After 100 Years in Waiting, Grand Opera Shatters the Gender Glass Ceiling

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Ken Howard/The Metropolitan Opera
From Left: Clemence (Susanna Phillips), Prince Jaufre (Eric Owens),  The Pilgrim (Tamara Mumford).
 
There are no shortage of divas in distress or staunch Brunnhilde types performing on stage in grand opera, but when it comes to the actual musical creation of operatic work, it’s a boy’s club—and usually an old boy’s one at that.
 
That’s why the staging of Kaija Sarriaho’s acclaimed L’Amour de Loin at The Metropolitan Opera is more than just an artistic event: it’s one that has deep implications for gender equality in the arts. Sarriaho’s work is the first opera by a woman staged by the Met in over 100 years, which is remarkable on its own considering that the company produces about 25 productions each season. 
 
The opera, roughly based on the half-legend, half-historical tale of a 12th century troubadour, tells the story of Prince Jaufre as he becomes obsessed with a woman that he has never met, the Countess Clemence. He has only learned of his “l’amour de loin,” or “love from afar,” from an androgynous pilgrim who leads Jaufre on a treacherous journey on the sea to Clemence and ultimately his death.
 
Sarriaho’s score is hauntingly beautiful, almost trance-like at times, and has been widely celebrated since the opera’s 2000 premiere at the Salzburg Festival. The current production marks not only L’Amour de Loin’s Met debut, but also the debut of Finnish conductor Susanna Malkki. Ms. Malkki’s presence in the pit is another rare occurrence, as there is a notable lack of female conductors who have lead performances at The Met. Her control of Sarriaho’s score was masterful, and she was greeted with a lengthy and sustained applause after intermission and during curtain call.
 
The three American principal singers equally stood out. Bass-baritone Eric Owens (Jaufre) brought a heartfelt desperation to his character’s descent into psychosis. Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford was notably outstanding as the pilgrim, handling long and often times challenging passages of Sarriaho’s score with control, elegance, and distinct style. But it was soprano Susanna Phillips who had the most revelatory performance of the evening as Clemence. Phillips, who I have seen many times in smaller, more comedic roles, demonstrated her ability to bring genuine dramatic flair to her work. Her mad scene in the final act of the opera, where her character realizes that it was ultimately Jaufre's voyage to her that caused his death, finds Phillips transforming from contemplative and dispassionate temptress to ruined woman in a matter of moments.
 
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Canadian director Robert Lepage, known for his machinery-heavy stagings of Cirque du Soleil’s KA and his highly contentious Ring Cycle at The Met, designed the production. For those who are accustomed to Lepage’s style, which often infuses complex lighting and large, morphing set pieces, they’ll be pleased to hear that L’Amour de Loin utilizes these elements in a breathtaking fashion. The entire Met stage is covered in thin strips of LED lights that are computer programmed to change hues and tones. In fact, there are over 90,000 light points that can individually turn into millions of colors. The effect turned the stage into an entire body of water, one that could change from a placid lagoon to a massive ocean storm.
 
Given the rarity of female composers on The Met stage, it is necessary to both criticize and discuss the cultural and social boundaries surrounding gender in the arts, while also celebrating Kaija Saariaho’s monumental achievement. It is also worth noting that The Met may be paying closer attention to female representation on stage, as several upcoming productions directed by women—including the Julie Taymor staging of The Magic Flute and Mary Zimmerman's new vision for Rusalka—are planned for this season. As Saariaho stated so eloquently in an interview featured in the show’s playbill, “The only thing I can hope is that this music and this production and this story will give people something different from what they experience elsewhere.  That’s why we make art—to create things for today, and above all for today’s people.”

 

L’Amour de Loin runs at The Metropolitan Opera in New York City now through December 29, The show will also be live-streamed to cinemas around the world on December 10 as part of the Met’s Live in HD program.  For tickets and more information, click here.

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