This is the earliest paper from my undergraduate career that I could find. It's from a university seminar series on opera and is a brief reaction paper to Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, one of the earliest operas on record. The piece is prototypical of my writing from this period, in that the reader has no idea what my freaking point is, but damn I've got that upside-down-triangle-shaped intro-paragraph + middle-paragraphs-with-topic-sentences + triangle-shaped closing-paragraph structure down pat. (I've broken up the paragraphs here for readability, but you can see what I mean.) In other words, I'm writing like a high schooler.
The purpose of creative writing is to inspire some sort of emotion in the audience. The way that a writer causes an emotional reaction is by forcing the audience to place themselves in a certain character’s shoes. When the audience experiences a given situation from a first-hand perspective, the audience experiences all the accompanying emotions that such an experience would elicit. In order to interest the audience enough for them to demand a first-hand knowledge of it, the writer must include in the work some universally applicable lesson or truth that would apply not only to the particular situation being described the work but to the broader scheme of human existence. These universal truths are sometimes very deeply hidden in the work, requiring extensive searching by the audience, but such searches are necessary if the audience is to receive the full gamut of lessons and benefits offered by the writer. In L’Orfeo, Monteverdi’s librettist, Striggio draws from and adds to the ancient Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, crafting a moving and instructive tale about love that transcends life, and passion that transcends reason.
One very important lesson that L’Orfeo teaches is spoken by Apollo to his son Orpheus in Act V. Apollo tells Orpheus that, on Earth, there is no lasting happiness. His implied suggestion is that one should not be surprised when happiness is cut short. The elusive quality of happiness is in the nature of our species, and this is perhaps the most important truth taught by L’Orfeo.
Apollo’s lesson equalizes the perpetual battle between the optimist and the pessimist by declaring both happiness and sadness transient. A good demonstration of humanity’s ignorance of this lesson can be found in a motif that is repeated throughout the opera: “Ah, bitter destiny! Ah, evil and cruel fate! Ah, injurious stars! Ah, rapacious heaven!” This anthropomorphisation of powers beyond human control is a common theme in both tragedies and comedies alike, but it is especially noteworthy here. Here, the chorus appears to blame the Fates for intentional sabotage of everyone’s happiness, when, in fact, if they had known Apollo’s lesson, that all happiness is transient anyway, the chorus would have lamented this loss, but then accepted the sorrow as their share of the cost of being human.
A common misconception held by many people is that happiness is a birthright of being human, that all people “deserve” to be happy, but after experiencing L’Orfeo, one realizes that happiness is fleeting. Perhaps true non-objective happiness comes when one realizes that to look for sense in sadness is futile, and that one must accept what fate has offered and make the best of it.
One cannot speak of L’Orfeo without touching upon the opera’s strong overtones of love and passion. At the beginning of the opera, all of the cast members are sharing Orpheus’ happiness with being in love and his general sense of contentment with life as a demigod. Orpheus’ love for Eurydice is made more special by the fact that it has brought happiness to Orpheus for the first time in a long time, and Orpheus is celebrating his newfound freedom from his oppressive sadness.
Ironically, just at the height of the merrymaking in the pastoral fields, news comes of Eurydice’s death. The great contrast between Orpheus’ intense happiness and his speechless despair is incredibly moving, enhanced by a sonorous musical passage. The audience can identify with Orpheus’ feeling of being so sorrowful at the death of a loved one that words, actions, and thoughts become trivial.
However, Orpheus’ love is so strong that, even after he knows that the object of his love is no longer with the living, he vows to journey to the underworld, transcend death, as it were, to bring his beloved Eurydice back to him. Orpheus’ persistence even in the face of death is a very moving statement about the power of love to endure in the face of impossibility.
Now, after Orpheus convinces Pluto and Proserpine to restore Eurydice back to Orpheus through the persuasive powers of his voice and harp, Orpheus cannot contain his passion long enough to fulfill his promise to Pluto and walk out of Hades without looking back at his wife. The act of Orpheus turning around to gaze upon his wife speaks to the power of love and passion to move the body beyond reason and into realms of paranoia and rash decision. Rarely has an opera so intensely and emotionally communicated the powers of love when used both for good and evil.
L’Orfeo’s deeper psychological truths are what has made it survive and flourish for over four hundred years. Indeed, the universal applications of any work are what determines its perenniality, and it is the goal of all creators of art to produce a work that affects all who experience it at the emotional level, and that stands the ultimate test of time.