Cosimo as Orpheus
with librettist Royce Vavrek
Single scene presented in workshop production by Center City Opera Theater, March 2013
Cosimo as Orpheus is a fantastical work of music-theater about a woman persevering through huge uncertainties with the help of her creative spirit. It is inspired a Renaissance painting: Agnolo Bronzino's 1539 Portrait of Duke Cosimo I di Medici as Orpheus, in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This painting portrays the Duke seated, scantily clad and looking over his shoulder at the viewer. It may have been sent to Cosimo's fiancée, Eleonora, as an engagement gift before the two had actually met in person.
The opera takes this situation as its premise. Eleonora is the central character, and the action of the opera stems from her attempts to decode the iconography of the painting and imagine the future that awaits her as Cosimo's wife. Her situation is incredibly uncertain - she has not met her future husband, she does not yet speak his language, and she does not know what kind of relationship they will have or what degree of autonomy or agency he will afford her in their marriage. The first act of the opera takes place within her imagination, as she imagines four different possible versions of Cosimo and sends them, as a group, on a fantastical quest to re-enact the Orpheus myth that will test their potential as husbands. The opera's second act takes place in reality, as Eleonora meets Cosimo and attempts to make sense of the real man, although the four imaginary Cosimos continue to intrude upon the scene and shape Elenora's interpretation of events.
Although its subject matter is historical, Cosimo as Orpheus touches on themes that are highly resonant in the modern world. The portrait of Cosimo, much like a social media profile, is an act of highly coded self-presentation - a visual performance of identity, a self-branding. Eleonora, like any consumer of modern media, must peel away the layers of symbol and artifice in the image as she attempts to uncover the truth about what it represents. Women's autonomy and rights remain global issues today, and Eleonora was a woman who fought for and gained a degree of autonomy within her marriage in an era when that was relatively rare for European women (she is sometimes called the first modern first lady). The opera portrays her as having an intentionally modern sensibility regarding women’s rights.
Ultimately, Cosimo as Orpheus is an argument for the valuable role that art plays in helping us interpret our current realities and imagine new and brighter futures, told through the specific story of Eleonora and Cosimo and the orgins of their relationship in Bronzino's portrait. Accordingly, the story is told in an intertextual manner, marrying the details of the painting, historical information about the couple, and the myth of Orpheus. This myth, of course, has a long history in opera, and in fact Monteverdi's Orfeo, one of the earliest operas ever written, could not have existed without the rich cultural environment developed and patronized by Cosimo and Eleonora in 16th-century Florence. The music will thus incorporate textures and ornamentations common to early operatic music, and the orchestra includes some historical instruments.