VOX 3 Collective associate Beena David interviews Chicago-based composer Amos Gillespie about his “Honor Requiem.” Included is information about the selection of the texts and interesting tidbits about the themes and compositional process. Further, Gillespie discusses the precedent for writing a Requiem in honor of a living person. The world premiere of the piece will take place March 14 & 15 at Chicago Temple, 77 W. Washington, Chicago, IL.
Video credits to Matthew Kolb http://matthewkolbphotography.blogspot.com/
- Bread dipped in wine
- Dolmadakia: grape leaves stuffed with rice and vegetables
- Spanakopita: spinach, feta cheese, onion, and egg layered in phyllo pastry
- Fasolada: soup consisting of beans, tomatoes, carrots, celery, and olive oil
- Moussaka: ground meat and eggplant casserole topped with custard
- Baklava: phyllo pastry layered with nuts and honey
Hungry? I know I am!
American composer Hugo Weisgall (1912 – 1997) composed his one-act opera, The Stronger, in 1952, some 63 years after Swedish playwright August Strindberg (1849 – 1912) wrote the brief play of the same name (Den starkare) upon which it is based.
The original play is set in its own present day, presumably in Sweden, on Christmas Eve. Two women, friends by some definition, encounter each other in a cafe. One speaks, the other listens. Strindberg experiments with naturalistic form in the work, which takes roughly 10 minutes to perform. It is a sketch of two women of a certain age and a certain milieu.
Weisgall’s opera, with a libretto by Richard Hart, is also set in its own present day, Christmas Eve 1955 (the year he adapted his original 1952 piano and voice version for orchestra). Again, it is a sketch of two women set in specific personal and historical time. The opera is in English, and the assumed setting is the United States. Although the opera elongates the performance time to roughly 25 minutes, Weisgall and Hart saw in the play enough that spoke directly to America in the 1950s that the essential thrust of the text is basically unchanged with only specific cultural references updated. In fact, there is less text in the opera. Hart’s libretto reads like an atmospheric, almost impressionistic version of the original play, allowing Weisgall’s score to create mood and move the performers and audience through the action.
This week, VOX 3 Collective gives two performances of the opera. Roughly the same amount of time has passed between these performances and the opera’s premiere as between the opera’s composition and the play’s. Working with such a pared down text against such a specific setting invited the production team to engage in aggressive, exploratory table work. For instance, my co-director, VOX 3 Artistic Director Brian von Rueden, challenged the performers to read the text of the libretto to each other, alternating lines, in order to tease out possible moods, emotions, and colors in a text that would ultimately be sung.
Fully a third of rehearsal time was spent doing such table work, discussing possible motivations, filling in back stories, thinking about the events that these women would have lived through (the Great Depression, World War Two), discovering who they could be within the context of time and place. Although much is left mysterious in the actual text, both Sara Salas, who plays Estelle, and Kimberly Gunderson, who plays Lisa, know the woman she inhabits.
During our work, we looked at a literal translation of Strindberg’s original, which expanded the possible meanings of moments in the libretto. It was one of many jumping off points for ideas, but we always returned to our understanding of Weisgall’s score as the ultimate interpretive authority. For instance, we could not make a performance decision that ran contrary to what the music was telling us. If the music was building in a tense crescendo, we took our interpretive answer from that and rejected the possibility of an emotional ebb in the performance. If the music allowed for a pause or a beat, we played with what was possible in that moment, attempting to reveal empathy and even humor. Sara’s extensive work with the score, in particular, kept us grounded as we questioned each other, threw out ideas, revised our understandings, and teased out possible meaning.
We focused on the opera’s setting in the mid-1950s. In some ways, the expectations of public interactions, the presence of manners and etiquette from that time connect more readily to the late-nineteenth century sensibility of the original play than to our own. Much can be said or implied in what is otherwise polite conversation, allowing for rich, often unanticipated texture. We discussed with great specificity the decades, years, and moments leading up to Estelle and Lisa’s encounter. Kim’s performance in particular is informed both by inspirations from the era (Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest, for example) and more contemporary works that look back at that time (Cate Blanchett in The Talented Mr. Ripley).
