So, if you know anything about En Travesti, it’s that we’re a music company that likes lifting the lid on what society usually thinks about gender, and traditional gender roles, and having a good old poke around underneath. Men with high voices, women playing men, female composers forging their way in a misogynistic world, homoerotic duets, ambiguously gendered/sexed people seducing the whole damn audience – all of it sounds fabulous to us. And our previous concerts have been easily placed within that tradition – romantic duets from Gluck, Handel and Monteverdi that would have been sung by (pick whichever option suits you best) – two female singers (one gendered as a travesti leading man), one female singer (as the leading lady) and one castrato singer (as the leading man), one female singer (en travesti as the leading man) and one castrato (as a beautiful lady) or, (unlikely, but a possibility) two castrati singers. Maybe even a natural male soprano/alto – it could happen. Combine that with concerts highlighting the talents of Baroque female composers such as Barbara Strozzi and Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, and I think we can say we’ve done our mission statement proud.
At first glance, our upcoming Schütz/Monteverdi concert might seem a little less…obviously subversive. Certainly, the Monteverdi chamber duets are – two voices of the same type, singing of love. Are they outpourings of homosexual desire? Heterosexual desire through transgressive bodies? Two voices giving a plurality to a single character? Or supposed heterosexual desire with a little twist in the tail? Honestly, they could be read in so many ways – and we would rather give the audience a chance to find their own meaning in such lovely music. But Lamento d’Arianna and The Resurrection Story, whilst not so obviously radical, hopefully still give us much to think on.
Arianna’s Lament, to start with. Leaving aside the pro-Clément/anti-Clément argument I still believe that opera is fairly special in the way it gives women equal, if not greater, amounts of stage time when compared to men. And gives women a voice to express their deepest desires, hatred, woes, loves – a voice that commands attention, if not outright worship. For a woman to speak her mind is, to me, a feminist act – even if we may disagree with what she is saying, or what happens to her character before or afterwards. So, Arianna. Or Ariadne. The daughter of King Minos, and half-sister to the Minotaur. Who, for the love of Theseus, helped him to kill the monster, left her home and family and was then was abandoned, sleeping, on the island of Naxos. A happier ending in the myth – she marries Dionysus (and who of us, after a bad break-up, would say no to the god of wine?) – but the fragment left to us of Monteverdi’s opera shows only her anguish, finding herself alone and heartbroken. In her lament she shows both the most vulnerable parts of herself and also the most resilient, the most furious. It’s a stunning exploration of the pain caused by the betrayal of love. And, in our programme, an extra layer of subversion is added – because I’m playing her. It’s the first time I’ve ever played a female character, and it certainly gave me an awful lot to think about (more on that later). How the audience will read this will be – interesting, I think. And I’m very fond of interesting.
And then the Schütz – and an aspect of the music that may have been unremarkable at the time, but is most unusual now. Some of the characters in this telling of the Resurrection of Christ are sung by a single vocalist – and some of them, Jesus included, are played by multiple voices. I’ve argued in my academic work that ensemble musical works (particularly opera) could be loosely termed ‘transgender’ in a general kind of way – because of the multiplicity of genders/viewpoints/personalities that go into their creation: composer/librettist/every member of the ensemble/audience. We subsume ourselves in the making of a patchwork piece of art that seems seamless. I’ve yet to see a better example of this than to have one character portrayed by more than one voice. And the voices of Jesus? One tenor, and one alto. Voices that push into the androgynous territory of sound – combining in an unearthly, ethereal, yet passionate portrait.
Well, at any rate – I’m terrible excited. And I hope you will be too.