Reviving A Lost Legend – The Making of Bea Goodwin, Whitney George & Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble’s ‘Princess Maleine’By David Salazar
Dell’Arte Artistic Director Chris Fecteau was working on putting together the 2019 season for the company when he happened upon Lili Boulanger’s “Princess Maleine.”
His hope had been to create a season centering on the works of Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, who had inspired such works as Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” and Dukas’ “Ariane et Barb Bleu.”
“My mentor Fiora Contino had studied with Nadia Boulanger, and her sister’s brilliant compositional output within a tragically short life had always been fascinating to me,” he told OperaWire in a recent interview.
What he would discover however would leave him disappointed as Boulanger’s five-act work, while completed, had been lost or destroyed after her lifetime. All that existed was one scene in manuscript as well as a notebook with corrections for Act two.
Fecteau then read the play and consulted with librettist and director Bea Goodwin and composer Whitney George. George has composed such vocal works as works as “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “One Night of Excess” and “Night: like velvet: in twelve letters,” while Goodwin wrote and directed librettos for such works as “A Christmas Carol” and “Tabula Rasa.”
“Before there could even be much discussion, they were already neck deep in ideas for composing a new opera on this subject,” Fecteau noted. And so “Princess Maleine” was conceived.
But bringing the work to life proved a major challenge for all involved.
Overcoming the Tight Timeline
The next step was to get Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble’s Board of Directors to approve of the plan to commission a new work. The greatest challenge that the group would need to coalesce around was that of creating and mounting a completely new work in a nine-month period.
“[It is] a process that often takes three years or more to accomplish,” Fecteau noted. “It was a big leap of faith for absolutely everyone involved.”
What was different from other processes is that the librettist and composer would be working on their respective tasks at the same time, something unique for both George and Goodwin.
“A typical scenario is at least two workshops of the text alone, then I present what I deem to be a finished product,” Goodwin told OperaWire. “Of course, we then undo some stitches and tighten things to their liking. However, with this project, I am crafting a scene, trying to tidy as quick as I can and get it to Whitney to start setting.”
George noted that she usually writes the fully orchestrated score first and then reverse engineers a piano reduction for singers. But in this case, she had to work in the reverse. And for both Goodwin and George, the challenging timeline proved beneficial in a number of ways.
“There are some really exciting benefits to such a quick turn-around, though: usually opera is so slow moving from the page to the stage,” George noted. “At this point, it feels like the ink will be barely dry before handing it off to the performers to realize. And because of that, it feels like such a truly collaborative atmosphere — where I’m getting comments from singers quickly, and, like a tailor, taking back the original garment and making sure it fits the role just right.
“You can’t put a dollar amount on that kind of commentary—it’s really enriching as a composer to not have to wait (something I’m terrible about anyway) and get commentary immediately.”
For Fecteau, watching the two artists develop the work under such pressure, was a revelation.
“Bea and Whitney both are incredible creators, and each has multiple projects going,” he noted. “They’ve both been incredibly aware of the deadlines we set together – painfully real, but also incredibly necessary. And they’ve delivered material that doesn’t betray the time crunch.
“Good art usually takes a certain ‘gestation’ period – Bea, in particular, I think needs (and deserves) time for research, reading and rereading of the source materials, and sketching out to sit for awhile and coalesce. I’m so impressed with her output – how considered, personal, mystical-magical it is. She clearly loves these characters and this story. And Whitney is perhaps THE FASTEST composer I’ve ever worked with. To report that some days she composes two minutes of music may not seem like much – but it’s an AMAZING feat.”
Once Upon a Time…
“Princess Maleine” is a work about betrayal, imprisonment, murder, jealousy, love, and a lot of the qualities that are often associated with the great operas of the past. Its titular character starts the opera locked away when she refuses to abandon the love she has for Prince Hjalmar.
“She experiences fear, and yet is fearless – she speaks few words, but her messages take over the opera. She sacrifices everything to live out her truth and it takes a huge toll on her, but she knows it is what is right,” noted Elyse Kakacek, who will originate the title role. Kakacek previously worked with the organization on “Don Giovanni” and has appeared with such organizations as Carnegie Hall, Symphony Space, Preston Bradley Hall, La Mama Experimental Theatre, and National Sawdust.
“Maleine and I have a lot in common,” Kakacek continued. “I think most women can relate to the feeling of being caged or silenced, or at the very least- reduced to an object. It takes strength and bravery to be a woman with a voice in this world, to stand up and speak loudly for what is right without fear of the consequences.”
Maleine’s biggest obstacles to her happiness come in the form of two major characters. The first of these is King Hjalmar, the man responsible for the death of Maleine’s entire family.
“I view [King Hjalmar] as a troubled, guilt-filled man whose come to the brink of his mind’s capability of coping with emotions but also a decent man trying to do right by his family and his kingdom,” said bass-baritone Eric Lindsey, who interpret the character.
Then there’s Queen Anne, a woman determined to do anything she must to gain power, even if it means killing Maleine. However, Liz Bouk, who will interpret the role, doesn’t think it’s such a black and white affair.