Ultimately, though, the encounter between these women, their tension and familiarity, engages the audience whether the experimentation be theatrical or musical in form, or whether the story be told in English or Swedish. It is this universality that allowed Sara and Kim to bring their twenty-first century selves to these mid-twentieth century women, who are echoes twice again of their Swedish originals.
The Stronger is performed as part of Sleepwalking Nights: Strindberg in Opera and Song Friday, October 12 at 7pm at Swedish American Museum and Saturday, October 13 at 3pm at Bethany United Church of Christ.
Gilbert and Sullivan are known to audiences around the world, opera fans and non-opera fans alike. Their works have been parodied in many contemporary mediums, including movies and TV shows…but who were Gilbert and Sullivan? What made their works so popular? And what is all of this “topsy-turvy” business?
Born in 1936 to a naval surgeon and the daughter of a doctor, Sir William Schwenck Gilbert grew up in relative luxury, residing in an upscale home in London. Although his parents were not fabulously wealthy, he was still kidnapped by his nanny at the age of two and ransomed for £25, an incident that would feature heavily in his future works. While still in school, Gilbert helped produce theatrical events for his classmates, and eventually began writing his own works. He was also an accomplished cartoonist and caricaturist who would often illustrate his own works. Despite his love of the written word, Gilbert went to school to study law, only to take some time off from school for a commission with the Royal Artillery, another event that would carry great influence in his works. After his time with the Royal Artillery, Gilbert did complete his law degree and practiced, a while…but was not terribly successful. He was more interested in drawing caricatures in his notes instead of paying attention during trials. After his failure at the bar, he began writing for a journal entitled “Fun” under the monicker Babs. These works were eventually published as “Bab’s Ballads” in 1869, where he would perfect his “Topsy-turvy” world. Gilbert loved to take a situation and turn it on its head, to comic results. During that same year, he would attend a party where he would meet accomplished British composer Sullivan.
Sir Arthur Sullivan did not have the same comfortable upbringing. The son of an Irish clarinetist, his family lived in South London, and constantly struggled to make ends meet. Sullivan’s father was forced to take on teaching positions and take jobs copying music, along with his regular performances, just to try to give the family the best opportunities available. Young Sullivan showed tremendous skill at the age of eight, already capable of laying clarinet, horn, trombone, and flute. He was sent away to boarding school at the same age, and his singing voice and musicality earned him a place in the Chapel Royal at St. James Palace at twelve. His first composition piece was published at thirteen, and even at that time, his teachers could tell he had considerable talent. At fourteen, Sullivan won the inaugural Mendelssohn Scholarship which allowed him to study at the Royal Academy of Music, and in Leipzig, where he would rub elbows with composers like Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt. After his time in school was complete, he took a position as the organist at St. Michael’s Church in Chester Square, where he was well-known for filling out the tenor and bass sections by employing local policeman (“I used to think of the sometimes when I was composing The Pirates of Penzance,” Sullivan once remarked). Through all of his studies, he became adept at mimicking and creating parodies of many different musical styles, including Bellini, Purcell, Handel, Schubert, Bizet, Verdi, Donizetti, and Mendelssohn, along with English folk songs.
After the two met at a party in 1869, an artistic alliance was born. Sullivan was just coming off the success of his first English operetta, Cox and Box, and Gilbert was ready to expand his writing repertoire. The first piece the two collaborated on was Thespis in 1871. The work was not wildly popular, but Richard D’Oyly Carte, manager of the Royal Theater, saw potential in the work, and brought the two together again in 1875 to create Trial by Jury. This time, the combination worked, and the run was so successful that D’Oyly Carte started his own Comedy Opera Company. Over the next 21 years, they would write eleven more pieces, including H.M. S. Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1879), and The Mikado (1885). These works, which would be performed at the Savoy Theatre, would come to be known as the Savoy Operas.
One of the most identifiable features of the Savory Operas were the extent to which both Gilbert and Sullivan were able to parody and mock Victorian society, the British royals and government, along with other musical styles. Gilbert’s irreverent attitude towards the law and military, which started during his schooling and work with the Royal Artillery, would emerge in characters such as the Grand Pooh-Bah in The Mikado, who would take on every leadership position in the town (First Lord of the Treasurer, Paymaster-General, Lord High Auditor, Archbishop of Titipu), whose ineptitude is matched only by his ability to make decisions that suit the party that is able to provide the most suitable bribe. Another character, whose patter song has been famously parodied in many different mediums, is the Major General from The Pirates of Penzance, who is able to list his incredible knowledge on random topics, but does not seem to be able to do much else.
