Summer 2020 brings the first performances of Susannah Self’s opera Artemesia. Here the composer talks about the story at its heart and the questions it raises about the presentation and representation of women in opera.
Last September I submitted my PhD portfolio and commentary titled ‘Quiltsong: Quilting as a model of new operatic compositional practice’. The momentum of three years of research inspired an immediate next step to create another opera while I waited for my viva examination. As an experiment I decided to replicate Benjamin Britten’s three-and-a-half month time frame in which he composed The Turn of the Screw. I managed to complete the rough version of my new opera as I passed my viva with minor corrections. For the subject I chose the Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi whose work is featured at the National Gallery this spring.
Artemisia’s inspiring story is of becoming a successful painter in the face of adversity after a #MeToo situation she encountered when she was 16. Artemisia’s character reflects my commitment as a composer to move away from presenting female stereotypes that Catherine Clément refers to in Opera, or, The Undoing of Women as ‘the role of jewel, a decorative object… on the opera stage women perpetually sing their eternal undoing.’ Surprisingly the majority of female characters in new operas rarely pass the Bechdel test as established by Alison Bechdel in Dykes to Watch Out For (1986). To comply, two women must talk about something other than a love interest. I believe that the 21st Century needs an alternative operatic paradigm in which female characters are defined by their actions rather than their gendered identity. This shift will in turn help contribute to developing the dramatic scope of male and non-binary roles. However, my chosen focus is to address the way in which 50% of the earth’s population is under-represented. I seek to transform Christopher Small’s observation in Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening that ‘it is rare on the opera stage to meet a heroine who is permitted to be strong and independent, which means not depending on male support, and get away with it’ (Small, 1998).
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1652) was one of the foremost painters of the early 1600s. She created intensely powerful interpretations of biblical stories such as Susanna and the Elders.
Artemisia moved in the courts of Rome, Naples, Florence and Venice. The opera takes a fictional perspective informed by historical research. In particular Artemisia’s residence in Venice coincides with the rise of convents as documented in Jonathan Glixon in Mirrors of Heaven or Worldly Theaters? Venetian Nunneries and their Music (2018). Even though Artemisia was subsequently forgotten by art history she was admired in her time and her gender was no bar to her acceptance as an artist. This may have been aided by the situation in which many cultured women in Venice were forced by circumstances to become nuns. Convents re-invented themselves as refuges from the patriarchy so that women embraced an unprecedented freedom. They dressed in their own clothes, commissioned artists and created operas which were accompanied by lavish feasts. In Artemisia the artist receives a commission from St. Catherine’s Convent to create a portrait. The National Gallery has just purchased Artemisia’s painting of St. Catherine as a self-portrait.
As the opera develops the nuns devise an opera within an opera based on the historically documented rape trial heard by the Pope in which Tassi, Artemisia’s fiancé, was convicted of rape.
History shows that Artemisia’s response to this attack was to literally roll up her sleeves and become the artist that she was destined to be. Running parallel to Artemisia’s story is that of Artless, a modern painter. Artless struggles with her practice that seeks to convey art with no meaning. She falters in confidence until she discovers Artemisia’s work. Courageously she re-names herself from Alice to Artless by re-ordering the syllables of Artemisia Gentileschi, which reflect ‘less gentle art’, as in Artemisia’s Judith Decapitating Holofernes which was painted in three versions after the trial.
Opera director Phyllida Lloyd says there is a conversation ‘that is being had amongst women in the theatre, about the dearth of great roles for women over a certain age, and also [how] job opportunities are much narrower for women who are of unconventional size, shape, accent, ethnic origin, whatever.’ (Saner, 2016: The Guardian). Artemisia directly addresses this issue. As we rehearse the opera I have observed how the singers at North Sea Opera are developing a growing sense of excitement as I present new scenes composed specifically for their individual voices. In particular the soprano Catherine Joule who plays Artemisia is sounding more vibrant than I have ever heard. When I asked her what had happened she said ’I think it’s the role. It addresses so many modern issues of being a woman that I feel empowered’. Another professional, Sarah Gallop, who sings Zelda is clearly relishing the role of a young abbess who is also a composer and gourmet cook.
Artemisia is scored for 9 singers and 6 instrumentalists and will be premièred by North Sea Opera this summer. I also hope that it will be also be taken up by other mid-scale companies since it promotes 4 dynamic contemporary issues in a way that traditional opera does not. They are:
Can a female character fashion her own destiny towards a positive outcome despite a traumatic event?
Do women artists now deserve parity of representation?
Does art always need to convey a meaning?
Ethically, do new operas need to feature a higher percentage of female parts than in traditional opera so as to reflect the current proportionality of singers in the profession?
To conclude, many elements of story-telling embodied in Artemisia reflect recent shifts in some opera companies especially in Scandinavia, North Germany and the Americas. At Creation: Opera Europa’s 2019 conference in Antwerp I could see that the tide is turning towards areas in which my research has led me. In particular, creating new work that relates to contemporary issues and that features empowered women. However, in discussion with some of the main publishers and opera house intendants at Creation, I discovered that they remain invested in promoting new operas which often feature a proliferation of male protagonists such as in Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur (2008), George Benjamin’s Written on Skin (2012), Lessons in Love and Violence (2018), Hector Parra’s Les Bienveillantes (2019) and Wolfgang Rihm’s Jacob Lenz (2015). Even if a new opera features a lead woman such as in Mark Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole (2010) she is defined by her ability to ensnare a rich man with her sexuality which again references the traditional model. While I personally enjoy these operas for their astounding compositional dexterity my response as a composer is to suggest that there is also room for women of action to take centre stage.
Friday 29 May & Saturday 30 May, 8.00pm
Boat House, Burnham Overy Staithe, Norfolk.
Tickets £35, including wine and dinner
book via selfmademusic.co.uk
Sunday 5 July, 3.30pm
St Edmunds College, Cambridge.
Tickets £50, including refreshments
book via St Edmunds College
Saturday 18th July 7.30pm,
The Wells Maltings, Wells next the Sea, Norfolk.
Tickets £12, book via wellsmaltings.org.uk
The vocal score and orchestral score and parts for Artemesia will be available from Composers Edition towards the end of April 2020.