In order for it to reassert itself as first-class music and drama, [opera] has to be emancipated from the formal presentation in which it may have been conceived but has now been imprisoned. Opera, like any other art form, has to undergo an afterlife.
– Jonathan Miller, Subsequent Performances
In contrast to the original French legend, there’s no revenge for Bluebeard’s final wife in Béla Bartók’s operatic adaptation; Judith is entombed, just as Bluebeard’s other wives once were. That doesn’t bode well for the women featured in Impossible Operas, the collaboration between Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Quasimondo Physical Theatre that I saw last weekend.
At first blush, the title seems spot-on: using Bartók’s opera as a framing device, Kirk Thomsen’s Bluebeard and Jessi Miller’s Judith suggest they’ll open all seven of the castle’s fabled doors, each of them a portal to an opera (or four operas, in the case of the door hiding Wagner’s sprawling Ring cycle).
Aided by seven vocalists, Janna Ernst on keyboard, and Anja Notanja Sieger’s shadow puppets, we buckle in and prepare to see them all – in less than 90 minutes.
No more so than Judith emerging unscathed, given the Bartók framing device and the fact that each of these operas was written by a man. Is it any wonder that Miller’s Judith takes a break at one point from embodying these stories so that she can lodge a complaint, against a canon of work in which women seem to be continually cast as either helpless maidens or evil crones?
How does the current century reclaim a tradition populated by so many dead white men? Might not that be even more impossible than staging Bartók as well as Handel, Mozart, Bellini, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Poulenc in less than half the run time of Handel’s Alcina, one of the operas featured here?
Making Opera Great Again
Cue the aria for MOT’s Jill Anna Ponasik and Quasimondo’s Brian Rott, whose companies have repeatedly done the impossible by demonstrating that the alleged “problem” with so many canonical works might have less to do with the art itself than with the stuffy and hidebound assumptions with which we approach it.
As with Shakespeare, what’s required are creative minds willing to take on the kill-joy purists by illustrating instead how expansive and generous great scripts and scores can be, if we’d but take the time and open our minds to reimagine all they might say to us.
Joining forces here with Jeffrey Mosser, Ponasik and Rott have sketched a dramatic arc in which heroines evolve from naïve and seemingly helpless ingénues (a trapped princess rescued by a prince in Prokofiev’s L’amour des trois oranges; a sleepwalking maiden in Bellini’s La sonnambula) to formidable women teaching the men in their lives a thing or two about love.
The linchpin, arriving behind Door Five?
The great love duet from Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, in which a blind princess not only gains her sight, but also teaches her fully sighted lover new ways of seeing.
On its surface, Iolanta is yet another variation on the theme of a helpless woman rescued by a man.
Until her beloved Count Vaudémont (Tim Rebers) shows up, Iolanta (Kathy Pyeatt) hadn’t even known that she was living with a disability, thanks to an autocratic if well-meaning father who’d ordered his subjects to never mention the word “light” while pretending that everyone lives in darkness.
But Iolanta’s blindness has also brought insight; as made clear in this production through Pyeatt’s glorious voice, the worldly light of everyday life often distracts us from seeing the light of truth, refracted through a natural world which can be appreciated with far more than one’s eyes. I didn’t need mine to appreciate all that Pyeatt’s soprano can do.
I won’t bore you with the plot details, but it’s this same Iolanta who will later raise the duet’s G major theme by a semitone, singing her willingness to risk everything she is and knows to save Vaudémont’s life.
Does that make Iolanta weak?
Or, as newer feminist readings of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew have been contending, does that not in fact prove that a woman like Iolanta sees more and better than anyone else? Giving her all for love, she saves the world while tenaciously preserving what’s best in herself.
Hear Me Roar
Given this context, is it any wonder that Impossible Operas follows the Iolanta duet with a riff on Poulenc’s Les mammelles de Tirésias, featuring a housewife (Cecilia Davis) who rebels against her husband (Nathan Wesselowski) and the cult of domesticity?
Or that we’re then treated to an abbreviated reprise of the groundbreaking MOT/Quasimondo productions in 2017 and 2019 of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, in which it is Pamina (Pyeatt) who gets her beloved Tamino (Rebers) across the finish line, serving as his guide in successfully surviving the ordeals of fire and water?
Or that we move to close with the immolation of Brünnhilde (Pyeatt) in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, breaking the gods’ vicious, seemingly endless cycle of greed and retribution so that humanity stands a chance following a new dawn? When men make such a sacrifice, they’re called heroes. Why shouldn’t Brünnhilde be showered with similar praise?
In his brilliant Wagnerisism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music (2020), music critic Alex Ross makes the case that Brünnhilde is Antigone’s sister, expressing a boundless love to strike a blow “against a rotten body politic”; in Unsung Voices (1991), musicologist Carolyn Abbate describes Brünnhilde as an untamed, supernaturally intelligent force who “laughs – eternally.”
Yes and yes.
What Are We Without Them?
Brünnhilde’s unearthly joy teaches Thomsen’s Bluebeard a thing or two; like the audience, he’s been learning as he goes, evolving toward a more loving, sophisticated and – gasp! – playful version of his younger self.
In contrast to the dour figure condemned to eternal solitude in Bartók’s opera, this Bluebeard is willing to make a go of genuinely dialogic give-and-take with a woman he has come to see as a partner rather than a prize. Empowered by the stories she’s enacted, Miller’s Judith is newly confident enough to meet him halfway, knowing she can more than hold her own.
And what about those of us in the audience, watching this couple as it watches Sieger’s shadows, telling operatic stories in which both Bluebeard and Judith simultaneously participate? Might not we in the audience similarly both observe and play? Like Bluebeard and Judith, might not we be inspired by what we see to inhabit braver and fuller roles on the world’s stage?
Gesturing to the audience, Bluebeard closes by asking: “What are we without them to show us ourselves?”
As a member of that audience, let me return serve: what are we in Wisconsin without fearlessly imaginative companies like MOT and Quasimondo, daring to dream a better version of who we are so that we might create a better version of the world?
With World Premiere Wisconsin entering its final month as the gift that just keeps on giving, it’s a question I find myself asking a lot while driving to see shows in places I’ve never been, within a state that’s more ridiculously beautiful than I’d ever realized.
Five years ago, after all, the prospect of a first-ever statewide festival like WPW seemed as impossible as the MOT/Quasimondo show.
But here we are, on the cusp of the solstice. And as is similarly true with Brünnhilde’s life-affirming sacrifice, every WPW production since the bleak midwinter has insisted that we’re not condemned as a species or as artists to an endless repetition of cold and ice. We can each come in out of the cold and warm ourselves around the fire, attending a tale we’ve never heard before.
Unlike AI, after all, human beings can always sing a new song and tell a new story. What’s impossible – what is indeed flat-out unthinkable – is living in a world where we don’t.
Impossible Operas is now closed. You can learn more about it as well as every other World Premiere Wisconsin show by visiting https://worldpremierewisconsin.com/.