Librettist Lila Palmer on the fetishised death or violence facing women characters in classical music

I love opera. It’s the totality of the form that is its power, primal, artificial, intellectual, emotional, all at once. If it’s good, it’s all those things, and if it’s bad, it’s failing at all those things. Art song does many of those things, but in miniature.

As I was growing up, though, something became clear to me. For hundreds of years women have been denied their own voices, their own stories.

The works I saw on stage in the concert hall, on albums by the great opera divas, on stages, were by men, the female characters were male creations and their stories were male imaginings. They had two main fates – marriage and death, mostly death. And even there it was male interpretations of female experience. Men go on a bad date and have a bad date. Women go on a bad date and end up dead. If more women were writing opera stories, I don’t think the female deaths would be so pretty, so fetishised. We have different things to say about death and violence towards us. It’s present tense. It doesn’t get to be pretty yet.

So, when I write an opera I try not to kill my sopranos. It makes an awful mess and it’s been done so often it's hard to earn it. Baritones, on the other hand, are absolutely fair game. I’m kidding, I’m kidding. Mostly.

The way I write poetry is very different from the way I write an opera libretto, even though it’s still a story. An opera libretto is as much about the composer you’re writing for as about your own vision. But when someone commissions poetry from me, they are asking for something that’s just about my own voice first, which is weird and exposing and exciting all at once.

That’s exactly what happened when the amazing South African soprano Golda Schultz and pianist Jonathan Ware commissioned me to write a set of three poems to be sung by Golda and set to music by Kathleen Tagg. They sort of riff on and respond to what exists in classical music about women, but they’re a reflection of my life and Golda’s life in our twenties and thirties… imagine Adele’s three albums condensed into three songs!

The cycle addresses watershed moments in a woman’s life. The poems speak of love, of choosing to be single, of independence, of motherhood and – yes – of marriage. And the key point is that this is women speaking for and about themselves. About the struggle and humour and gratification of all those transitions and choices. I also felt like it was important to acknowledge that “a modern woman’s perspective” doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t talk about marriage or motherhood or babies. There’s this weird idea that despite all of us getting to the planet via a mother it’s not edgy to talk about what that experience actually is. Or that its “special interest” as opposed to affecting 100% of the population in some way. Actually because we all think we know about it no one talks about it. It’s like a building you walk past every day and don’t notice.

That’s why I feel so grateful to Golda and Jonathan for commissioning This be her Verse personally because they just said, “this doesn’t have to tick a box. This is for us. And we want to hear women’s real experience. Not what’s fashionable. What’s true.” And I thought, “I can do that.” They perform my song cycle This be her Verse at the Edinburgh International Festival, on 17 August, at The Queen’s Hall.

So far the response from other performers has been insane. My Instagram DMs have been full of score requests from singers. They are so hungry for this because it’s just absent. The industry needs to catch up with this hunger because the appetite is there.

I absolutely believe that it’s the responsibility of librettists to tell a different type of story, inspiring composers and performers to voice the breadth and range of perspectives that exist in the past and the present. The world has always been complex and diverse and beautiful, but the repertoire reflects a very narrow slice of experience. Now our vision is wider. 


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