The Peabody Chamber Opera
The World Premiere
The Yellow Wallpaper
Music by Catherine Reid
Libretto by Judith Lane
based on the story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
JoAnn Kulesza, music director
conducting a chamber instrumental ensemble
Jong-hun Bae, associate conductor
conducting the February 16 performance
Garnett Bruce, stage director
Kel Millionie, production designer
Thursday–Saturday, February 14–16, 2008, at 8:00 p.m.
Sunday, February 17, 2008, at 3:00 p.m.
Meet the composer and librettist at the Thursday and Friday performances.
Theatre Project, 45 West Preston Street, Baltimore
Admission $24 / Seniors $12 / Students with ID $10
Tickets available from Theatre Project
or call 410/752–8558
After several rejections from male editors who were offended by it, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935) finally published her story The Yellow Wallpaper in The New England Magazine in 1892. It did not attract much attention until the influential critic William Dean Howells anthologized it in 1920. Since then it has gone through many editions and been acknowledged as an early feminist classic.
Charlotte Perkins had a troubled childhood. She inherited both her literary gifts and her capacity for protest from her father, a librarian and magazine editor, who was the nephew of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But he later abandoned Charlotte’s mother, leaving her and her two surviving children without financial support. In her autobiography, Charlotte described her mother as being incapable of tenderness, but she had already lost two children and had been forbidden by her doctor to have more. These experiences cannot have left Charlotte with a happy impression of either motherhood or the male sex.
Though she would become a writer, Charlotte Perkins started in the visual arts. She attended the Rhode Island School of Design and at the age of 24 married a fellow artist, Charles Walter Stetson. The next year, she bore a child, Katharine, and immediately fell prey to severe depression; the birth exacerbated depressive tendencies that were to plague her entire life, and led to an illness that lasted several years. Eventually, she was placed under the care of Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, a celebrated neurologist (and a fiction writer himself). He prescribed the “rest cure” — a treatment consisting of almost total bed-rest, isolation from friends and family, a rich fatty diet, and permanent cessation of all creative activity. This regimen had a disastrous effect on Charlotte, who came close to a complete breakdown before she rebelled. It also spelled the end of her marriage; the couple separated a few months later and ultimately divorced. These protests were to be but the first in an active life asserting a woman’s right to independence. As she said: “It is not that women are really smaller-minded, weaker-minded, more timid and vacillating, but that whosoever, man or woman, lives always in a small, dark place, is always guarded, protected, directed and restrained, will become inevitably narrowed and weakened by it.”
Charlotte wrote The Yellow Wallpaper as a protest against Mitchell’s methods. Her critics suggested that the story was pernicious and would drive women to the brink of madness, but, writing a quarter-century later, she responded that the story “was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy — and it worked.” The story is told by a unnamed woman whose husband, John, takes her to a house in the country and confines her (for her own good) to a bedroom decorated with peeling yellow wallpaper. Meanwhile, his mother and sister come for a visit. Unable to leave the room, the Woman begins to imagine the past lives that it has contained: perhaps it has been an unhappy children’s nursery; perhaps there are ghostly women still trapped behind the paper, yearning to get free. Eventually she strips all the paper off the walls, releasing the forces that lie behind it, but surrendering her own sanity in the process.
There have been several musical settings of The Yellow Wallpaper. We have chosen the version by Judith Lane and Catherine Reid because its taut compactness is especially close to the original story and makes it particularly suitable for the intimate setting of Theatre Project. A single theatrical space contains the various scenes; the cast consists of the two principal characters plus an ensemble of five other women who start as a distant chorus but gradually reveal themselves as the trapped spirits of the woman’s imagination, besides taking on the roles of the intruding mother-in-law and sister. The scoring, in this version for piano, synthesizer, flute, and cello, is also quite compact. Both composer and librettist will attend performances and answer questions from the audience. The music director is JoAnn Kulesza, who has conducted several other Peabody Chamber Opera productions at Theatre Project, most recently The Rape of Lucretia last year. The stage director is Garnett Bruce, making his first appearance in this space. Stage designer Kel Millionie, who also designed Lucretia, returns again for this production.
The principal sources for these notes have been the Wikipedia articles on
The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Silas Weir Mitchell. Each of these cites further resources.
Illustrations, from top to bottom: 1/ Charlotte Perkins Gilman. 2/ The cover of the Penguin Classics Edition; the artwork is a detail from Motherland Laid Bare, a dustbowl-era painting by Alexandre Hogue. 3/ Silas Weir Mitchell; portrait by John Singer Sargent. 4/ Composer Catherine Reid (left) and librettist Judith Lane. The illustration on the right is a collage from period sources by Roger Brunyate.
Singers in the Production
|* Performing on Thursday 14 and Saturday 16 only|
** Performing on Friday 15 and Sunday 17 only
|The Woman|| ||Jennifer Holbrook|
|John, her husband|| ||Paul Corujo|
|Five women|| ||Yi-Wen Hung|