Saturday, February 15 at 7:30 pm
Walter Hall, 80 Queens Park
The venue is wheelchair accessible by a ramp and elevator.
The performance will last approximately 1 hr and 15 minutes including a 10-minute intermission.
The music is unamplified so it won't be loud, but the range and tone of classical singing can be quite intense especially if you aren't familiar with it.
The venue is an ampitheatre-type space with raked seating. There is also some standing room at the back with a railing to lean on if you would prefer to be able to move around during the performance.
Implied violence (including use of a prop knife onstage)
Allusions to dysphoria, self-harm, and misgendering
Throughout history, women have been portrayed on the musical stage as one-dimensional or stereotypical characters. In this recital, I explore a few of these common archetypes of femininity.
Normally, a ‘good’ female character is portrayed as one of the male-centric roles of wife, daughter, or mother. In contrast, a woman who does not fit into one of these models is often cast as a villain, ostracized or mocked. One such stock character which appears throughout the history of opera is the Whore, represented in this recital program by Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre's Sémélé.
Operas and theatrical music of this era tended to echo sexual politics at the French court—in particular, fears that the King was being influenced by his mistresses. De la Guerre’s Sémélé can be interpreted as a meditation on these anxieties. In the first recitative, the narrator sets the scene: the Princess Semele has been enjoying a love affair with Jupiter, the King of the gods. The all-powerful Jupiter has promised to grant his lover one wish—anything in the world. But Semele, doubting his identity, has asked for him to reveal himself to her in his true form. What Semele doesn’t know is that, because she is mortal, the sheer brilliance of her lover’s divine form will be fatal to her. After the drama has played out, the narrator returns to deliver the moral of the story: mixing love and ambition will never end well. Such a message might easily be interpreted as a warning to the mistresses of Louis XIV.
Another female figure was feared at court during this time period: the Witch. Belief in witchcraft and in particular in the potential power of the devil was still widespread in the late seventeenth century. One particular scandal, known as l’Affaire des Poisons, brought to light the depth of superstition prevalent even in France’s upper classes. Lasting from approximately 1677 to 1682, the Affair involved several members of Louis XIV’s court. To the great discomfort of the king, it appeared that for many years, members of his court had been visiting fortune tellers—known as devineresses—for services ranging from romantic advice to purveying love potions and poisons. Several high-born ladies were tried and convicted of murder by poison, resulting in widespread paranoia about sorcery.
Like Semele, Jean-Baptiste Lully’s 1686 Armide plays on male anxieties about over-reaching women gaining sexual power over men. In Armide, a Saracen sorceress and warrior princess has seduced and enslaved all but one of the Christian knights who are her enemies—only Renaud has escaped her power. Waiting until her enemy is totally disarmed by his surroundings, Armide enchants Renaud to make him fall asleep, seizing the chance to take her revenge.
Although Armide seems to wield unlimited magical power, the ostensible moral of the opera is that her power—and in fact any woman’s power—is merely an illusion. At the time women were believed to lack rationality and self-control, and in particular, they were seen as having no restraint when it came to their sexuality. Armide’s second act monologue “Enfin il est en ma puissance” dramatizes the sorceress’s struggle against her own desires. While her rational mind tells her that Renaud is her enemy and must be destroyed, Armide’s heart is filled first with pity, and then with an attraction so strong she is unable to resist its pull.
Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729)
Other feminine archetypes, while existing outside of the normal constraints of male-centric society, have inspired less stigma and more fascination throughout history. These characters, the Widow, the Warrior, and the Writer, are the subject of the second half of this recital:
The Widow and Working Mother
German composer and pianist Clara Schumann (1819-1896) had a performing career that lasted for 61 years. Although she is now best known for being married to Robert Schumann, during her life she was in fact rather more famous and respected than her husband, who was well-known as a music critic but not as a composer. Through her husband’s many bouts of mental illness, Schumann managed to support her family, raise eight children, and write many compositions of the highest calibre. Later, after her husband’s death, she continued to provide for her family with extremely popular and successful concert tours.
Although Schumann no longer composed after the death of her husband, her lieder “Mein Stern” and “Ihr Bildnis” seem to speak to the emotional loss of her partner, whom she was not allowed to visit for over two years during his hospitalization for mental illness. For example, in “Mein Stern” the singer expresses a wish that the titular star might pass on love and comfort to a faraway loved one. In “Ihr Bildnis” the narrator stands transfixed by a portrait of a lost love, weeping while imagining the frozen face come to life.
Clara Schumann (1819-1896)
Gioachino Rossini’s Giovanna d’Arco depicts the very beginning of Joan of Arc’s story, just after she has been called by an angel to leave her countryside home and join the army dressed as a boy. Joan of Arc legendarily led French troops to victory during the Hundred Years War, when she was still only a teenager. She became a martyr when she was burned at the stake by her enemies, the English—ostensibly not for any crimes associated with warfare, but for her refusal to shed the men’s clothing she habitually wore. In many visual depictions, she is softened and feminized in order to appease the heterosexual male gaze—in others, however, her determination and virility shine through.
The female warrior, whether disguised as a young soldier or openly garbed as an amazon, has been a figure of fascination in many cultures and throughout many centuries. She brazenly contradicts the stereotype of female weakness, as well the ideal of feminine passivity. Her place among the masculine hierarchy of the battlefield shows her worth beyond the restrictive female hierarchy of exclusively sexual power.
Joan of Arc (c.1412-1431)
Nightsongs sets an English translation of fragments of poetry written by Sappho, one of few recorded female poets from ancient Greece. Although Sappho was a prolific writer, most of her poetry is now lost, surviving only in fragmentary form. This setting of Sappho by Maria Case, a twenty-first century Canadian, highlights the many difficulties in attempting to trace women’s history when many records have been lost—or simply never existed—due to women’s position outside of public life. Because of its incomplete nature, the text is sometimes disjointed. However, Case’s music deftly weaves an evocative sketch out of Sappho’s vivid poetry.
The last work on the program, What is it like?, is a creation of my own in consultation with Toronto composer Gavin Fraser. It explores my identity as a non-binary performer and questions assumptions about the nature of gender and performance itself.
Program notes by Camille Rogers
Sappho (d. 580 BCE)