Sullivan’s experience and training allowed him to join the fun with the parodies, as he could mimic any musical style. There were faux Japanese marches (“Mi-ya Sa-ma”) mixed with traditional sounding English madrigals (“See how the Fates their gifts allot”) in The Mikado, and grand choral moments in The Pirates of Penzance when the entire cast, pirate and Major General’s wards alike, would stop and “Hail, poetry…” in a pseudo-anthem. These moments would either make the audience chuckle due to the well-known nature of these works, or pique their interest, such as the Japanese-themed music in The Mikado. While Sullivan was a talented and adept composer in his own right, his ability to mimic any other style suited Gilbert’s sense of humor perfectly.
…At least, it did for a while. The two quite famously did not get along well. Gilbert was prone to temper tantrums, and Sullivan would often be quite at a loss at what had offended his partner. Sullivan also chafed at the idea that his talent was being wasted on comedic works, while Gilbert wanted him to stop taking himself so seriously. Arguments over plots (Gilbert suggested a plot revolving around a magical lozenge many times, which Sullivan thought was ridiculous), and money soon took their toll, and the two were having a difficult time working together at all. The final confrontation finally occurred after The Gondoliers in 1889, over, of all things, payment that D’Oyly Carte demanded to replace carpets in the theater. Gilbert refused, but Sullivan took D’Oyly Carte’s side, and their relationship was forever damaged. Although they would work together again in 1893 (Utopia Limited) and 1896 (The Grand Duke), the chemistry was gone, and the pieces failed to bring in the large audiences they had enjoyed during their peak.
ALL I EVER NEEDED TO KNOW ABOUT OPERETTA I LEARNED FROM THE GRAMOPHONE: Performance Practice Lessons from Recordings
When I sit at my desk at work, my iPhone playlists provide a fairly constant stream of music emanating from the speakers. Usually I turn to Janet Baker or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s interpretations of Schubert songs or Murray Perahia’s fantastic recordings of Bach’s keyboard music. However, this past July, as I prepared a recital with Catherine Huggins for the Flossmoor Lyric Opera Guild, I pulled out a dusty disc in my collection that I had previously listened to for a grand total of 7 minutes. In late 2007, two Sony artists, British baritone Simon Keenlyside and Austrian mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager, paired up for a recording and series of concerts focusing on German-language operetta hits. Called “My Heart Alone,” their disc is a persuasively performed confection, a trove of light, lovely arias and duets; it is a perfect example of why operetta and champagne are so often paired. Yet, despite the delightful selections and fabulous voices, there is almost a feeling of guilty pleasure – as you listen, you think, “Why am I enjoying this? Am I doing something wrong? Am I a silly person?” A review of the Keenlyside/Kirchschlager effort in the Berliner Morgenpost got to the heart of the matter: “With every operetta performance one question is lurking maliciously in the background: what’s the use at all? Who needs operetta today, jaunty gals, Hungarian Countesses, singing impostors?” And thus we encounter this most ingenious paradox: In today’s complex world, is there a place for light-hearted, escapist entertainment? When a string of Judd Apatow-inspired comedies succeed at the box office, it is clear that people want to laugh. However, there is a pervasively lingering elitist trend in classical music which encourages both performers and audience to wear their appreciation of the art as a merit badge, rather than simply engage and enjoy with their eyes, ears, and heart. After years of technical training, learning harmonic analysis, and absorbing subtlety, it can be hard to reconcile the part of the brain that laughs at slapstick comedy with the sensors that melt over a Mahler symphony. And herein lies a second problem: operetta is a form that requires training, elegance, and refinement—but also a sense of silliness and comic abandon; rare is the artist who succeeds in convincing on both fronts. Below, I will share three lessons on convincing light opera performance practice learned from recordings.
