Singing Her World Into Being

an intimate look into the life of Abbie Conant, "The Mad Soprano"


And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we, As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her Except the one she sang and, singing, made.
-from The Idea of Order at Key West,
by Wallace Stevens

Oscar Wilde once said, "Life imitates art far more than art imitates life." This theme is central to "Street Scene for the Last Mad Soprano". Through art we shape the way we view ourselves and the world. Through art we decide what we are as humans, and how we will live our lives. Children, for example, love to draw, and it is not merely playing. Through working with crayons they formulate the nature of their being. Through playing we become humans.

So how does art affect you, if your role models are demeaning images of macho orchestral brass players? One not unjustifiably pictures sections containing only men, a crude sexist humor, the almost complete lack of women section leaders, and all in an atmosphere of drinking and blasting passages as loud as possible. This is often the reality of the profession, and it is hardly what we think of as the nobleness of art.

Actually, there is a strong gender bias in our operatic literature as well.

Women characters tend to be abused and fallen, or simpletons who make their living by embroidering, or heroines sacrificing themselves for the well-being of some hero. Their identity is almost always determined by a demeaning relationship to men, who are clearly portrayed as superior and in command.

In "Street Scene" we study how these archetypal images of women are so deeply ingrained that we no longer even notice them. They can take musical forms, and are imprinted upon our minds so deeply, that they haunt our subconsciousness almost like advertising jingles. After singing a passage portraying Brunhilde, the "Mad Soprano" comes forward to comment on how opera has permeated her self-expression: "Why's it so easy to sing, why's it bubble right up, when you least expect it?" It is a fact that opera singers can't just portray these roles. They have to live them.

We see the Mad Soprano's increasing conflict with the way opera subversively shapes her identity. Music theater, for example, contains a great deal of ennobled violence against women. Through operatic aggrandizement, we celebrate simple things like wife beating. The Mad Soprano, however, tells a less adorned truth about the domestic abuse of her friend Betty. But as she leaves off her roles, and speaks to us directly, we see hints that her reality is even more dream-like than the theater roles she is practicing. Is what women perceive as their true world merely a construction created by a male society?

In this work we also explore how cultural identity gives us a sense of belonging to a community. Artistic expression creates rituals that give us a sense of coming together and sharing in the identity of our human condition. This is one of the most beautiful and meaningful aspects of art. Groups, such as women as a whole, that are not allowed to be creative artists, are deprived of their humanity. The true identity of women in society will thus be formulated only when they are allowed to be artists and determine for themselves who they really are. As women find their true place in our culture, we will obtain not only a greater freedom and dignity, but also a fuller and more balanced understanding of human consciousness.

The Mad Soprano has gradually become so alienated from her "own" patriarchal culture, that she no longer feels a part of it. She slowly confronts the fact that the roles she must sing are not only utterly demeaning, but that more often than not, artistic expression is reduced to being mere entertainment for a society that has little cultural sensibility left--sexist or not. The pedestrians applaud for her as if she were a pigeon on the street doing tricks. Or they stand and stare at her because they think she is dead.

The time for the Mad Soprano's audition eventually arrives. She is worried because she still doesn't feel she has anything meaningful to sing. She doesn't know what to do, there's no time left. She knows that this could signify the loss of her humanity, and almost screams, "Do you know what it means to be without a song? People will step on you!"

But she regathers her composure and prepares to leave. We sense that all this time she has really been alone, and that she is trying to sing her world into being. She sings words that would seem almost overly simple, if we had not seen all that she has gone through in her struggle against our society´s marginalization of the humanity of women: "Tomorrow night the lights will rise, floating by themselves in Love's order. And far from this corner on the street, we'll sing from our hearts. You and I. We'll sing from our hearts. You and I. You and I." Perhaps she thus expresses the hopes and ideals of many women.

For further information contact Abbie and I, or the presenters (music departments) listed above.

article by William Osborne

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