NEA Arts Magazine

Time Travel

Boston Early Music Festival Premieres a Lost Opera

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Young actor in Cupid costume flying through the air with adult singer singing in the background

Young Cupid (Frederick Metzger) visits Psyché (Carolyn Sampson) in Boston Early Music Festival's 2007 production of the French Baroque opera Psyché. Photo by André Costantini

Each year, the NEA helps fund the premieres of roughly a dozen new operas. In 2007, however, the Arts Endowment supported a rather unique debut -- the North American premiere of an opera more than 400 years old. The Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF) received a $20,000 grant toward its production of Psyché, a French Baroque opera by Jean-Baptiste Lully.

Outside funding is especially important for the operas, says Co-Artistic Director Paul O'Dette, because staging an original production is more costly than booking an established early music ensemble like the Boston Camerata or the King's Noyse. Before naming the opera that will headline each biennial festival, O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, the BEMF's creative team, consider countless scores, including many that have not seen the light of a stage for centuries. In Psyché, O'Dette and Stubbs found an opera that would be both dramatically and musically challenging.

Lully first set the myth of Cupid and Psyche to music in 1671, when he wrote incidental music for a tragic theatrical staging with extended dance scenes. Seven years later, he reworked the music into the score for an opera with a libretto by Tomas Corneille. O'Dette and Stubbs did their best to stage the opera as it would have been presented in 17th-century Paris: a showstopper that impressed Louis XIV. "We believe the original production had enormous dramatic impact and integrity," O'Dette said. He compared the premiere of an opera to a big-budget Las Vegas variety show. "These productions were about spectacle; they were about shock and awe."

Unlike many contemporary productions of work from the early music repertoire, O'Dette and Stubbs's staging of Psyché gave more credence to the historical record. While they didn't recreate the flying chariots and cloud machines from the original Psyché, they did require the tenor playing Cupid to fly around on wires, and raised and lowered a throne from the proscenium arch. All the singers consented to such acrobatics in advance.

The opera was staged in two locations. For five nights in June of 2007, Psyché played to crowded houses at the Cutler Majestic Teatre in downtown Boston. The following week the entire cast, crew, and musicians hopped on the Massachusetts Turnpike and staged the opera at Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington. All seven performances attracted journalists, musicologists, and dance historians from around the world. Then it was back to Boston and New England Conservatory's famed Jordan Hall, where the singers and musicians recorded Psyché for Germany's CPO label. The recording may not capture the costumes and special effects, but it does preserve an important musical event.