Not Everyone Can Do Comedy
As an example, we can contrast the efforts of two famous baritones in the operetta world. Thomas Hampson, one of today’s most esteemed baritones, recorded an album of German-language operetta arias in 1999 with conductor Franz Welser-Möst. Hampson’s intelligence, careful preparation of phrasing, characterization, and even attention to the social and historical background of the pieces presented are in evidence on this recording. In fact, Gramophone magazine’s review of the disc praised the enlightening and thorough liner notes, worth the purchase price alone. But there are certainly some musical treasures here as well: for example, with a discreet semitone transposition, he is able to include the hit tenor aria “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz.” His refined sound and lovely tone fit this number, as well as the gracefully arched phrases of Emmerich Kálmán’s “Komm, Zigány.” Indeed, about half of operetta repertoire seems to require proper presentation of elegance – since it evolved, as it did, as an entertainment for lower classes aspiring to the upper echelons or seeking escape. However, another important ingredient for operetta performances is an element of unrestrained, madcap comedy. It is in this regard that Hampson pales a bit in comparison to one of his forebears in this repertoire, Hermann Prey. One of the most prominent examples of the light lyric/Spielbariton Fach, Hermann Prey recorded a number of complete operettas in the 1960s. Possessed of a lovely but not especially large voice, he was ideally suited for this repertoire. Unlike Hampson, who was a natural Count Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro, Prey had a knack for characters with a bit of the rascal in them. Prey’s portrayals of Figaro in both Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia and Mozart’s Nozze were the standards for a generation. Though they each sing Millöcker’s “Dunkelrote Rosen” beautifully (again with elegance of phrasing and presentation in full force), it is hard to imagine Hampson bringing the same infectious energy to the comedic excerpts Prey performed on Peter Alexander’s 1970s variety show.
Life Beyond Old Ladies
One of the joys of the operetta repertoire is that the mezzo-soprano can often step into the leading lady’s spotlight. Several famed mezzos from the last 50 years have recorded at least one compilation disc or full operetta. Frederica von Stade and Anne Sofie von Otter focused their attentions on Jacques Offenbach, to delightful effect. Many of the works included on these discs were roles created for French soprano Hortense Schneider, including the title roles in La belle Hélène, La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein and La Périchole. None of these roles have particularly high notes, so they became prize real estate for mezzo-sopranos looking to move beyond playing aged crones and confidantes. Thus, in practice over the course of the twentieth century, we began to see Ms. Schneider’s roles assumed with regularity by both sopranos (ranging from Felicity Lott to Régine Crespin to Jessye Norman) as well as mezzo-sopranos (Teresa Berganza, among many others). To my ear, all the years of singing Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia seem to sharpen the comic skills of the mezzo-sopranos who assay these Offenbach roles – they understand the need mentioned above for self-effacement and abandon. By contrast, sopranos who may be more acquainted with the ingenue’s propriety tend to offer less physical but more tonally luxurious performances of the same roles. In the end, it’s a matter of taste which you prefer – or which recording you purchase. One of today’s leading mezzos, Susan Graham, delved even deeper into the French operetta repertoire, exhuming rarities from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Composers included on her 2002 disc “French Operetta Arias” include Messager, Chabrier, Hahn, and Yvain. The jazz influences on some tracks may surprise some listeners, but the infectious rhythms and brassy interludes came to characterize many light opera efforts in the United States, France, and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. It is a joy to hear Graham’s warm tone slide through these pieces (though the quality of the material varies); the orchestra led by Yves Abel idiomatically accompanies Ms. Graham on her chameleonic journey of these diverse styles. Lower-voiced women looking for flashy and fun recital encores need look no further than this recommended album. In short, mezzos looking to emphasize their elegance, humor, and sex appeal may wish to explore the (particularly French) operetta repertoire in more depth. Admittedly, one of the juiciest, most familiar mezzo-soprano roles in the operetta canon is…again…that of a man, Prince Orlofsky in Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, but then, who wouldn’t rather play a rich Prince pouring champagne like there’s no tomorrow over, say, a blind old woman?
