Here Be Sirens, an opera by the composer, performer, writer, and Wet Ink collective co-director Kate Soper, premiered to critical acclaim in 2014 at Dixon Place. On January 28, Fresh Squeezed Opera will remount the work at National Sawdust, in a new production directed by Amber Treadway and with costumes by Liene Dobraja. The 100-minute opera tells the story of three Homeric sirens who are, to put it simply, bored. Trapped on the Island of Sirens, sopranos Polyxo, Peitho, and Phaino give voice to their curiosities, frustrations, and musings about their rivals the Muses in Soper’s hilarious yet whip-smart libretto.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: First of all, what can we expect from this new production at Sawdust?
KATE SOPER: I’m also curious about that! I wasn’t involved in this production from a creative standpoint, so it’s really all up to the director as far as the costumes or any additions to the set besides what is in the libretto. I’ve been working a little bit with them, but trying to keep it to the music. There is some choreography that is embedded into the opera because of the way that the piano is incorporated. They did a little preview performance at Williams College a couple weeks ago, and there’s a bunch of new stuff that’s great, that I love, and it’s all from Amber Treadway, the director. Plus there are totally new characterizations from the singers. It’s the same music, story, and libretto, but a new take on all of it, so it feels different to me—I’m not sure how to quantify those differences since I obviously have such a different relationship to it. But I think it’ll be great; I’m really excited about it.
So rewinding to the beginnings of the opera, what was the process like working up to the premiere in 2014 and what it was like more generally for you to engage with the genre of “opera”?
Engaging with the genre of opera felt… even at that point it felt like such a loose term, to describe having music move around in theater and having singing voices inhabit narrative and character. These were things I already wanted to do and was already interested in, and I didn’t worry too much about, like, “opera” per se. There’s a lot of talking in it, there’s no orchestra, there’s no chorus—there’s actually no musicians other than the singers. So there are a lot of things that are maybe more on the theatrical or chamber music side, but it felt good for me to be able to access the directness of theater-world or opera-world, in which you’re not just a person onstage singing a piece, but you’re a character onstage trying to communicate about your made-up life experiences.
So putting it together: it’s kind of a unique show in that regard because it is really difficult for the three performers – and the performers this weekend are doing a great job – but because it is only three performers, rehearsal can be endless but also manageable. I could just sneak into a practice room at Columbia with my co-performers, find a grand piano, and practice and practice and practice. Once we started working with Rick Burkhardt, who directed the original production, we had the music down pretty cold, and the piano choreography, and he helped us make it into a staged piece. But it’s really up to the performers and the trusted director, because you really have total control over the process and eventually the product too, because you’re making every sound that happens onstage.
And you were one of the original sopranos.
Yes, I was Polyxo.
So what has that been like, being so intimately involved in the original production from a compositional and performance perspective, and now being on certain levels unsure what to expect from the new production at Sawdust?
It’s awesome! I did work with them a little bit, which was good because there were still some things I needed to clarify in the score that have now been clarified. I’m really excited—you know, you write a piece because you’re interested about the things that are in it, so it’s still actually super fun for me to sit through. And I’m really grateful that it has a life, because as a performer-composer I really want my works to live on, and not to have to be doing all that work every time, because then I can move on to work on other things. So I’m totally thrilled that they’re taking it on. I’m happy to be on the audience side.
It’s always nice in the new music world to hear multiple iterations of a piece.
Yeah, especially a long piece!
I’m totally enchanted by your libretto, and I’m curious about your process of writing it and finding all these different sources.
To me it just seems like a transparent dramatization of writing a libretto. I was researching Sirens, as I was writing this opera, and then the libretto became the research, and then it became this self-reflective quest of this particular Siren (which is the one I played), who is also trying to research, not in order to write an opera but in order to release herself from the real situation she’s stuck in, which is—being a Siren. It went through a whole bunch of different versions; there was a bunch of stuff I cut out, stuff that I refined. So yeah, I think the libretto is really just me going through some version of these fictional characters’ processes, which is trying to think about why music is so powerful, if it’s possible to be rational while still being helplessly moved by things, whether we can escape the trap of our mind—these kinds of things that I think about as a composer who is also a singer.
