradition dates back to the early 17th century, when Francesco Cavalli composed “L’Ormindo,” one of the earliest operas still surviving today.

A Strong Revival of Purcell's 'King Arthur'

The Harvard Crimson, November 13, 2007


“’Tis Love, ’tis Love, ’tis Love/ that has warm’d us./ In spite of the weather/ He brought us together.” These lines were sung during what was, perhaps, the most compelling scene in the Harvard Early Music Society’s (HEMS) annual operatic production, the semi-opera “King Arthur.” The lines were especially appropriate for the show, considering that it premiered on a particularly cold Thursday.


“King Arthur” brought heroes, spirits, magicians, and talented musicians to Agassiz Theatre. Music director Matthew J. Hall ’09, stage director Catherine E. Powell ’08, and producer Matthew M. Spellberg ’09 conjured this colorful ensemble and blended music with action to create a satisfying, if somewhat uneven, experience of theater from another epoch.

Opera Brings Dark Age to the Stage

The Harvard Crimson, November 2, 2007


One Sunday afternoon in the Lowell JCR, eight students in their post-brunch T-shirts and sweats stand in a semi-circle as Matthew J. Hall ’09 tidies his sheet music at the piano. 

The Harvard Early Music Society is rehearsing for its biannual opera, Henry Purcell’s 1691 King Arthur, going up at the Agassiz Theatre Nov. 8, 9, and 10 at 8 p.m.

With the exception of Hall, everyone in the JCR looks nervous. Once the piano music starts, the semi-circle launches into a powerful operatic chorus. Impressive, certainly, but hardly unusual for Harvard. And yet the singers continue to exchange sidelong glances.

When they begin to dance, it becomes apparent why.

18th-Century Cantatas Morphed for Modern Crowd

The Harvard Crimson, November 19, 2006


Watching the Harvard Early Music Society’s performance of “Métamorphoses” felt like watching a condensed version of their rehearsals. 

Producer Joshua H. Billings ’07, stage director Matthew M. Spellberg ’09 and musical director Julia S. Carey ’08 presented four of Louis-Nicholas Clérambault’s 18th century cantatas, last weekend at the Agassiz Theatre. Although the performance started off shaky—both in narrative and accessibility—as the evening progressed, all its problems were resolved and the last two cantatas proved to be perfectly executed. 

Early Music Blends Styles

The Harvard Crimson, November 14, 2006


Great art has that funny tendency to reaffirm one’s confidence in the universal bonds of humanity, and to recognize those extraordinary bonds in ordinary pursuits. With this tendency in mind, members of the Harvard Early Music Society have indulged their shared love for a series of vocal works from the French baroque master Louis-Nicolas Clérambault and turned it into “Metamorphoses,” an intimate yet operatic fusion of dance, theater, and music that will premiere at the Horner Room at Agassiz Theatre on Nov. 14. 

The term “staged cantatas” does not exactly encompass all of the thought and hard work that went into the project, the title of which is not directly related to Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” but which, in the words of producer Joshua H. Billings ’07, shares its focus on “a narrative of change and transformation.” 

French Opera Retains Authenticity

The Harvard Crimson, November 14, 2005


Continuing their successful track record after last year’s much-praised production of “L’Orfeo,” The Harvard Early Music Society (HEMS) again impressed audiences with polished artistry in the weekend performance of two operatic works: “Les Plaisirs De Versailles” and “Actéon.” True to its origins, the work by composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier was performed entirely in French, preserving its authentic sound and rhythm. 

Written in 1682 and 1684 respectively, “Les Plaisirs” is a light comedy set in the court of Louis XIV, while “Actéon” is a tragedy based on the story of Actéon and Diana from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” Charpentier was often overshadowed by his fellow countryman and contemporary, composer Jean Baptiste-Lully, and many say this led to insufficient recognition during his lifetime. But this weekend, HEMS resurrected his little-known masterpieces in the old style. 

Society, Professor Revitalize L'Orfeo

The Harvard Crimson, November 12, 2004


An axiom that proves particularly true in the performing arts is that no matter how hard we try, nothing can ever be as great as it was the first time around. There is just something about premieres—the anxiety, the atmosphere, the surprise—which is almost impossible to replicate.


But the students, faculty and community members behind the Harvard Early Music Society’s (HEMS) production of Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, going up November 18–22, are trying to do just that. 


The opera is being music directed by Morton B. Knafel Professor of Music Thomas Kelly, whose popular core class “First Nights: Five Performance Premieres” focuses heavily on Orfeo’s debut. It will be presented in the somewhat unusual setting of the Horner Room in Agassiz Theatre, an environment which producers hope will be similar to that of Orfeo’s premiere in 1607. 


“We know that the piece was first given in a room in a palace for a very elite audience,” Kelly says. “So we’ve decided to present it in a room, in a palace, for a very elite audience. And the room is called the Horner Room. And the palace is called Agassiz Theatre. And the very elite audience is this entire community.” 

HEMS will perform 'first great opera'

The Harvard Gazette, November 4, 2004


In 1607, about a year after Shakespeare's "Macbeth" premiered in London, poet Alessandro Striggio and composer Claudio Monteverdi presented a new play at the court of Mantua in Italy.