Look to the Past
Coco Chanel once said “Fashion changes, but style endures.” Truer words could not be said about operetta. National tastes and changing times saw the creation of several different strains of light opera, each with its own subtle nuances and idiosyncrasies. But overarching these periodic fluctuations in taste are stylistic elements that performers can strive to absorb or emulate. Historical recordings can often bring us closer to the intentions of the composer – or at least the performance practice associated with the piece. Compare, for example, Richard Tauber’s 1935 performance of Rudolf Sieczynski’s famous ode to Vienna, “Wien, du Stadt meiner Träume” with that of supertenor Plácido Domingo. Again, while one could quibble over which voice one prefers, there is an ease and authenticity to Tauber’s performance absent from Domingo’s. The interesting thing is, one wouldn’t necessarily know what was missing without having heard the earlier version. One can learn the proper notes and words, perfect the accent, brush up on Viennese history – but still come up short. Something intangible about operetta style just cannot be coached, even by the best of the best – it needs to be absorbed from hours in cafes and nights spent walking cobblestone streets bathed in amber light. Only then can the proper dose of Schlagobers creep into the performance without becoming too saccharine. Even as late as 1957, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (incidentally, one of Thomas Hampson’s teachers) gave a lesson in effortless, stylish operetta performance. Her combination of secure vocal technique and understanding of convention yields great results: one moment she warbles sweetly, the next she waltzes wildly, then finally opens up the voice just enough to rise to a perfect climax. This album, in many ways, is a fantastic bridge between the past method of learning the operetta idiom by osmosis and today’s classroom coaching. Some of the stiffness and angular tone that creeps into the Keenlyside or Hampson performances mentioned above may have resulted from too much time spent learning, and not enough time spent living the style. The resultant lesson is that singers today should occasionally take a leap of faith away from the highest quality stereo sound and listen to some of those tinny, grainy sounding recordings of yesteryear. After all, yet another key ingredient of operetta is nostalgia – for golden times that may have only existed in dreams.
Vienna: a quick splash of history
Vienna, at the end of the nineteenth century, or fìn de siècle, was the ideal environment for the creation of a new musical genre- the Viennese operetta. This period was incredible! Art, music, architecture, philosophy, literature- it’s impossible to find a facet of human life that was not undergoing a remarkable period of growth and accomplishment. Many books have been devoted to the fìn de siècle, and although there are many influences that contributed to this era, it is safe to say that the influx of people coming to the city of Vienna- people of many different cultures- contributed to this cultural flowering.
Industrialization came late to Austria, as a result of the conservatism of the Biedermeier period (1815-48) and neo-absolutism after the 1848 revolutions. By the 1860s, the social, political, and technological advances were arriving in Vienna. [i]People flooded into the capital Vienna from all corners of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in search of new non-agrarian employment. In a matter of fifty years, the population exploded from less than half a million people to a major capital of almost 2 million residents. The modernization of Vienna led to an increase in the purchasing power of the middle class who now required increased service amenities as well as household staffs. And the immigrants, arriving from the Habsburg provinces to fill positions like these, created a more ethnically diverse population.
What did this mean for music?
This increased diversity in population meant a shift in musical and theatrical tastes. Although immigrant citizens were poor and therefore largely unable to afford theatrical entertainment, these people had an effect on the cultural climate of the city. The dialect comedies that were being performed in Vienna were now open to influences from all over the Empire and beyond. The new genre that was developing, Viennese operetta, would bring together the elements of Jacques Offenbach’s enormously successful operettas (which had been touring outside of France for years), the Viennese waltz (you’ve likely heard this somewhere before), and the local tradition of satirical comedy in which musical numbers such as overtures and songs were well-established ingredients.
By the mid-1850s Offenbach had developed quite a following in Vienna, thanks to Johann Nestroy, the director of the Carltheater. Unable to afford to pay Offenbach to come, Nestroy had presented pirated versions to the public. Later, the actor Karl Treumann took over the theater and invited Offenbach to come and conduct his pieces. Into the 1870s, the Frenchman regularly visited Vienna. Composers such as Franz von Suppé and Carl Millöcker were already contributing incidental music and overtures to dramatic works. Inspired by Offenbach, these composers, looking for way to create their own mark in the music world, went on to become leading Viennese operetta composers. They took their inspiration from their French counterparts and dressed the genre to suit the Viennese. Instead of the French can-can, they wrote waltzes and polkas. Viennese operetta was also more sentimental and romantic than French operetta. There was also a greater appreciation for physical comedy, as well as parody, whether it was written in by the librettist or composer, or added in the interpretation by the actors.
