Monteverdi, Judaism, and Connection: Gotham Chamber Opera at the Met Museum

Big day today! Tonight is the first performance of a remarkable double bill of one-act operas, being presented by Gotham Chamber Opera at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’ll be singing in Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and the world premiere of Lembit Beecher’s I Have No Stories to Tell You, surrounded by the arms, armor, sculpture, tapestry, and stone craft of the Met Museum’s Medieval wing…. it’s unthinkably cool, really. There’s an very powerful sense of humility and profundity in the air, as I wait to make my first entrance alongside a suit of armor belonging to King Henry VIII of England. It would be easy for me to wax poetic on the endlessly thought-provoking work being done by Gotham, the incredible promise of the young composer Lembit Beecher and the powerhouse he’s written, or how fortunate I am to have this dreamy opportunity– but instead, I want to talk about Claudio Monteverdi.

The man has been on my mind for a long time, but not because he’s been my favorite composer forever and ever. My personal connection to his music is, well… personal. [There’s this funny thing that happens in the life of a classical musician– no different from that anyone who delves deep into the history of their craft as a matter of course– where you develop incredibly deep, entirely one-sided relationships with composers, librettists, poets, other singers, and the like, be they living or dead. It would be hard to overstate the impact that, say, Mozart, Schubert, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Robeson, or Nina Simone has had on my life. I know their bodies of work, I’ve read about their lives, I’ve watched videos (though not of Mozart, obviously) and read interviews, and feel, despite not having ever met a one of them, transformed for it all. If someone mentions one of their names, it’s as if a friend has been conjured up, with associations every bit as strong as those of real, live friends from childhood. But that’s another story!] Compared with Mozart, Schubert, and Debussy, my time with Monteverdi has been very short, and my knowledge and admiration for his work is just beginning. Tonight will be my first professional engagement singing Monteverdi’s music, but in graduate school I sang a beautiful aria from his L’Orfeo, when Orpheus tries to convince Caron to ferry him across the river Styx: “Possente Spirto.”

When I sat down with the score to that aria, when I read the text, when I heard the first few lines, there was something achingly familiar to it. You know that feeling where you meet someone for the first time, but sense that you’ve known them for years? This was that. I saw the notes on the page, but instead of examining them and twisting them inside-out to gain an understanding of how they work, I just kind of sensed how they wanted to be sung. This may sound like braggadoccio, but it’s not– it was eerie, actually. My coaches, teachers, and colleagues, who usually correct me endlessly to make sure a score is immaculately prepared right down to every detail, instead were telling me to trust my instincts, to let ‘er rip, such as it were.

Why was this? Well, it took a while, but I figured it out. It’s because I’m Jewish.

Monteverdi was not Jewish. He was, however, the first composer of operas whose work is still performed today, and among the first composers ever to combine solo singing, instruments, storytelling, costume, and poetry into what we now call opera. Or musical theater. Or lyric drama. Or favola in musica. Whatever. I digress. L’Orfeo was first performed in 1607, over five centuries ago; Combattimento in 1624: but the age of the pieces can obscure the bold radicalism found in their composition. One cool example: Combattimento uses what was, to his string players, ‘extended technique:’ he called for his string players to make sounds that were all but unheard-of at the time (pardon the pun). Today we call them pizzicato and tremolo. He also divided his strings into four parts instead of three, something that would become standard one hundred and fifty years later, but was unprecented for a vocal work at the time. That’s some badass stuff right there.

So Monteverdi was a radical… a trait that could be associated with Jewish people, if one is inclined to take that view (it so happens that I am. Spinoza? Marx? Einstein? Jesus? no further questions). That isn’t the connection, though… it’s the way he sets his text. You know how in pop music, almost all the the syllables of a given word are sung on exactly one note? In opera, that’s not always the case. Compare the way the text is set to music in Lorde’s Royals to the this performance by June Anderson of “Bel Raggio Lusinghier” from Rossini’s Semiramide.

See the difference? The first a more speech-like rhythm, the second has words and syllables far elongated from speech, for expressivity and ornamentation. These are, primarily, the kinds of text setting I’m familiar with. Monteverdi is different. Check out the few four words from “Possente Spirto.”

‘Possente’ is set just as one would speak it, but then ‘Spirto’ is vastly elongated, embellished, and emphasized. So, the text setting is very, very speech-like… until it’s not. An entire line or paragraph of text is delivered in almost the exact rhythm in which one would speak it, until one word is chosen for emphatic, expressive expansion.

This is the trait of Monteverdi’s music that struck me as so singular, and so familiar. Where had I heard it before? It took me about two years to figure it out. It was at my first ever public singing appearance: my Bar Mitzvah.

These days, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs are best known as outrageously expensive, spectacularly socially awkward events for the lanky, braces-laden offspring of orthodontists and Hollywood agents (Hi Uncle Steve!), but there’s actually more to it than that. The central idea of the ceremony is that a child reads to the Congregation from the Torah, and at my Bar Mitzvah, the reading was done with traditional oration. This means that what I actually did was a funny mixture of speaking, intoning, and singing: the Hebrew text was read aloud at a speech rhythm, but when I came to a word that was traditionally emphasized, there was a vocal ornament, much like a turn, trill, or appoggiatura, taught to me by the Cantor of the Synagogue. The play between speech rhythms and extended ones was decidedly un-modern-pop-music, un-Rossinian, but exactly the same as is found in Monteverdi.

A little bit of research followed, and it turns out this is more plausible than you might think. Monteverdi’s first major musical appointment was in Mantua, where he overlapped in employment with a major Jewish composer of the time, Salamone Rossi. What’s more, the two had the same composition teacher, Marc-Antonio Ingegneri. I even found an interesting piece of scholarship, posted on an early music blog, about the musical relationship between Rossi and Monteverdi. After Mantua, Monteverdi moved on to Venice, which was at that time the economic and social center of Europe, as well as home to a vast Jewish population–in fact, the modern word ‘ghetto’ is derived from the Italian ‘gheto,’ which used to mean ‘slag’ in the Venetian dialect. In practice the word meant the area where slag was stored, which was the foundry, or shipyard, section of Venice: the only part of the city in which Jews were allowed to make their homes. I’m no scholar, but whether Monteverdi’s music was influenced by Jewish traditions, or the other way or around, or both, there’s some kind of musical kinsmanship there.

Maybe it’s chance– after all, L’Orfeo is the first surviving opera, and Judaism is an old faith. It could be that both schools of thought went to a specific kind of text setting, naturally, that happened to coincide. I don’t know, and ultimately don’t really care. What I do care about is the music itself, which is damn good. It’s music that speaks to me in a disarmingly direct way, music that seems to have a lot to say to modern audiences in spite of its age (or maybe because of it). It’s music I feel in my bones, and I’m thrilled to present it to the public tonight.


  1. Mitchell Cantor says:

    Monteverdi may not have been Jewish, but one of his best friends was. Do you know the music of Salamone Rossi, perhaps the first Jewish composer of note, court composer to the Dukes of Mantua and a friend of Monteverdi’s. He wrote madrigals, Jewish liturgical music in the early baroque style and instrumental music. No opera, to the best of my knowledge, however.

  2. What’s up, just wanted to tell you, I loved this blog post. It was inspiring. Keep on posting!

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