World Premiere of “La Serenissima

Cory Robertson

Inside a magnificent chapel, an orchestra of female orphans plays for kings and queens, debuting works by Antonio Vivaldi written just for them. It is the 18th century, and these women, once poor foundlings left outside of an orphanage, have transformed into the finest musicians of their time.
This scene isn’t a fairy tale, but a fact of Venetian history. In the 15th through 18th centuries, the Ospedale della Piet…, a social welfare institution, trained a small percentage of the abandoned children left under their care to become world-class musicians.
Because boys left the Piet… when they came of age, only female children who were identified as musically inclined could enter the institution’s prestigious music school and eventually perform with the Piet…’s orchestra and choir, known as the “coro.”
The women of the coro performed liturgical music daily and worked with the most elite composers of the time.
The story is one that sparked Assistant Professor of Music Joanne Metcalf’s imagination many years ago. Her long-held desire to write an opera about the Ospedale della Piet…’s coro came to fruition last year, after she won a fellowship to concentrate on her project at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire.
This Saturday, the Lawrence Symphony Orchestra will perform “La Serenissima,” a scene from Metcalf’s opera-in-the-making “Orphans of the Heavenly City.”
Metcalf seems to have been most drawn to the story’s emotionally compelling nature.
“I really felt that the element of fate was at work in those children’s lives,” she said. “They could have had a terrible fate, and instead they became international celebrities and virtuosos.”
“La Serenissima” paints a sonic illustration of the two possibilities: the harsh, clangorous sounds of life on the street and the beautiful, lullaby-like sounds of the coro.
Still, Metcalf is quick to point out that even in the coro, the women’s lives were not idyllic.
“Life was simply harsher back then,” she said. “Think a little like the novel Jane Eyre.” Members of the coro worked day in and day out, and had only one day a year of vacation. They led privileged but hardworking lives.
The role of La Serenissima, or the voice of Venice, will be sung by Associate Professor of Music Patrice Michaels.
In the scene, La Serenissima reads from an intake ledger describing the infants’ appearance upon arrival at the “scaffeta,” a small opening in the outer wall of the Piet… where abandoned children were left.
The intake ledger includes only the most basic information, such as age, dress, and small items left with the child, like a locket or small trinket.
“The mothers often left identifying tokens in case they were able to come back,” said Metcalf.
Also in the scene are three male singers, including Lawrence faculty soloists Steven Spears and John Gates. Each represents a Doge of Venice – the highest ruler in the republic.
The men read from the “lapide,” a stone tablet outside of the Ospedale della Piet…. The text expresses the leaders’ stern yet effective governance of the city.
Political leadership played a vital role in the fates of children taken in by the Piet…. Metcalf describes Venice as having had an “incredible social welfare system and commitment to taking care of the poor.”
She hopes, in her opera, to show the audience something about the city’s humanitarian accomplishments. “I think it was the mark of a great government,” she said.
Even while composing a work of global and historical relevance, Lawrence was never far from Metcalf’s mind. In fact, she sees the music-saturated lives of the coro members as analogous to the lives of Lawrence conservatory students.
“Every day was absolutely full of music-making, just exactly how our students are now,” she said.
This parallel makes Lawrence Symphony Orchestra especially well suited to premiere Metcalf’s work. And just as Vivaldi took inspiration from his students at the Piet… when composing his famed concertos, so has Metcalf considered Lawrence Symphony Orchestra’s own unique qualities as she created her opera.
“I think the orchestra has a rich sound, a very full sound, and I’ve noticed that they are able to create a very forward-driving sound when they have music of great intensity,” she said, noting that such intensity is one of her main interests as a composer.
“I just heard Lawrence Symphony Orchestra playing this music,” she explained. “I really could hear it in my head.