HEMS and Cavalli's Arcadian Romp

by Gabrielle Lochard

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.

I noticed that your production isn't necessarily set in any one period. What was your concept for this work?

In general, the style of this piece is one that's very free and creative, and has a lot of room for interpretation. The piece is set in Arcadia, where nymphs and gods hang out, so we chose to go with an abstract representation of both the pastoral arena and the heavens. We have been able to switch between heightened states of abstraction and more real landscapes when the drama becomes more action based.

How have you approached this work re: historical performance practice?

Our main intention when working with this piece has been that the drama story should come before everything else; all aspects of this production, including set, lighting and music, should highlight the drama. This is in tune with the 17th century Italian approach, where their whole thing was that the goal should be to stir the affekti (passions) of the crowd. We're note necessarily concerned with frenetic adherence to the score. We've cut things pretty wildly, like arias that were clearly just put in to highlight the virtuosity of one singer, because we'd rather have a focused narrative tale than a spectacle of opera with big aria that aren't really necessary.

Also, for me as a lutenist, it's really important to be connected to ideas about historical performance. However, 'historical performance' doesn't mean a slavish attention to what they did in the 17th century, because the fact is, we don't really know what anythings sounded like. Instead, it's that we should know as much as we possibly can so that we can make decisions that are both affective and effective.

What role you think HEMS, and early music more broadly, play at Harvard?

Historically, early opera has a strong association with institutions like Harvard and with the academy. Some of it is repertoire that doesn't get performed as much on the operatic mainstage, and for student performers, I think things like HEMS offer a chance to which might be harder to explore later in a professional music career. I think it behooves undergraduate organizations to play with things like this, because in the professional world, nobody will necessarily fund these kinds of things. Also, this style doesn't require the kind of vocal pyrotechnics of, say, 19th century opera, so it's a great repertoire for young singers in their 20s. Because they have to worry less about just vocal production, they can focus on more things like sensitivity to text, which are important to all repertory.

One of the cool things about HEMS is that because we do a fully-staged baroque opera every fall, which is not something that many student organizations do, we are able to attract people who do historical performance at BU, Longy, NEC and also young professionals. What I'd like to see more of at Harvard is intermingling between the larger community in Boston of young professionals and enthusiastic pre-professional singers and musicians at Harvard. We also have a professional production staff, which is great for students who are interested in doing tech professionally. HEMS manages to take advantage of the talent in Boston and provides contact for pre-professional students at Harvard and professionals in their fields.