When Los Angeles Opera produced Monteverdi's 1640 opera, "The Return of Ulysses," last year, it didn't have to look far for an authentic period instrument orchestra. Musica Angelica was right under its nose.
The group had been started in Los Angeles in 1993 by Michael Eagan, a lutenist, and Mark Chatfield, a baroque cello player.
Local audiences have heard the ensemble frequently--it plays again today at the Seal Beach Festival--but many know the musicians as members of groups with other names, including A Musicall Dreame, La Chanterelle and Apollo Amused.
It's all the same thing, Eagan said.
"In the very beginning, we had these different ideas about repertory and ensembles," Eagan said recently from his home in Los Angeles. "So we created four different groups, which became really unwieldy. Three years later, as we began making our third brochure, we didn't know what our name should be. So we decided to lump everything together and call everything Musica Angelica. Versatility has been our watchword."
When they're presented by smaller organizations, they usually appear in smaller formations.
"But it's very gratifying to put on the bigger shows," Eagan said. "We played Purcell's 'The Indian Queen' for Long Beach Opera last month. There were 22 of us."
Four musicians play the Seal Beach program tonight: Eagan, Chatfield, tenor Daniel Plaster and recorder player Inga LaRose. Their program focuses on Monteverdi and his colleagues.
"We thought we'd do a concert showing just what was happening when opera was being born," Eagan said. "We start with Caccini, a member of the Camerata in Florence, a group of artists and intellectuals, poets, musicians who were busy trying to forge a new idea out of what they understood was the ancient Greek ideal of music.
"We'll do some scenes from Monteverdi's 'Orfeo,' from 1607, and follow that through with music by his greatest student, Cavalli."
There will also be instrumental music.
"I will play some toccatas, which was a new instrumental form at that time, mostly a keyboard and lute form. 'Toccata' means 'touch.' Essentially, it means to improvise a certain key or chord into a prelude that is nevertheless showy."
"The repertory is enormous," Eagan said. "It was given short shrift for such a long time. Our culture was dominated by the idea of a big 19th century orchestra. But there were just lots of [early] composers who were geniuses, and we should know what they did. It's been very heartening for me."
Indeed, Eagan, 49, is able to earn his living entirely from performing on the lute.
"Musica Angelica is not a full-time thing for me at this point, but performing is," he said. "I play with many other groups across the country.
"There was enormous prejudice when we started," he continued. "People were shocked we could play accurately and beautifully and in tune, and we accepted that just as something that had to be. That's because in the beginning, there just wasn't such a widespread network of players. Now there is, worldwide. In my view, many early-music virtuosos are absolutely the equal of the 'normal' modern classical virtuosos.
"But there are some salient differences. Our music is not interpreted for us, in the first place. Every musician is a musicologist as well. Maybe they don't have a degree, but they have to read from original sources.
"And there is no interpretation there. So a lot more initiative comes from a very-early-music player than a modern player, who is used to following directions. We need to dig out and find new music, instead of playing the same old stuff all the time."
Of course, there remain lots of controversies about how to play it.
"There are people who like [the music] light and bright, and people who like it heavy and dense," Eagan said.
And now, many of those approaches are played out in recordings.
"There are now probably 15 'Messiah' performances on period instruments, which was not true 10 or 15 years ago. There were always 20 to 50 Beethoven symphonies one could compare, but in the early days, there was just one version of an early baroque work. Now there are many, so you can get away from the idea of a certain early-music sound."
Tuning itself is a special problem because early instruments are highly susceptible to temperature and humidity. "Lutes have to be touched up every couple of hours, as well as harpsichords."
But for all its challenges, early music remains irresistible.
"I think the audience for this music is unlimited," Eagan said. "People who come to it from any other background find a lot that appeals to them. It's music that, as you age, you only like more and more. It's surprisingly rhythmic and stimulatingly colorful, more so than people might expect."
* Michael Eagan's Musica Angelica plays works by Monteverdi, Cavalli. Caccini, Cima and Vincenzo Galilei (astronomer Galileo Galilei's father) today at the McGaugh Elementary School auditorium, 1698 Bolsa Ave., Seal Beach. 8 p.m. Free. Part of the Seal Beach Chamber Music Festival. (818) 780-8112.
Tonight's program will be repeated in an expanded form July 25-26 at 8 p.m. at the Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. The group will also play Handel's "Acis and Galatea" at the Getty at 8 p.m. Aug. 30. (310) 440-7300.