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Interview with Librettist - Kendra Preston Leonard

Hello HOTOpera Fans,

Today we're thrilled to share our interview with Kendra Preston Leonard, librettist for Marie Curie Learns to Swim and Four Songs for Lady Macbeth. We hope you enjoy learning about Kendra, her partnership with Jessica Rudman, and what Opera for the 22nd Century means to her.


Rachel - Tell us a little about yourself! How did you get involved in music?

Kendra - I was a professional cellist before shifting my focus from performance to musicology and music theory. I’ve always been interested in the intersections of language and music. I have a PhD and have published five scholarly books on music, including books on music and Shakespeare, music and film, and on the music of American composer Louise Talma.

Rachel - How did you develop an interest in writing librettos for vocal music?

Kendra - When I read an anecdote about Marie Curie taking a vacation at the beach with her two daughters and asking them to teach her how to swim, it immediately seemed like an ideal topic for an operatic treatment. As a poet, it never occurred to me that Curie’s story could be anything but an opera. I’ve spent a lot of time studying opera as an academic subject, and teaching recent and new opera, so I worked towards writing a text that could be set musically. It was important that I create new roles for women to sing, and in writing the roles of Marie Curie and Irène Joliot-Curie I had the opportunity to do so.

Rachel - How did you meet Jessica Rudman? What projects have you worked on together?

Kendra - I met Jessica when we were attending a meeting of the Society for American Music. We had lunch together with composer Ellen Taafe Zwilich, who was the Society’s honorary member that year. I knew I wanted to work with a woman composer on Marie Curie, and as I was starting to work the libretto, I listened to several of Jessica’s pieces. Her song cycle Iseult Speaks really moved me, and I approached her about taking on the project. While we were working on Marie Curie, I mentioned that I also had a set of poems I was calling “Songs for Lady Macbeth.” Jessica asked to see them and immediately wanted to set them for voice and chamber ensemble as Four Songs for Lady Macbeth, and I love the way she’s done so.

Rachel - What's it like working with Jessica?

Kendra - It’s superb. Because Jessica has set so much text—and very different texts—she is able to compose to fit the words and their intent exceptionally well. We worked together to shape the libretto from my first draft to the final product so that it had a clear narrative arc and music for all three characters. Jessica captured the emotions of the arias for each role beautifully. She’s great at asking questions that help me refine the text, and at suggesting where additional transitional text or arias might help the work as a whole.

Rachel - When did you first hear about each of the women we are featuring as a part of Speaking Her Truth - i.e. Marie Curie; Lady Macbeth; the domestic abuse survivor in Canada on which the story of Trigger is based.

Kendra - I should note here that I didn’t have any involvement in Jessica’s creation of Trigger, but it’s an incredible piece that is highly resonant with far too many women and non-binary people. I first read about Marie Curie and Lady Macbeth when I was a child. Having done a lot of scholarly work on Lady Macbeth, I spent a great deal of time thinking about her life and motivations and desires. I did some reading on the real Lady Macbeth as I wrote the texts for the songs, and tried to use both the facts of her life and her treatment by Shakespeare to frame aspects of her life in different ways.

In the Four Songs, the narrator of the “Shout Dirge” calls out facts about the real Lady Macbeth’s life as her funeral cortège passes by. “Song of the House Martin” refers to Shakespeare’s play, referencing Lady Macbeth’s plea to the fates to give her power, the description of Duncan’s murder, the appearance of Banquo’s ghost, and Lady Macbeth’s own offstage death. The narrator is the house martin—a beautiful bird that nests at the Macbeths’ castle—who is mentioned in the play. In the third song, “Lady, Maid, Invocation,” Lady Macbeth’s waiting woman from the play is the narrator, describing her ordeal in caring for Lady Macbeth after she has gone mad but nonetheless risks asking the fates for the same kind of power. The final song, “Cradle Carol for Lady Macbeth,” is also addresses the Shakespearean Lady Macbeth, and speaks to her great losses: her children, her husband, her sanity.

Marie Curie’s life is much better documented, of course, and I knew the basic facts of her biography when I began thinking about writing the libretto for Marie Curie Learns to Swim. I did some additional reading on her life and the history of science. Her own autobiographical account, included in her biography of her husband Pierre Curie, is a lovely and elegant testimony to her dedication to her vocation.

Rachel - You are an advocate for women composers, conductors, musicians and changing the status quo. What steps can young musicians take to be more inclusive?

Kendra - Program works by women and non-binary composers. For every work you program by a male composer, ask yourself what you could be performing by a woman or non-binary person in its place. Commission new works if you can: commissions don’t always have to cost a lot. Seek out funding to help commission new pieces and perform them or help have them performed and recorded. Teach works by women and other traditionally marginalized composers. Ask your students and audiences to think critically about the imbalance in programming. Support initiatives that support minority composers, and stop supporting those that keep doing the same all-male, all-white composer performances. Become familiar with major works by women and other traditionally marginalized composers and recommend them to your friends and colleagues. Ask your local radio station, symphony, and other arts organizations to include more women in their programming.

Rachel - Tell us about some of the papers and research you've conducted as a musicologist.

Kendra - I’ve recently been doing a lot of scholarly work on women and the music for silent films, and I have some book chapters coming out soon on that and a full-length book project I hope to complete by early 2019. I’ve also done work on jazz and world music in productions of Shakespeare’s plays; music and nostalgia in film; and research on the Conservatoire Américain de Fontainebleau and its alumnae, including Louise Talma.

Rachel - One last question: What does Opera for the 22nd Century mean to you?

Opera for the 22nd Century should be everywhere and for and by everyone. Opera outside of the traditional theatrical and philosophical confines of the art. Opera in schools, opera in the streets, opera on YouTube. Opera on important and unexplored topics. Opera about forgotten narratives and individuals. Opera by women, by non-binary composers, by composers of color, by queer composers, by disabled composers. Opera for all of those audiences. Opera that reaches and touches everyone.


Thank you for reading our Opera for the 22nd Century blog! To learn more about Kendra Preston Leonard, please visit her website

Visit us on Sunday for Spotlight Sunday featuring soprano, Claudia Rosenthal, and next week for an interview with the composer herself: Jessica Rudman!

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