Prior to Offenbach, an operetta was a one-act comic opera. In Vienna, this was developing into a much larger scale work. Any operettas from the late 1860s, such as Suppé’s Das Pensionat (1860), Flotte Bursche (1863), and Die schöne Galathee (1865) still borrowed heavily from Offenbach’s tradition. In 1871, it was Johann Strauss’s Indigo und die vierzig Räuber that emerged as the first full-length Viennese operetta. This operetta is set in an exotic utopia, and other operettas of the early 1870s follow suit. By the late 1870s, Viennese operettas were urban and focused on Vienna. This trend began with the enormous success of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus in 1874.
The public desired an imitation of opera that was easily accessible, and also a form of release from the social and financial pressures of a society undergoing industrialization. Although there were many more people and ideas coming to the city, there were also many poor people who were desperate for work inhabiting the city of Vienna. The more unsettled the climate became, the more the theatre-going public sought refuge in an operatic fantasy. This certainly sounds familiar- consider the glamour days of old Hollywood, as moviegoers first sought relief from the crushing poverty of the Great Depression in the 30s, to the uplifting movies of the war years. Clearly, American culture doesn’t have a monopoly on escapism.
[i] Crittenden, Camille. Johann Strauss and Vienna: Operetta and the Politics of Popular Culture. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Schorske, Carl E. Fin de Siécle Vienna: Politics and Culture. New York: Knopf, 1980.
Traubner, Richard. Operetta: A Theatrical History. London, New York: Routledge, 2003.
Yates, W.E. Theatre in Vienna. Cambridge University Press, 1996.
One of the pieces featured on VOX 3 Collective’s Veiled Faces program, “Hope and a Hem,” is the kernel of a new song cycle in the making, called Nameless, with text by Chicago poet Aaron DeLee and music by Artistic Director Brian von Rueden. This round table discussion lends insight into the origins of the piece, the preparations for performance, and future steps as more songs are written—and the singers Meghan Guse and Gretchen Adams prepare to record the material.
Q: Let’s begin with the text. Aaron, how would you characterize the difference between your “Biblical Women” series of poems and your other work?
AD: I enjoy writing persona poems in general; it’s really interesting to get into the mindset of another person and look at the world through their experience. In a way, it’s my poetic version of playing a part like an actor. Also, I often focus on queer themes and/or femininity, so writing about biblical women doesn’t stray much from my other work. However, one of the differences is that, while writing about these characters now, I have it in the back of my mind that the poem might be set to music. This changes some things slightly: how form might aid or hinder the writing, or perhaps a word choice here or there.
BVR: I had asked Aaron to consider writing a few poems about female characters in the Bible, knowing that VOX 3 Collective was preparing a program on the subject, and that we wanted to include several new compositions. Having a wide range of texts at our disposal was important—one never knows what words will invoke the muse. “Hope and a Hem” struck me as the basis for a perfect song. The simple images and even phrases very much lent themselves to music, and the story has been a favorite of mine for some time. The idea of incorporating this poem/song into a larger work came later, as we realized how many compelling tales of nameless women abound in the Bible.
Q: What is your creative process, when writing about these familiar characters?
AD: I like to reread the passages these women come from, do some research about them, fit the context in my mind and go from there. I’ll cling onto an image and run with it: what they’re holding, what they’re aiming at, what they’re suffering, or a phrase they might say. There’s often so much to be unpacked from a few short verses.
Q:What was the compositional process like, in creating these pieces?
BVR: I’ve never really thought of myself as a composer. I briefly dabbled in writing musical theatre in my angsty teenage years, and I later wrote some small liturgical settings for special occasions—baptisms, weddings and so forth—but otherwise I’ve restricted myself to performing. Somehow, though, finding these texts flipped a switch. I remember sitting in a church pew one Sunday morning, and the spark hit. I spent the afternoon plunking at the piano and had a finished draft of the first song by evening. Later pieces were constructed on more complex poetry. Accordingly, I spent much more time discussing the text with the poet, and letting the musical ideas simmer a while. I think the overall cycle will reflect that—and mirror the lives of these nameless ladies: there are impulsive moments of passionate inspiration, offset by contemplative passages of deep thought and reflection.
