Genesis of an American Chamber Opera: "The Yellow Wallpaper" Bows in Massachusetts
A small, prestigious private school, Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, gave the world premiere of The Yellow Wallpaper, a chamber opera in two acts, on May 17,1989. Ronald Perera wrote the music to a libretto provided by Constance Congdon, based on the novella by an early feminist, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892). The cast included soprano Jane Bryden as Charlotte, soprano Karen Smith Emerson as Jenny, bass baritone David Ripley as John, bass Jan Opalach as the handyman Ed, Pamela Gore as the baby nurse, and Jon Humphrey as the realtor. The 14-piece orchestra was under the direction of Dennis Burkh. Mark Harrison directed, while sets and lighting were devised by Suzanne Dougan and Mary Tarantino.
Funding and support were provided by fellowships from Smith College, a National Endowment for the Arts Composer/Collaborative grant, and the Five College Theater Fund.
Said the Boston Globe (May 19, 1989): "Perera's music is well-made, tuneful, gratifying to voices and resourcefully orchestrated for 14 players. The opera is ingeniously organized from the point of view of color, variety, thematic interrelationship and development."
Here are the recollections of the three principal collaborators.
Director: Mark Harrison
Since the mid-1980s, Ronald Perera and I have wanted to collaborate on a new opera theatre work. The actual choice of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's novella as a source occurred quite by accident one evening in 1987 when I was listening to a cycle of Günter Grass poems Ron had set to music. Inexplicably, my mind conjured up the image of Gilman's heroine (and other Scene from The Yellow Wallpaper characters only alluded to in the story) in a musicalized context.
The novella was first published in The New England Magazine in 1892, and is constructed as the secretly kept journal of a young wife and mother, too depressed to perform her domestic duties. She records her experiences in an old country house where her doctor-husband is administering the authorized cure for such female "nervousness": enforced rest, fresh air, and above all-no intellectual work. As the story unfolds, the woman witnesses the emergence of a female figure-and at times many such figures-trapped within the hideous pattern of the wallpaper that decorates her sickchamber. As she sees more and more clearly this emblem of her own condition, and as she works to understand its meaning ("I will follow this pattern to some sort of conclusion," she vows), she grows steadily stronger. At last she forges a kind of alliance with this submerged figure, struggling to free her imprisoned counterpart by tearing away the wallpaper that confines them both and moving toward a form of self-cure that her doctors never dreamed of.
When I presented to Ron this idea of a chambersized opera based on The Yellow Wallpaper, he was initially skeptical. Who would be interested in watching a woman go crazy in a room? But as I elaborated on the idea, which involved placing the central action within a colorful and at times comic rural New England setting, Ron became persuaded and enthusiastic. As a director, I sensed a unique opportunity to develop, in formal musical and theatrical terms, a rich literary idea. What was particularly appealing was the challenge of bringing to life, through music, voices and stylized action, the yellow wallpaper metaphor.
With Ron's encouragement, I contacted Constance Congdon, Resident Playwright of the Hartford Stage Company. I had seen her musical adaptation of Mark Twain's The Gilded Age and other original plays, and believed that her keen poetic language would be ideally suited to this project. Connie's enthusiasm for the idea provided the final link in our collaboration.
Librettist: Constance Congdon
My first response to considering the novella The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman as a potential libretto was that it was certainly "operatic" in that it was fraught with intense emotion that culminated in an "operatic" scene of madness. My worry was that all the action, including the "mad scene," was narrated by the main character since the entire story was told in the form of a journal written by the main character in the first person. In a play, first-person narrative becomes direct address to the audience. In a libretto, however, it would result in one long performance from one singer. It would not allow for a rich tapestry of different voices and characters. I felt that Gilman's world needed to be depicted as though it was coming through these other characters. Six other characters were mentioned in Gilman's story, and I used four of them. I also added five of our invention: the two little girls were suggested by Mark Harrison, and we added a women's chorus, based on the various apparitions of women that, in the novella, Charlotte says she sees around the property.
I know that Gilman had written her story The Yellow Wallpaper with a mission—to show the ravages of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell's treatment for neurasthenia, a depression (frequently postpartum) that was epidemic among Victorian women and treated as an illness. I also knew that Gilman had received Dr. Mitchell's treatment and had nearly gone mad (before escaping to California). She wanted to show in this novella what would have happened had she finished this abusive treatment based on confinement, regimented meals, and severe limitations on intellectual and creative activity. (Actually, Dr. Mitchell modified his treatment for neurasthenia after reading the novella.) In my judgment, Gilman's intentions were best served in an opera by the use of first-person narration only for the woman patient (whom I named "Charlotte" after Gilman). We used direct quotes from the novella as spoken thoughts, shared by Charlotte and the Woman in the Wall.