The play, titled "L'Orfeo," was something of a novelty. Instead of speaking their lines, the actors sang them, accompanied by a splendid array of instruments. Even in an age when audiences expected every play - including tragedies - to contain a few songs and dances, the sheer volume of music in this production must have seemed overwhelming.


What audiences only came to realize afterward was that "L'Orfeo" was a new species of entertainment, a marriage of drama and music that eventually took the name opera. Although it had only two performances, the work would inaugurate an enduring musical genre encompassing "Don Giovanni," "Parsifal," "Aida," "Madama Butterfly," "Porgy and Bess," and "Einstein on the Beach."

Overture No. 1

The Boston Globe, November 2, 2004


The subject is Claudio Monteverdi's "Orfeo." The style is pure Tom Kelly. It is 10 a.m. on a ferociously rainy Tuesday, and more than 300 Harvard students, along with scores of dripping retirees and alumni, have braved the storm to cluster in Sanders Theatre for Kelly's legendary First Nights class.

Long Lost 'Aethiop' Still Charms

The Harvard Crimson, November 10, 2003


The Æthiop, which ran this weekend in the Agassiz Theatre, dates from 1812 and ranked as one of the most successful operettas in America until the Civil War. Given its period, it was no surprise to find that it’s horribly dated—the type of show where men ponder “the benefits and liabilities of having a strong-willed wife” in song. As such, it was difficult to know if we, the modern audience, were laughing with the production or at it—did those 19th-century viewers guffaw as we did at lines like “Even in bondage, we’ll live cheerfully”? All I know is that The Æthiop could not have been produced anywhere but Harvard—this operetta is one part history, one part veiled Iraq protest, one part nerdy fun.

More Than Words

The Harvard Crimson, November 21, 2002


With a little imagination, it could have been an Italian palazzo. The charms of a Renaissance courtyard, a dovecote of partridges, a meadow with trees and a pergola near the meadow set the scene for a recent rehearsal of Harvard’s latest opera: The Triumph of Camilla. In the waxing moonlight, two forlorn lovers articulate the pathos of despair in C sharps and high G’s. As a disheartened mezzo soprano appeals to the moon, arms extended, her gestures border parody. Pfhorzheimer House’s Comstock room never saw so much action.


Several feet in front of the actors, director Jennifer Griesbach, periodically interrupts the scene rehearsal to encourage even more exadgerrated gestures from her cast.


“Square hips; your body should communicate queenly charms,” Griesbach urges.

Orontea: The Triumph of Love

The Harvard Crimson, December 1, 2000


Quality opera at Harvard is rare. With few operatic productions ever seriously undertaken throughout the year, the mesmerizing portrayal of Antonio Cesti's early baroque opera Orontea conceived by Sarah Meyers '02 and Divinity School Student Matthew Burt resembles nothing that Harvard theatre has seen in recent memory. Sponsored through the annual collective effort of the Harvard Early Music Society, the Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra, and the Fogg Art Museum, Orontea is far from another Harvardian rendition of some overproduced Broadway show. Beautifully flowing costumes, radiant voices and an incredibly professional sound characterize this gem.

Baroque Fixed in Giasone

The Harvard Crimson, November 5, 1999


The stage of the Agassiz Theatre is lined with cardboard columns. Strewn across the boards are big, half-painted set pieces--platforms akimbo, colliding, stairs aimed into nothing. I feel like I've walked into the closing scene of a tectonic morality play. Overhead, lights are just swinging into place over the balcony's edge. A crowd of performers is milling in the wings, brocaded and beribboned. In the pit a harpsichordist is bent over his instrument like a hermit at his orisons, wielding the tiny crucifix of a tuning key. A Cupid darts across the unclothed scene, her bow unstrung and one wing dangling. Someone jostles the stringed spear of a chitarrone, and two primped and padded militaries saunter on stage left. This is the dress rehearsal of Cavalli'sGiasone, a baroque opera put on by the Harvard Early Music Society.

Decadent Opera's Majestic Monteverdi

The Harvard Crimson, November 13, 1998


A slip of pale magenta light shone out between red velvet curtains. It and the musical prelude could have gone on for three hours, and I would not have missed the opera. Three violins and a phat viola fiddled while Nero was ostensibly still in the dressing room. They made up the feisty, devilish flank of the Early Music Society Orchestra, balanced by a quietly attentive harp and two awfully long lutes (allegedly a "chitarrone" and a "theorbo") on the right, with two harpsichords rammed together in the middle like poorly parked flagships.


L'Incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) itself, however, pulled its own attention-grabbing weight from the first scene. Monteverdi would have been proud, especially if he had seen the costuming. Perhaps it was the "irony" of looking at the scantily costumed goddess Virtue (Katie Szal '99), or the cute power behind choir boy Jonathan "Yoni" Heilman's role as Amor that so easily distracted me from the layout of the orchestra pit. More probably it was the beautiful magenta flush of the entire stage, revealed at last as the prelude finished.