The character that I played was very clear to me because, just as the libretto was sort of a fictionalized version of writing the opera, she was sort of a fictionalized version of me. Then I wanted two other Sirens onstage with me: one was the classical Siren archetype that I ran across in the research, and the other was I thought just a foil for my character, but she ended up doing that thing that happens when people write fiction, where she took some of the spotlight and took on a life of her own.
So I’m trying to share this fascination, but also make fun of myself a little bit.
And it is genuinely funny! This might sound silly, but I’m wondering how you were able to pair musical humor with verbal humor so well.
Musical humor and verbal humor are both about context. Like Haydn would do this all the time—it’s easier than we think to make a joke in music, because all you have to do is set up an expectation and then not follow it. I liked writing in a bunch of genres, which allowed me to make fun of them. I had a lot of fun – or, you know, composerly edification – in writing the fussy Baroque songs the Muses sing, and then it was easy to push that so that it was over-the-top, and the audience understands that it’s over-the-top. It’s not hard to make fun of a musical archetype that has a familiar sound to us.
As for the verbal humor, I was making fun of myself and also of the process of doing research. But even though [Polyxo] isn’t laughing with the audience, they are laughing at her, I hope that there is an empathy for the absurd lengths we go to rationalize things. Especially for any bookworms in the audience, who know the feeling of feeling like you’ve made some profound life discovery, and then you go out into the world and go about your day and feel a little sheepish.
Also they’re stuck on this island, they’re bored, they want to have fun and amuse themselves. It is endless tedium for them, but it doesn’t have to be for the audience.
I’m really interested in this Homeric figure of the Siren, which has perpetuated since then in negative connotations about the female voice, whether it be heard as shrill or seductive and therefore somehow “dangerous” for men. How did you handle this musically, and what are your thoughts more generally on these negative vocal stereotypes?
I was engaging more with the second stereotype you mentioned – the female voice, and especially the female singing voice, being heard as sensual or as the cry of the lover or mother – rather than the whole “Oh I have to turn the radio off whenever that woman announcer comes on” or whatever.
I was learning to sing in a Western classical tradition and I felt this uneasiness as a composer and an intellectual, being physically attached to this regressive lineage of the opera singer and the unintelligibility of that voice and the stereotype of that voice. And it’s set up in the very beginning of this opera—like, “I’m trying to use my words, but as soon as I start singing you don’t care what I’m saying anymore; you just want to listen to the beauty of it.”
A line that always sticks out to me is that “the Sirens sing without narrating” and I feel like your opera plays with that in such interesting ways. Can you talk more about your relationship with musicalized text? Do you ever hear a setting of a poem or text and think, “Wow, I would have done that differently”?
Well, I’ve always been a writer, reader, and composer, and then just picked composer when it was time to “choose” for higher education, but now I don’t have to choose anymore.
I’ve never had that exact reaction, like “Oh I would have done that differently,” but I’ve heard poems set that I had known before I heard them set, and that’s a curious sensation. And now I’m writing a new opera, and I was setting this Tennyson poem and thought, you know, I’m sure this has been set hundreds of times. I YouTubed it, and was like, whoa, this is so different from what I’m doing. But it’s just kind of a weird parallel universe.
Can you talk a bit about the new opera, which I know also draws on much older themes?
It also draws from much older source materials, which to me seem very relevant and contemporary. It’s based on The Romance of the Rose, which is a medieval text, so I guess getting a little closer to the present day from Sirens. It’s an allegorical text and I was interested in allegory, but it’s this very avant-garde book; there’s all this weird intertextuality, like characters referring to each other, with all these interesting lines of flight in it. It does have a structure, but it’s a little hidden, and goes on all these huge digressions about mirrors and optics and free will and misogyny and courtly life and prelapsarian state.
Definitely sounds like something to look forward to!
Fresh Squeezed Opera presents Kate Soper’s Here Be Sirens at National Sawdust on Jan. 28 at 4pm. The performance is sold out, but you can join the waitlist at nationalsawdust.org.
Rebecca S. Lentjes is a writer and feminist activist based in NYC. Her work has appeared in VAN Magazine, Music & Literature, Sounding Out!, TEMPO, and I Care If You Listen. By day she studies ethnomusicology as a doctoral student at Stony Brook University and works as an assistant editor at RILM Abstracts of Music Literature; by night she hatches schemes to dismantle the patriarchy.