I wanted to illuminate who the Woman in the Wall was, and what freeing her by tearing down the wallpaper meant. All three of us knew that the Woman in the Wall should be a double of Charlotte, and both Mark and Ron used this idea to create moments when Charlotte and the Woman spoke together or sang the same line of music. I used a line from Gilman about the wallpaper being a "map of the world" as an apotheosis of all she had realized in the time she was shut up in her room.
I had decided to set the opera in the last summer of the 19th century, so writing a scene of a picnic on that century's last 4th of July gave Ron and me lots of material. We were able to express the innocence and beauty of that time, and to contrast it with what women's lives were like. Charlotte's mental state becomes clear in the scene in which she interrupts the two little girls' "song they learned in school" with her own strange aria about her room. I set the scene on a lake, which gave us an opportunity to have chorus music coming from people at "the Methodist Camp" across the water. Finally, it became a scene filled with the hope and loss we felt about the turn of that century and, obliquely, about our own.
Composer: Ronald Perera
From the moment that I received the first piece of libretto from Connie Congdon, I felt instinctively that I would have a text to work with which would stimulate my imagination as a composer. Connie's libretto, by subtle shifts in tone and diction, sets off the relatively neurotic world of Charlotte's family against the down-to-earth turn-ofthe-century Yankee world which the local people belong to. I wanted to reflect this musically, so I incorporated within the opera two musical languages, one more of a contemporary "art music," the other more vernacular—more like musical theatre. Sometimes the languages cross over, as when handyman Ed assumes an uncharacteristically dignified attitude in the opening scene, or when Charlotte's anxious mood gives way to one of playful exuberance in the third scene. Mixing and crossing musical styles seemed to me an interesting way of dealing with one of the undercurrents of the opera, the social class divisions among the characters and the way in which their social role-playing keeps them from helping one another to see the truth.
One of the most complex scenes in this respect is the Independence Day scene which opens Act II. Into the relaxed atmosphere of an evening picnic by the lake, John introduces Charlotte, hoping to cheer her out of her growing depression. The Realtor's two little girls try to entertain the company with a traditional school song, but Charlotte keeps interrupting with music in another key and tempo. Later Charlotte's reveries about the beauty of the twilit lake are interrupted by traditional American campfire songs heard from far across the water. An unexpected toast by Charlotte to the coming twentieth century is abruptly juxtaposed with her impassioned arioso of desperate longing to be "made real at last." She is led off, the picnickers break up in an ensemble of good-nights, and against a background of fireworks a drunken clarinettist—herald of the new century—wanders on surreally to close the scene with a jazz riff. One kind of music is continually intruding upon another, emphasizing not only Charlotte's disconnectedness but, by implication, that the barriers to her self-realization will be swept away in the coming jazz age.
My main musical objective was to knit together the whole work through a single thematic idea which I call the "main tune," and through a central harmony which the listener could easily recognize.
It would, I thought, create a dominant musical climate for The Yellow Wallpaper in the way that, say, the motif of a rising sixth followed by falling semitones within an ambiguous chord permeates Wagner's Tristan. This tune, which first appears in the second bar of the opera with an accompaniment based on the interval of a fourth, finds its way, with various transformations, into most of the important musical moments of the opera. It connects Charlotte's opening vision of Eden, Dr. Mitchell's speech, John's statement about the ultimate purpose of the rest cure regimen, Charlotte's aria about her girlhood dreams of husband and child, the jazz riff at her toast to the twentieth century, the fiddle motive in the "blueing" scene, and ultimately the spiralling pattern of the wallpaper music towards the end of the opera. I wanted these musical connections and transformations to be clearly audible to the listener.
The Yellow Wallpaper, with its limited forces and possibility for simple stage production, can be successfully produced by professional companies as well as the better university or conservatory opera workshops.
The Yellow Wallpaper is published by E. C. Schirmer Music Company, 138 Ipswich Street, Boston, MA 02215. Information about Ronald Perera is available from Music Associates of America, 224 King Street, Englewood, NJ 07631, Tel.: 2011569-2898, FAX: 2011569-7023.