“Many fairy tales have an evil queen or witch or step-mother figure. Queen Anne could fall under this category, but I prefer to see her as a powerful woman who is protecting her family,” Bouk noted. “It’s too simple to call Princess Maleine the ‘good’ character and Queen Anne the ‘evil’ one. Together, they represent very human characteristics (selflessness vs selfishness, submission vs domination, etc) that are present in every one of us.”
Bouk did however note that the greatest challenge of interpreting this role is to get audiences to empathize with the character.
“The audience needs to see the love she has for her daughter and how deeply she cares about protecting her family lineage. They need to see themselves in her. What parent today doesn’t want the best for their own child? To what lengths would they go to ensure a successful future for their kids?”
The story, with its Shakespearean scope wouldn’t be complete without a Fool, here interpreted by countertenor Jeffrey Mandelbaum. Goodwin noted that the character was inspired by by Feste in “Twelfth Night,” and The Fool in “King Lear” and “Copernicus.”
“He provides somewhat abstract contexts through which to view the plot, enlarging the themes into macrocosmic metaphors,” Mandelbaum noted. “I find the transformation wrought by this almost ‘cubist’ approach to storytelling very exciting.
That said, Mandelbaum noted that the character takes on greater complexity than many of Shakespeare’s own Fools.
“He is not limited to the wise snipes of even the best of Shakespeare’s iterations of this character,” the countertenor explained. “The Fool functions as a guide to the characters, but also for the audience, watching the world go by with you. Yet he also prepares the imaginative soil from which the drama will spring, and finally closes the opera with his eternal questions.”
Bringing ‘Maleine’ to Artistic Life
Breaking down the story and its Shakespearean scope would likely pose tremendous challenges for any artist, but both Goodwin and George found ways give the opera a style and feel that harkens back to opera of old. There are arias, trios, duets, iambic pentameter, rhyme schemes, and romantic poetry throughout.
“Shakespeare’s works are so timeless, much like fairytales, because of their character tropes and formulas – they just work. They showcase the human condition and have a moral at the end. Parables are the origin of our theatrical artform, after all,” Goodwin explained. “I assigned myself the job of isolating the moral scope of our current society and highlight these downfalls in our character’s community. The past year has been a horse and pony show of silencing women, lack of accountability held for horrific actions, deceit, lies … The best of minds have been able to create a story that showcases these wrongs, thus forcing you to draw the parallel. Nothing thrills me more than giving the audience that power.”
George noted that in creating the opera’s music, she wanted to create a “strong sense of past, present, and future.”
“The ‘past’ might be paying homage to something of a more functional sense on harmony, but is updated in a more ‘current’ way, and the future—something about it that is past the moment of now and is so new maybe even I don’t understand it,” George elaborated before noting that with this particular work, she honed in on the ideas of fixed and shifting characters to develop her musical structures.
“Princess Maleine is quite fixed in what she wishes to accomplish. This isn’t to say that her character doesn’t go through development, but perhaps there is less [musical] ‘invention’ for her specifically,” George explained. “Characters with great influence, like the Queen, have a musical impact on the characters around her, such as the Prince (Hjalmar) and the King, so there are other aspects behind the true sense of ‘development’ that help musically motivate our journey through the opera.”
A Fairy Tale For Today
The opera is set to have its world premiere on August 16 with subsequent performances on the 18th, 20th, 22nd, and 24th of the month. Goodwin will direct the opera with Fecteau and George conducting differing performances. Other cast members will include Jeremy Brauner as the Prince and Nicholle Bittlingmeyer as Maleine’s Lady-in-Waiting Aleta, among others.
While the story’s trappings might be fantastical, all of its co-creators agree that it will leave audiences with new perspectives on the world of today.
“I hope the audience realizes how important each small choice they make is in daily life,” stated Kakacek. “Each glance the other way when faced with a marginalized group contributes to tragedy. We all matter and play a vital part in the health of the world.
“’Princess Maleine’ is a great fairy tale: one long overlooked and forgotten,” added Bouk. “How wonderful and exciting to bring something so old back to life, in an art form that can match its grandeur and power!”
“I want the audience to be able to escape reality and truly suspend themselves in a piece of theater. And this piece—this moving picture which also tickles the senses with music — has this beautiful veneer over it. It looks old, but it’s very much alive and in there here – and-now,” George added. “Fairy tales have withstood the test of time because not only are they immersive dramas, but also threads of caution, advice, and the trials that we so often see for ourselves. We may not have many royal houses, princesses, princes, and strange figures like the Fool who live on the edge of fantasy and fiction, but these are all just placeholders for the things we all experience within our lifetimes. I hope the audience picks characters that they align with, and travel with them through the journey to Yesselmonde (and perhaps beyond)—and there’s really a character for everyone in this production.”
“You tend to fall in love with the people you bring to life with your pen – who you spend private moments with, who you advocate for – theres a little bit of you in every twist and turn. That is how you achieve humanity on the page. These characters, the things they wrestle with ; I hope they enter the fictional lexicon alongside of Alice from Wonderland, Juliet of Capulet, and Rapunzel from the tower,” Goodwin concluded.