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Women and Memory

by Roger Brunyate

  Illustration for A CALL TO ARMS;
photo-collage by Roger Brunyate after Bouguereau
Illustration to A Call to Arms
Collage after Bouguereau
Roughly every two years, the Peabody Conservatory departments of Opera and Composition run a program to have student composers write very short operas, known as opera études, to be peformed by a specific group of opera students. The singers, in fact, are more than the recipients of the finished work, since they collaborate with the composers to develop the dramatic outline of each piece through improvisation, creating their roles even before a note has been written and continuing to shape many of the musical details from the standpoint of the performer. Although the étude program has been going since 1984, and over three dozen works have been created in it, we still believe it to be unique among schools of music worldwide.

This year’s program, to be given in Peabody’s Miriam A. Friedberg Concert Hall at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday March 2nd [2001], is linked by the theme of Women and Memory. All six of the fifteen-minute operas to be performed are either set in the past, or show women in the process of dealing with aspects of their personal history. Two of the subjects deal with historical heroines: the story of Judith from the Apocrypha, and a new treatment of Joan of Arc. One takes an episode from more recent history: the death of the composer Leos Janacek, and the struggle between the two principal women in his life. Two more, though set in the present, concern attempts to return to the past, or the inability to do so. The sixth, based upon the personal story of a local figure, probes what happens when past and future fail to connect, through the effect on a marriage as the husband struggles with the awareness of his true gender and the need for a sex-change operation.

To a greater extent than in previous years, the present program has involved librettists as well as composers. I myself have written only one of the texts this time around, and one of the composers has written his own words. All the other texts have been written by librettists outside Peabody — a fact which should do much to ensure variety in this year’s program.

Judith with the 
Head of Holofernes; painting by Mantegna, 1495  
Judith with the Head of Holofernes
Painting by Andrea Mantegna, 1495
Judith, by Katherine Gilliam with text by Emily Thornbury, tells the story of the beautiful Israelite widow, Judith, who saves her people from the Assyrian general Holofernes by apparently befriending him and then cutting off his head while he slept. In the verse text of the opera, the assassination takes place offstage, preceded by a scene in which Lida, Judith’s bondswoman, dresses her for the encounter, and followed by one in which Judith tells her that the freedom of the Israelites will also mean her own freedom from slavery.

Coincidentally, the theme of dressing for battle is continued in A Call to Arms, my own treatment of the St. Joan story for composer Benjamin Boyle. Joan, a simple shepherdess in Eastern France, encounters an exhausted soldier who tells her of the wars with the English and the ravishment of their country. As she helps him off with his armor, his vision becomes her own, but now she sees a young woman going to the Dauphin to beg for troops, raising the siege of Orleans, and standing by the Dauphin’s side as he is crowned king. Gradually, she realizes that the young man is in fact a woman, that she is her own future self, and in fact her ghost, having been burned at the stake as a heretic. In accepting her destiny, she must also accept her fate. She does so, and the scene ends with the soldier ritually dressing Joan in her armor.

  Gustav Boehm 
portrait of Janacek
Leos Janacek, two years before his death
Painting by Gustav Böhm, 1926
What You Give Me, by Judah Adashi to a text by Andrew Albin, explores the emotional consequences of the death of Leos Janacek in 1928 upon two women who each have some claim to his memory. One of these is his wife Zdenka, from whom he had been estranged for many years. The other is Kamilla Stössl, a much younger and simpler woman with whom Janacek had become involved (though apparently not sexually) and whom he acknowledged as the muse of many of the greatest works of his last years. When Janacek dies in his country cottage by Kamilla’s side, the younger woman telegraphs Zdenka saying merely that her husband is ill. The opera shows the meeting of the women and their gradual realization of what each had given, and conversely could not give, to the great man.

Andrew Albin also wrote the libretto for Timothy Nelson’s “…but they were wet smiles,” about a young married woman visiting her mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The short opera is a gentle, poetic meditation on parenting and memory, and concludes with a beautiful scene in which the two women cross each other’s paths, the child becoming the parent, and the parent the child.

From Obscure People, composed by Daniel Thomas Davis to his own libretto, deals with another encounter between the generations. Sarah, an upwardly mobile New York writer, returns to the rural Southern community where she had been raised by her old aunt Hazel. The visit has an ulterior motive, however, since Sarah is preparing a journalistic piece on life in forgotten backwaters. But Aunt Hazel soon picks up on her niece’s patronizing attitude, and her defence of her own choices make the younger woman begin to doubt the wisdom of her own.

Although based on a true story, Reece Dano’s Four Girlfriends takes an oblique metaphorical approach to its subject. Moving in and out of a poem by Aaron Benjamin Kunin, the two characters (man and wife, although both sung by women, and further acted out by dolls, which are the other two “girlfriends” of the title) face their present dilemma, revisit their past, and contemplate an uncertain future, not so much in the words they exchange with each other as in the emotions which are revealed around the words. This piece, which also involves computer modification of the voices and two large dolls which serve as the alter egos of the characters, is frankly experimental in nature; it completes a program which, though unified in theme, ranges widely in musical and dramatic style.

Reprinted from Peabody News, March/April 2001.

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