Hello HOTOpera Fans,
Welcome back to our Opera for the Twenty-Second Century blog! Today we are pleased to share an interview with composer, Jessica Rudman.
On Saturday, April 28th, we are thrilled to present three vocal works by Jessica Rudman at Christ Church Cathedral's Parish House in downtown Hartford.
We hope you enjoy this fascinating
interview with Jessica as she discusses her inspiration for the monodrama Trigger; the song cycle Four Songs for Lady Macbeth; and her chamber opera Marie Curie Learns to Swim, and what Opera for the Twenty-Second Century mean to her.
To purchase tickets for Speaking Her Truth: an evening of music with Jessica Rudman; please this LINK.
HOTOpera - When did you first learn about Marie Curie? What inspired you to create an opera about her?
Jessica - Like many people, I first heard of Marie Curie when I was growing up. I knew her name and that she did some important science stuff, but didn’t really have a clear understanding of her life and work. I started to learn more about her when Kendra Preston Leonard approached me regarding a libretto she had written. The subject and concept for the opera were her creation. After reading Kendra's text and doing some additional research, I gained a deep appreciation for Curie’s brilliance and her grit.
HOTOpera - Why Marie Curie, Lady Macbeth, and a Domestic Abuse Survivor?
Jessica - A few years ago, I had an urge to write opera but hadn’t found a story that really clicked with me. Since then, I’ve come to realize there are many powerful stories that I want to tell through music - and not coincidentally, they are all stories of women. Historically, female characters in opera have been two-dimensional. Most have little agency or inherent worth aside from their relation to the men around them. I am interested in bringing vivid, complicated, vulnerable, strong, intense women to life through music.
Each of these pieces grew out of that desire, though the circumstances of their creation were all different. “Trigger” was written for the Opera from Scratch festival in Nova Scotia, Canada in 2016. I wrote the text in addition to the music and was inspired by my reactions to a real incident in Nova Scotia where a women filed a domestic assault complaint against her partner and then was disparaged by the police officers to whom she turned for help. “Marie Curie Learns to Swim” was Kendra’s brainchild, and I am grateful that she invited me to collaborate with her and create the music for this opera.
“Four Songs for Lady Macbeth” grew out of a Facebook post. Kendra mentioned that she had some texts about Lady Macbeth, and I asked to see them as I was seeking texts to use in a new piece for Charity Clark. I loved the poems when I read them and both Kendra and Charity were on board for using them in a new song cycle.
HOTOpera - What do these varied women have in common?
Jessica - These women are complex. They have deep, sometimes conflicting emotions. They grapple with profound questions about life, society, and themselves. They don’t find easy answers (or possibly even any answers) but they do find a way forward.
HOTOpera - How do they demonstrate their strength in times of adversity?
Jessica - Each of these women is strong in a different way. Marie Curie has an unshakable faith in science and in logic that carries her through her grief after her husband’s death, through the obstacles she faced as a woman in male-dominated field, through the prejudice she faced as a foreigner in her adopted country, and through the illness that arose from her work with radiation. Her research and its medical applications are her calling and she is devoted to it above all else.
I think that Lady Macbeth has a similar strength of purpose, though hers is more political. In these songs, though, the issue is complicated, though, since the work is both about Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth and also about the historical figure on which she was based, a Scottish noblewoman named Gruoch.
The woman in “Trigger” shows the quiet strength of someone who experienced something horrible but is able to continue living her life. She is a survivor. We don’t learn much about who she is, and in fact, the character does not have a name. She is intended to be an every-woman—she could be your mother, your sister, your neighbor, your co-worker. She could be you, or she could be me. Domestic violence, sexual harassment, and other similar crimes are far more common than they should be. The sad truth is that if we haven’t experienced these crimes ourselves, we probably know people who have. Each person’s experience and journey is different, but I hope that the one conveyed in “Trigger” demonstrates a kind of strength audience members will be able to relate to.
HOTOpera - What musical devices did you use in your compositions to give each woman their unique voice and individuality?
Jessica - I tend to be a very motivic composer, particularly when I am writing music that tells a story. I create short musical ideas (called motives or motifs) that signify different characters, emotions, or ideas. These little fragments each have a unique identity, and they get transformed or combined over time to reflect the drama. In “Trigger” and “Marie Curie Learns to Swim,” there are a number of these motives that appear throughout each piece. In “Four Songs for Lady Macbeth,” there is less consistency since each song is from a different point of view. The music of each song is distinct in order to reflect the different narrators.
HOTOpera - Would you call these women/representation of women activists? If so, how so?
Jessica - I think that in a certain sense having representations of women that are realistic and multi-dimensional is activist, particularly given how women have been portrayed in opera historically. The subject matter of “Trigger” is most consciously related to activism, though the character is not an activist. She is just a person struggling to come to terms with a terrible experience that transformed her.
I think that Marie Curie might have fit the label “activist” most. She was a passionate advocate for scientific research and applications. She also was involved in the WWI war efforts.
HOTOpera - What are the truths that each woman seeks to tell in her own way?
Jessica - Marie Curie’s truth is the power of knowledge. It can change the world. Everyone should be given access to education and pursue their dreams, regardless of gender, ethnicity, nationality, or economic status. Everyone should be benefit from the developments of science and technology.
There are three main truths of “Trigger.” First is the commonality of domestic violence and other such crimes. Second, it is possible to move beyond such experiences, even if they never really leave you. Third, eradicating such crimes is a complex issue that requires many societal changes—there is no quick fix.
The Lady Macbeth songs are different from the other two works in that the titular woman’s voice isn’t actually heard in the work. Each poem is about her but none is from her point of view. In that sense, the piece is more about how women are viewed and perceived than about a particular truth told by Lady Macbeth.
HOTOpera - How does this resonate with the current political climate and activism such as the "Time's Up" and the "Me Too" movements?
Jessica - Amplifying women’s voices, considering their stories as equally valid and important, and focusing on their unique experiences is central to both the “Time’s Up” and “Me Too” movements. Each of these pieces does that. The Lady Macbeth songs are focused more on perception of women, while the other two pieces directly share one or more women’s personal experiences. In “Marie Curie Learns to Swim”, gender is mentioned periodically in relation to Curie's challenges as a female scientist. In “Trigger”, domestic abuse is central. It is essentially a “Me Too” story realized in music.
HOTOpera - Do you think art has the ability to bring about change?
Jessica - I think that art has the ability to bring personal change, certainly for the creator and sometimes for the audiences. People need to be open to being affected by art and they need to be willing to expose themselves to it, though. I’m not sure if art can bring about large-scale societal change, and I’m not really sure that it needs to. If enough people experience small transformations through their encounters with art, changes in society will follow.
HOTOpera - One final question, what does Opera for the Twenty-Second Century mean to you?
Jessica - “Opera for the 22nd Century” conveys a desire for an artistic statement that will be relevant and valued a century from now. Stories that are timeless despite being set in a specific place and time, music that transcends the circumstances of its creation and touches something universal and unflinchingly human — these are the ingredients that make for longevity. I hope that my works will prove to have these in the long run, and for now, I am happy to be creating opera that lives in our current time.
Thank you for reading our Opera for the 22nd Century blog! To learn more about Jessica Rudman, please visit her website at www.jessicarudman.com
Visit us on Sunday for a spotlight featuring baritone, Mark Womack and next week for a spotlight feature with the star of Marie Curie Learns to Swim, mezzo-soprano, Susan Yankee!