Maya Beiser’s “Elsewhere” to offer a feminist take on Lot’s wife at BAM
In popular culture, opera is often depicted as a riotous spectacle inhabited by screeching sopranos in horned helmets and braying tenors in ill-fitting armor. But at its core, opera is about loss. The genre emerged in turn-of-the-seventeenth-century Italy as part of humanist attempts to revive ancient drama, which had died out during the dark centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire.
Several of the earliest operas told of the mythic bard Orpheus, who travelled to the underworld to regain his dead wife Eurydice, only to lose her again when he violated the gods’ command not to look back at her until they had reached the world above. Don’t look back: The decree brands with error and failure an art form that was itself born of antiquarian zeal and efforts to bring about a “renaissance” of extinct cultures.
Elsewhere, which offers an against-the grain look at opera and the problems of retrospection, will have its New York premiere October 17 – 20 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival. Created by Israeli-born cellist Maya Beiser and director Robert Woodruff, Elsewhere is a multimedia “CelloOpera.” In addition to Beiser, judged a “goddess” of her instrument by The New Yorker, its creative team includes writer Erin Cressida Wilson, vocalist Helga Davis, choreographer Karine Armitage, and video artist Peter Nigrini.
Like the earliest operas, Elsewhere explores loss. It is a dialogue across time between two women who witness the destruction of their worlds. The first act, with music by Eve Beglarian, is based on Belgian surrealist Henri Michaux’s prose-poem I Am Writing to You from a Far-Off Country (1938), written on the eve of World War II. Industry by Michael Gordon—a founder, like Beiser, of the new-music ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars—serves as a transition to Elsewhere’s second act. Entitled SALT and scored for live electric cello, vocalist, and electronics by Missy Mazzoli, it re-imagines the Biblical figure of Lot’s wife, who in Genesis 19 is turned into a pillar of salt when she looks back at Sodom and Gomorrah as brimstone and fire rain down upon them from on high.
For all its parallels with opera’s primal themes, Elsewhere brazenly defies both scriptural and operatic archetypes. In the Bible, Lot’s wife has neither a name nor a voice; in Elsewhere, she has multiple voices, both vocal and instrumental. While standard repertory operas fetishize the prima donna and her voice, they also in one sense muzzle women, reducing them to glorified ventriloquist dummies spouting music and words nearly always wrought by men. In Elsewhere, women creators give Lot’s wife the voices denied her by the Bible. In mainstream opera, women regularly sing to enact “their eternal undoing,” to borrow a phrase from philosopher Catherine Clément. In Elsewhere, Lot’s wife sings to tell of truths and traumas left unspoken in the Bible. She exhorts her interlocutors to “scratch [her] name, scratch [her] story, scratch [her] song” into salt and stone, so that the very matter that had silenced and punished her in the Bible comes to bear witness to her untold story.
Beiser and Mazzoli shared their thoughts about Lot’s wife and opera before last week’s world premiere of Elsewhere at UNC Chapel Hill. Asked via e-mail about the extreme and singular penalty meted out to this spectral figure, Beiser replied, “Those attributes are exactly what drew me to her: a nameless woman who was punished savagely for a human gesture.” She countered with a scriptural parallel of her own when reminded that the story of Lot and his clan both echoes and diverges from other Biblical tales, especially those concerning Noah (a cataclysm, a father’s drunken nakedness) and Abram (who in Genesis 12 “departed, as the Lord had spoken unto him” after learning that God will make of him “a great nation”).
“In a way it is a repeat of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise because of her transgression of God’s command,” she wrote. “What was true thousands of years ago—punishment of women for defying patriarchal dictums, even if it makes no sense to their human instincts—is still prevalent in the twenty-first century.” Beiser shot down the idea that Elsewhere’s texts and dedication (to abused women and girls throughout the ages) could be seen as burdening women with an essentialist, transhistorical identity as victims—one that might seem especially incongruous given the many accomplished women behind the project. “We are fortunate not to need anyone’s protection or permission,” she answered. “But our empowerment gives us the unique opportunity to speak for those whose voice is drowned.”
A rising star in American music, Mazzoli was recently named composer-in-residence at the Gotham Chamber Opera and the Opera Company of Philadelphia. Her lushly gorgeous opera Song from the Uproar, scheduled for release in November by New Amsterdam Records, had a triumphant, sold-out run at The Kitchen in February 2012. Based on the life of the Swiss explorer Isabelle Eberhardt, Song is the first work in a projected trilogy of operas about extraordinary women. While allowing that “making a political statement” about a 400-year-old genre is “not at the front of [her] mind” when she composes, Mazzoli acknowledged that mainstream opera can be problematic for women.
“I think that part of my obsession with unconventional female characters comes out of a sense that many roles for women in opera feel very flat to me. Isabelle Eberhardt and Lot’s wife, the subjects of my two most recent dramatic works, are very complicated women with a lot of inner turmoil, and I don’t try to cover that up.” When Beiser approached her about creating a piece based on Lot’s wife, Mazzoli said, she was struck by the “fathomless depth of the emotional material.”
“Why did she turn around? How did she really feel about Lot? How did she relate to her daughters? Was it actually a relief to be frozen for eternity? The more I explored those questions,” Mazzoli went on, “the richer the tale became. I saw in her story an infinite number of parallels to contemporary women who are displaced, condemned, and unwilling, for a thousand reasons, to turn their backs on their homes.”
Asked about the potential irony of an Israeli artist creating and performing in an opera that is in part about a woman torn from her land, Beiser cited her personal commitment to “peace and nonviolence.” She added, “Music has given me a voice for ideas that are meaningful to me. I also care very much about the plight of women. This is therefore not a metaphor about my personal journey, but about ideals that I believe in.” Novel, perhaps even transgressive, the ideals behind Elsewhere promise to rattle the misogynistic foundations of both scripture and opera.
Elsewhere plays at BAM’s Fishman Space from October 17 – 20. Tickets and additional information: bam.org/elsewhere or 718-636-4100.