Visit the Beginnings of Opera in 17th Century Venice

BG Opera Theater presents Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea

BG Opera Theater’s latest production steps back in time to one of the earliest examples of the art form with Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea. Opera really began around 1590 in Florence, Italy. By the time Monteverdi performed this opera in 1643 during the carnival season, there was a thriving opera scene in his hometown of Venice. Opera was “the” art

form of the Venetian aristocracy. Monteverdi composed for the theaters of Venice, and like most early operas, its story and characters are mythological, and its themes are grand. 

Kevin Bylsma, vocal coordinator for BGSU’s opera program and co-artistic director at Toledo Opera, says, “The opera is about the historical figures, Nero and Poppea. It’s really a big political drama where Poppea uses her wiles and her beauty to become empress of Rome. She so intoxicates the mind of Nero that he leaves his wife to marry her. This is all done through the influence of three goddesses  — Love, Fortune, and Virtue. The opera begins with a battle over which is the best goddess, with Amore (Love) claiming to be the best, because “at the end of this time together, Poppea will be empress of Rome!” Amore has a few arias when she is using her powers to alter events such as stopping the evil Ottone from killing Poppea or when interjecting little magical nudges to make the situation work in Poppea’s favor.” 

How are operas chosen?

“The voice faculty chooses the operas,” says Bylsma, “and as the opera coach and the opera coordinator, I’m also considered part of the faculty. We get together in the fall for auditions, try to plan what offerings we are going to do for the whole year, and consider the types of voices we have, but also work closely with the theater department to help us out with sets and costumes. In combination with the types of voices we had this year, it was questionable how much the theater department would be able to help us, so we couldn’t put ideas out there until we met in October. All the roles are doable for younger singers except the role of Poppea which is played by a graduate student. Other roles could easily be taken by graduate or undergraduate students. We were able to cast everyone who auditioned for a role or an ensemble spot. Everyone knows Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner, but very few have sung operas by its earliest composers, so that was an important part of the curriculum. Because of the tight schedules this semester for the theater students, we will have to create most of the costumes and sets, which are lavish, but with simplistic staging to emphasize the story.” 


This opera will be performed in English, hence the English title. Bylsma explains, “Since most of the opera is in a reciting style known as recitative, it would be best to perform it in English to really be understood by the audience. There is a lot of room for the students to bring their own interpretations to the piece. According to Bylsma, what is both fascinating and terrifying for students tackling this opera is that, because of the recitative style, so much is dependent on them choosing the tempo of the drama and where to put the emphasis. Monteverdi did not write in ‘here’s where it should be fast or slow,’ it’s just a series of notes with chords underneath. It’s a wonderful exercise that will change the way they approach all their other music. 

The opera will be performed with a smaller chamber orchestra consisting of two violins, two violas, two cellos, and two harpsichords. Bylsma makes his debut as the music director for this production and will play the harpsichord, which is a traditional period instrument.

If an evening of Venetian opera accompanied by a chamber orchestra sounds romantic and intriguing, tickets are $8 and available online or at the door. Performances are March 31 and April 2.