A Return to With Blood, With Ink
by Peter M. Krask
This article by the librettist of With Blood, With Ink was written for PEABODY NEWS in connection with the revival of the opera at Theatre Project in April 2000. It looks back to the circumstances leading up to the premiere in 1993.
Ten years ago, while a first-year graduate student at Peabody, I knocked on the door of Roger Brunyate’s tiny and dark office (the Opera Studio didn’t exist yet). We had an appointment to discuss a short libretto I had written on a dare from a composer-friend. I didn’t know what to think of it. Mr. Brunyate — we hadn’t really met before, and with his British accent it seemed best to be formal — surprised me. No sooner had I sat down, than he asked me if I wanted to write another libretto. My response was immediate. Roger then put me together with Dan Crozier, a DMA candidate with whom he had written The Reunion, an opera which had recently won an ASCAP Foundation Grant. “You two write an opera,” he said. “Perhaps we’ll be able to do it sometime.” Two-and-a-half years later, the curtain went up on With Blood, With Ink.
It was a surprisingly casual beginning to what became a happy and successful collaboration, and a serious and deeply moving opera. But, then again, I’m discovering that the life of any opera is full of surprises. With Blood, With Ink is no exception.
Based upon the life of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the 17th-century Mexican poet, nun, and intellectual, With Blood, With Ink dramatizes and examines the enigmas surrounding this visionary and tragic woman, as exhaustively documented by Octavio Paz in Sor Juana, or The Traps of Faith. One of six illegitimate children, Juana Inés taught herself to read by age three and was writing poetry by age six. Sent to the Spanish royal palace, in hopes of finding a better life, young Juana dazzled the court with her beauty and staggering intelligence. Adopted by her patroness, the Countess de Paredes, Juana Inés decided not to marry in order to pursue her writing and study. And, like most unwed women who did not wish to become courtesans, she joined a convent.
Over the next twenty years, Sor Juana cultivated a literary salon, served as a court advisor, published two volumes of secular poetry to international acclaim, argued for the education of women, and collected the largest library in the Americas — all from behind the cloister walls. Hers was an extraordinary life; one bound to create enemies and foster bitterness. In 1693, it came to a stop. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the “Tenth Muse” and “Phoenix of America,” forced by the Inquisition, signed an oath in blood renouncing her life’s work. Within two years — two years of silence — she was dead.
Our solution was to tell the story as a dream in which Sor Juana, on her deathbed, has a feverish vision of her younger self. She is unable to warn or reach out to this elusive shadow of herself, as events build to their tragic conclusion, until the blood oath has been signed. Then, arms outstretched through the haze of years and memories, she embraces her younger self with the words, “Enough of suffering, my love. Enough.” Reconciled at last, Sor Juana dies.
The device of having two singers portray Sor Juana was a risky one, and Dan and I wouldn’t know it worked until approximately 4:35 p.m. on March 7, 1993, in the merciful dark of the standing-room-only crowd in Friedberg Concert Hall. When the lights came up, after the final abrupt note had sounded, and our stellar, hardworking cast came out for their well-deserved bows, we both could breathe again, a little stunned and surprised that it was all over so fast — and that we had a real opera on our hands.
But, maybe, it wasn’t such a shock after all. Many talented and generous people lent their help and encouragement throughout our work’s birth. We couldn’t have had a better director than Roger, who gave us such a wonderful opportunity in the first place. And the cast and orchestra — all fine Peabody musicians — gave the piece their heart and soul.
So, it is a real pleasure now to anticipate the upcoming — dare I say 10th Anniversary? — production of With Blood, With Ink on April 14 through 16. It will be especially exciting to revisit our work in the marvelously intimate space of the Theatre Project, performed by yet another gifted group of Peabody students under Roger’s sensitive direction.
The life-span of any new opera is generally short. With Blood, With Ink has begun to be an exception. After winning the National Opera Association’s Biennial Prize for Chamber Opera in 1995, it has received a series of university performances throughout the East Coast and Canada. It is now making inroads to professional companies as well. Shortly after the Theatre Project performance, it featured on New York City Opera’s Showcasing American Opera series. The series, a critically needed initiative to champion the development of new American opera, features readings of excerpts from new operas — performed by the full City Opera orchestra and a talented group of young singers. With Blood, With Ink was one of the most successful of the works presented in its year, earning its authors the promise of a full production in a forthcoming City Opera season. Unfortunately, owing to recent fiscal conditions, that production has been delayed while companies are being sought to co-produce. r.b.Return to top