Q: Ladies, what were your initial thoughts when asked to sing on a concert of Biblical Women?
MG: Excited seems a trite word for the occasion, but…I was excited! I feel like most of the most-discussed figures in the Bible are male, so it was nice to be given the opportunity to represent some of the important female figures. I was especially excited to be portraying an “Unknown Woman,” one of the myriad of followers who were touched by their association with Jesus. She didn’t need to be famous, or well-known (like Mary or Esther, some of the other characters featured on the concert), but she was important enough to mention.
GA: When I first learned about VOX 3’s Veiled Faces concert, I was interested to learn what the program would feature. I was very interested in the diversity of the characters and music styles included in the program. The contrast between the new pieces and the old, coupled with a common thread weaving the genres together made for a very cohesive and thought-provoking program.
Q: What is your goal, or your “take” on these ladies? Is there a story or character that particularly resonates with you?
BVR: To me, “Hope and a Hem” is the core of this Nameless cycle. The character of the Hemorrhaging Woman in Luke 8:42-48speaks to the very heart of the silent suffering endured by many women, sometimes even in the name of religion. But the message of the story is one of hope and faith. In a college Bible study, a friend shared this as a passage that was very meaningful to her in dark times. I think that we can all relate to that need to hope and believe.
AD: I’m always taken with Lot’s wife. I think she is such a sympathetic character, with a heart-wrenching story. People often think of the Sodom and Gomorrah story as a sort of condemnation of homosexuality, but I first think of Lot’s Wife when I hear that passage. Why shouldn’t she be able to look back at her home? To me, the passage concerns matters of obedience and disobedience; an extension of Eve’s story, in a way. I’m interested in portraying women’s struggles to be a little more equal, and the tribulations they face for that. And, I’m intrigued by how faithful and devout women prove themselves in these texts, many times more so than men—but somehow seem to be completely overlooked.
GA: It seems these women have much richer stories than are portrayed in The Bible. Their stories are stated, but there is rarely any background to give the reader an idea of the characters’ motivations. As I investigated Lot’s wife and read others’ commentary about her choices, it seems that people are very quick to judge her as a weak person. To me, that seems unfair. I think she, as well as many other female figures featured in The Bible are far more complex than they are portrayed in their stories. These Nameless pieces give us a chance to explore different sides of these characters. We get to relate to them as human beings, and think about who they were and what motivated them to make the choices they did.
Q: What can you tell us about the music?
BVR: My style is quite tonal, and I think much of the music reflects the kind of music I like to sing: gratifying vocal lines, well-supported by harmonic structure, with dramatic moments and interesting effects. Much of the inspiration also comes from the great composers of the past. I thought of songs, written by the likes of Schubert, Debussy, Brahms, Wolf, Fauré, or even Ned Rorem, that addressed similar characters or situations. I studied the rhythms, melodic intervals, chordal structures. And I let those ingredients stew for a while, as I absorbed Aaron’s words. Sometimes, I even directly incorporated elements of these older works: The bass line for “Hope and a Hem,” for example, is based on a 1617 “Sancta Maria” setting by Claudio Monteverdi, with the rest of the material superimposed above. That particular piece stuck out in my mind, as the prayer to the Virgin Mary includes a petition “intercede pro devoto foemineo sexu” — “for all the saints of the female sex,” and it resonated as the perfect basis for this song that deals with the silent pain endured by the woman in Luke’s Gospel—and so many other nameless women who followed in her footsteps.
Q: Did you notice any differences between how you prepared this music – a newly written set – versus other music you have sung?
GA: Preparing for a premiere was a wonderful experience. It was very rewarding to work so closely with the composer throughout the entire process. From the moment we received the music to each performance in the concert series, we were able to communicate and collaborate to shape the performance together.
MG: I tend to learn music by listening to recordings (many different versions to make sure I’m not picking up any one singer’s interpretation or vocal quirks). After I listen to the song several times, I usually dive right in and start singing. With new music…that’s not really an option. You have to do a lot more leg work before you get to the singing phase: Rhythm, then text, then notes last.
