Soir des Femmes presented An Afternoon of Opera by Female Composers on Saturday, April 15 in Brookline Public Library’s Hunneman Hall, bringing new life to historic repertoire not performed since their time of writing.
The dialogue about gender iniquity in opera has become more prominent, and finally, some high-profile opera companies—like the Met, Santa Fe, and Washington National Opera—are beginning to stage operas by living female composers and hire more women as stage directors. Yet, the divide between male and female creators in opera remains wide, especially in the historic realm. Although women have been composing for hundreds of years, and there are indeed, numerous operas written by women, many opera lovers have never even heard the names, let alone the music, of these composers. The result is that operas by women from previous centuries continue to be obscured and forgotten.
The discontinuity in the heritage and legacy of female creators in opera inspired Scottish soprano/director Charlotte McKechnie to create the first Soir des Femmes (Women’s Evening) last summer, exposing audiences to operatic gems by women composers that had disappeared from or were completely missed by the repertory. That first concert was such a hit with both audiences and critics alike that McKechnie decided to make it a long-term project.
Now, Soir des Femmes plans to produce at least one full opera and three smaller concerts each season, with performances in Boston and Glasgow.
The recent Brookline concert began with Eva Dell’Acqua’s Zizi, published in 1906. Dell’Acqua was an early 20th century Italian composer who wrote pieces for chamber orchestra, voice and piano, orchestral works, and opera. Zizi incorporates the optimism of its Belle Époque era, detailing the confounding twists and turns of romance, yet ending happily. With lovely, pleasing music and airs, it is the portrait of idyllic charm.
Next were excerpts from Justine Chen’s Jeanne, based on Joan of Arc’s capture and death. Chen is a living composer who has been commissioned, among other prominent organizations, by New York City Opera and New York City Ballet. Jeanne (2007) is a starkly moving, powerful piece with lyrical English vocal writing and smart, lucid text. Its performance began and closed with an otherworldly vocalise by Anna Ward, who played Joan. Her acting and presentation was solidly rich in subtext, creating the seamless illusion that one was witnessing the intimate life vignettes of a real person onstage. Baritone Ethan Sagin played a merciless, jealous inquisitor, who could not understand why God had chosen this “arrogant” girl over him, who had faithfully served the Church his entire life. Experiencing Joan’s ruggedly determined defiance and self-awareness clash with the empowered patriarchy was viscerally dramatic theatre.
Amy Beach’s one-act chamber opera, Cabildo (1932) came next. On display was the composer’s fluid and flawless vocal and piano writing. It told the story of a ghostly Lady Valerie who sets free the pirate Pierre LaFitte, her lover who was unjustly imprisoned for her murder, but who mysteriously escaped from confinement. In the opera, a newly married couple come across their story while touring the prison cells of New Orleans’ Cabildo. The wife (McKechnie), entranced by LaFitte’s enigmatic escape, falls asleep and dreams of Lady Valerie’s apparition unlocking the door to her lover’s cell.
Next was an excerpt from Lucile Grétry two-hour opera, Le Mariage d’Antonio, written in 1786 by a fourteen-year old prodigy. In her short life, it was performed 47 times at Paris’ prestigious Comédie-Italienne theatre. The composer died of tuberculosis just three years later. Her opera’s beautiful music tells the lighthearted tale of a young couple—Colette and Antonio— whose parents disapprove of their desire to marry on account of the bride’s young age. McKechnie played a superbly comical mother, inducing genuine laughs from the audience as she grimaced at her daughter’s saccharine suitor. After the performance, she explained that the opera ends with Antonio fortuitously helping a beggar who turns out to be a king and rewards the young man with riches. Finally, the bride’s parents approve of the wedding!
Closing the concert was Pauline Viardot’s Cendrillon, whose elegant music essentially details Cinderella’s story. David Evans and McKechnie portrayed the prince and Cendrillon’s romantic moments with grace and charm. Anna Ward and Evans delivered an outlandishly comical portrayal of Cendrillon’s superficial step-siblings.
After the show McKechnie explained that in compiling materials for this concert she first had a thorough search through the Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy Society database. From there, she narrowed down a list of what scores still existed, were legible, and accessible. Then she assembled them and examined each one to find the highest quality music to best complement one another across multiple music periods.
Since there are no recordings of any of the works except for Cendrillon, she “only really knew what was excellent once we began rehearsing. Luckily, the music was as good as I'd thought it might be!” As happens with performing the often centuries-old works of female composers, performers must treat them as, essentially, new music.
The Brookline performance would not have been possible without the work of music director, Max Philips and pianist Stephanie Mao. Philips coached the ensemble in historical context, musicality, and diction, and according to McKechnie, “gave very pertinent insights into each compositional style.” After the show, via email, Philips explained that Mao played from a piano-vocal score for most of the operas. They did not have a reduction for Le Mariage d’Antonio, however, and had to play from the full score. “On the other hand, Viardot's Cendrillon was written originally for only piano and singers, so here we were simply performing the work in its original form. Cabildo was written for singers with piano, violin and cello, so here the piano "reduction" was much more similar to the original setting than in Zizi, which was written for a full orchestra.” Philips explained that though it is likely to still exist somewhere, they had not been able to locate a full score or parts for Zizi—though ultimately their search for a full score was curtailed due to the concert’s being accompanied solely by piano. McKechnie added that she has since made greater efforts to locate a full score in order to stage the complete opera, but nothing is available through public archives: “My next step is to make contact with specific musicologists in different archives and find new directions in which to look.”
Soir des Femmes’ ongoing efforts to revive the operatic works of historical women composers will continue this August, when it will perform Amy Beach’s Cabildo throughout Scotland in honorof the composer’s 150th birthday.