Body & Voice – Why Bea Goodwin’s New Camerata Production of ‘The Rape of Lucretia’ Casts Two Actors In Title RoleBy David Salazar
In Benjamin Britten and Ronald Duncan’s “The Rape of Lucretia,” a young Roman soldier is goaded into testing the chastity of Lucretia, who was the only woman not to betray her husband Collatinus.
This roman soldier, Tarquinius, proceeds to show up at Lucretia’s home, awaken her from bed, and, despite being repeatedly rejected, he rapes her. Lucretia winds up killing herself from the devastation and while the Female Chorus notes the moral emptiness of the story, the Male Chorus tries to cover it all up with promises of redemption.
This opera, with its emphasis on the abuse of an honest woman at the hands of corrupt men, is as prevalent to today’s society as it was when written and set.
And it is with this in mind that director Bea Goodwin directed the opera for New Camerata Opera’s production on May 2, 4, and 5 as part of the New York Opera Festival 2019.
Horrifying & Disconcerting
Goodwin has directed and written a number of operas over the past few years. Her “Tabula Rasa,” with music by Felix Jarrar, explored the challenging relationship between Kiki de Montparnasse and Man Ray. She is also currently writing the libretto for “Princess Maleine,” which will showcase the struggle of a princess locked up in a castle by forces bent on keeping her from power.
But before Maleine’s world premiere later this year, she has taken to erecting Britten and Duncan’s troubling work, which she admitted to find nauseating at times.
“The opening scene is hard to sit through, let alone bring to life and direct,” she told OperaWire in a recent interview. “Junius has some pretty horrific things to say about women. These sentiments cling to you very early on that this is the climate of our story and never leaves you. It’s all very lustful, visceral language, accented with percussive phrases then cushioned by segments of gorgeous strings.”
She also noted that the opera’s libretto itself is full of confusion from the librettist, who initially had attempted to hint at consent from Lucretia in the rape scene. But it was so problematic that he had to cut it out altogether.
“You can still find fragments of the removed text— I’ve read it,” Goodwin added. “It is very disconcerting. Perhaps in an attempt at forgiveness, Duncan padded up the libretto with notions of Christianity, which then contradicted his initial inspiration of the work by pagan playwrights. So the text itself is a little bit of a decoupage that many artists have struggled to understand.”
Given the troubling history (and the fact that such a traumatic experience by a woman was depicted through the eyes of men), Goodwin felt it essential to explore the body from the perspective of a woman’s body.
“A woman’s experience starts and ends with her body,” she explained. “Movement, sensation, fear — it all manifests in the body.”
It is for this reason that she made the decision to have Lucretia portrayed by two artists – mezzo-soprano Allison Gish and Artistic Sign Language performer Amelia Hensley.
“This is a story to be told through the body. Sexual trauma transcends speech or song. I wanted to have two Lucretias – one that focused on the silence, the other, her voice,” noted Goodwin.
Of course, bringing in a deaf performer added to the challenge of staging an opera where many of the directorial cues are inspired and connected to the musical score.
“This experience made me hyperaware of how specific one must be when laying the foreground of stage pictures,” she explained. “Amelia needs a physical cue where the singers rely on vocals. It is grossly unfair to have her read lips on stage. This is an opportunity to deepen lyrical meanings and character relationships by marrying words with action. It shows the deaf audience and the hearing audience the story, and stories should be accessible to all.”
The experience was unique to Gish and Hensley as well.
“Physicality is especially important in this production since we are working with Amelia who needs visual or tactile cues to connect with other actors on stage. We explored many different ways of physically interpreting Lucretia in two bodies, so flexibility has been paramount! The result will be truly beautiful and chilling,” added Gish, who had previously worked with Goodwin on the 2018 production of “Tabula Rasa.”
Hensley has never performed in an opera before, even if she has had some experience with musicals to use as support.
“As a Deaf performer, the challenges for me of performing in an Opera, includes memorizing all the beats, the slow vocal, and etc,” Hensley noted. “I learned that opera is all about emotion from inside to emphasize some of words. We normally don’t do that. We will sign in our normal beat. So it is difficult to make Sign Language look normal.”
Another Artistic Mind & Body
Fortunately, Goodwin was able to bring in Broadway’s Alexandria Wailes to work as Director of Artistic Sign Language. Wailes is a champion of Artistic Sign Language, as demonstrated by an ample body of work that includes the Deaf West Broadway production of “Big River.”
Hensley noted that Wailes was instrumental in helping her pick the appropriate signs to express.
“For example, the words ‘time is a thief.’ We have one sign for time that is two movements less 5 secs. It does not match. Alexandria came up with idea where I will use the falling flower’s petal to get me to do more sign in slow movement.”
“[Wailes] really helped me unravel my vision to the depths it needed to reach, and I am forever grateful. She built in the ASL to the score which taught me how to emphasize their language,” Goodwin added.
Ultimately, a presentation of “The Rape of Lucretia” is never meant to be an uplifting experience and in concluding, Goodwin wanted to emphasize that this work holds up a harsh mirror to its audience.
“The subject matter is obviously not an easy one. And its extremely disturbing that this event takes places in 530 BC but we all know someone that this has happened to, if not have been a victim ourselves,” Goodwin concluded. “I want audiences to think of Dr. Ford, Anita Hill. I want them to see how we haven’t come very far at all.”