Tuesday, August 27, 2013


What's up at the opera, Doc? Part Two

So, Fritz proposed the idea of an opera on Anne Hutchinson, about whom there is a large amount of prime documentation: the transcript of the civil trial that banished her; records of the religious trial that excommunicated her from the church and where she was attacked by her former mentor Reverend John Cotton ( “Your opinions fret like a gangrene and spread like a leprosy, and infect far and near, and will eat out the very bowels of religion”).  In addition, there were the personal journals of Governor Winthrop ("this American Jezebel . . .") and other ministers and people whose lives Anne had touched in one way or another.  This non-trial material was written many years after her death in some cases, but reveals a great deal about her, and the hatred, fear and anger she inspired in others. Although her words were quoted in many of those sources, nothing written by Anne herself is known to have survived. 

About 40% of what Intermezzo produces is newly commissioned work, usually for a one act, approximately one hour opera.  We realized early on that to convey the richness and variety of Anne's story we should keep the historical trial setting but collage the text from all available sources.  We were NOT writing a documentary but a vivid drama.  We began by writing a prose scenario of the action, and developed a unified plot.

We decided immediately not to write the work in what we called "Puritanese."  Playwright Arthur Miller had been strongly criticized for using stilted, pseudo-archaic language in The Crucible, his play about the Salem witch trials.  So we settled on modern English with a certain formality and just a few, thoroughly comprehensible 17th century turns of phrase to set the period tone. 

We also knew that the theological issues brought up at  the civil trial, while vitally important, would be largely incomprehensible to a modern audience (everything in Puritan Massachusetts included religion, even civil matters).  We didn't want a lot of talky exposition or having to tell half the story through the program notes.  We focused on just one of the major charges against her, that she downgraded the importance of the ministers by claiming that she and all people, men AND women, could hear the voice of God directly in their minds and hearts without a clergy to interpret it for them -- a MAJOR heresy.  We also emphasized her forwardness and independence as a woman that drove the ministers into a fury.      

Reaction to the scenario, and to the couple of scenes that we had written to give the company director, production director, and conductor a sense of our approach, was so positive that by the end of the evening, we were told that they now wanted a two act opera of around 80 minutes.  (Fritz: "Oh, s__t, now we have to write finales for TWO acts!").  

The resulting libretto is a trim, compact but detailed depiction of Anne's trial and banishment, after which she finds herself in a "theatrical space" where she wonders if her words and what she stood for will have any resonance into the future.  Out of the ether come men and women who were involved in various rights struggles -- Mary Dyer, Abigail Adams, Walt Whitman, Frederic Douglas, Harvey Milk, Rosa Parks.  They assure her that her struggle has been taken up through American history and that she has been an inspiration to them all.  A major ensemble grows out of their dialog and then settles down to just Anne standing victorious on stage saying "Anne Hutchinson is present!" not in defiance of a prejudiced court any more, but in triumph.

Was the primary focus of the heresy the challenge to the sexism? The idea that people (i.e. men) could hear the voice of god directly without the intervention of clergy is one of the fundamentals of Protestantism. Was the issue that she dared to include women in that view?
The issue was that she denied the need for ministers. Boston Puritans were not separatists like the Plymouth Pilgrims. They believed that and revelations from God came to the ministers (all male, of course) and that the ministers conveyed the revelations to the congregants. Anne was denying the need for a minister to get the voice of God into her own heart and mind. Very bad! The fact that she preached and taught and critiqued the sermons of the ministers at her weekly meetings was another serious offense. And the fact that she was a high-profile woman, midwife to the colony and herbal medicine healer, made her an expert at "women's things" which always made the ministers uneasy (Gov. Winthrop: "Midwifery is always close to witchcraft").
Intetesting. I was ready recently about some of the difference between the Plymouth and Mass. Bay settlers reading Sarah Vowell's book The Wordy Shipmates.

What you are doing sounds like an interesting way to approach the material btw. Thanks for sharing it
I LOVED Sarah Vowell's book. She writes a lot of it in a kind of smart-ass sensibility which is just fine by me, and she manages to make all the theological issues in Boston and Plymouth crystal clear. We also used American Jezebel by Anne's 15th or so generation granddaughter Eve LaPlante.
“Your opinions fret like a gangrene and spread like a leprosy, and infect far and near, and will eat out the very bowels of religion”

Reacting to metaphors of this caliber? Nothing else will do, but to quote Mame Dennis: "How vivid!"
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?