GA: Working on a new set, there is no “performance practice” precedent, which is very exciting. We had the privilege of working with a blank canvas while having the guidance of the composer along the way.
MG: Exactly. Especially since these pieces are duets, it can be even harder to put the piece together, as you need to make sure both parts are represented evenly and correctly, while still being true to our own voices. But that is one of the things that makes new music exciting: your input forms a large part of a completely new work of art, and you can make it your own.
Q: How has your own religious background affected your work on these pieces, if at all?
AD: I come at these poems with some working background knowledge on the stories of these women. I was born and raised Roman Catholic, but fell off that bandwagon late in high school. The Catholic community I came from was big on women being able to take on larger roles within the Church, potentially becoming priests(esses); so my angle on equality is probably rooted there.
MG: I grew up Catholic, but we weren’t terribly good about attending church. Consequently, all three of these stories were new to me, so I’m enjoying learning about them and connecting their stories to all women. I can’t help thinking that the reason they weren’t given names is that they were meant to be a bit more universal. Each time I work on a piece, I keep thinking that that character is the one I connect with the most…but then I work on another piece, or do more research, and then I change my mind again!
GA: The particular Episcopal congregation I grew up in was (and still is) very warm and welcoming—never exclusive, judgmental or elitist. That environment, where everyone was embraced and treated with respect and equality shaped my beliefs significantly. Thinking about the struggle and injustice that many of these women experienced makes me outraged on their behalf. Giving them a voice and telling their stories—even centuries later—honors them and gives them the respect they were denied in their time.
Q: What is it like for you, as a writer, to work with a composer?
AD: I never really thought of myself as a songwriter before, but this has helped me grow as an artist and exercise my talents. This has certainly made me a stronger poet for it. Specifically, it’s good to get some feedback on one’s work. It is also exciting and very rewarding to see what one’s work might inspire in another artist, and how they might interpret it.
Q: What about the performance? You had four opportunities to perform this piece live – did your interpretation change at all?
GA: With each performance, I felt more connected to the nameless woman as well as with the audience. Also, when singing with another person, each additional experience allows you to grow together and play off one another. Each performance is unique and provides a different take on the piece.
MG: We were constantly refining the performances. Gretchen and I would chat the whole ride home from the concerts, talking about what needed to be improved (usually, “Sorry, that part wasn’t as perfect as I would’ve liked!”), or what went particularly well. As we head to the recording studio, we’re continuing to refine and connect to the piece. As we incorporate the other pieces in the set, it also makes me regard “Hope and a Hem” in a different manner – we’re not just telling one story any more, it’s just a chapter in a larger work.
Q: Several audience members seemed to connect with the piece “Hope and a Hem” – why do you think that is?
MG: I think it’s a combination of the text, the music, and the performances. The text is a poignant retelling of a Biblical story depicting an “everywoman” character. Not all of Jesus’s followers were famous—some were normal women, suffering through regular human ailments. The music is beautiful to listen to, while still being faithful to the nature of this woman who was desperate to find relief. To me, the soaring melodic opening seemed to all of the unnamed, anonymous women of the Bible crying out for help.
GA: The themes in the text are universal and timeless. It is a story about the human condition. The idea that a situation can be so desperate that there is nothing left to lose resonates with everyone—regardless of gender, age or situation. As human beings, we experience dark times, but are built to believe against all odds. We trust that clinging to the thinnest thread of hope or taking even the smallest action could bring about positive change. Also, I think that the use of second person in the setting of the poem is very direct, and allows for an immediate connection between the singers and the audience.
Q: The rest of the cycle is still being written. How did this grow from one song into something bigger? What do you expect from the future pieces?
MG: I think Brian meant to write more than the one piece, but after each performance, Gretchen and I would constantly beg for more songs! With as many songs as there are about the “Marys” (The Blessed Virgin and Mary Magdalene), it was about time that someone gave the unnamed women a voice as well!
GA: I think that each song in a set influences how the others are interpreted. I am eager to have the entire picture of these pieces and see how they complement one another in context of the full cycle.