Program Notes to

The Peabody Chamber Opera’s World Premiere of

The Yellow Wallpaper

Music by Catherine Reid

Libretto by Judith Lane

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If these walls could talk…

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935) published her short-story The Yellow Wallpaper in 1892. Gilman was responding to (and protesting) the “rest cure,” realizing her own near-descent into madness while undergoing it. The primary advocate for this “cure” — a recommended prescription for perceived “neurasthenia” (a vague term for “nervous distress“) was Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell. Upon receiving Gilman’s story, he apparently changed his thinking. Virginia Woolf’s own struggle with the “rest cure” was recently retold in Michael Cunningham’s novel and subsequent film The Hours. Gilman and Woolf — along with Kate Chopin, Sylvia Plath, and Edith Wharton — now stand at the forefront of the awareness of the rights of women within the English-speaking world.

The creators of this opera, Catherine Reid and Judith Lane, come to the story with over 100 years of perspective. In giving voice to the spirits within the “horrid yellow wallpaper” of our protagonist’s nursery/fortress/prison, they reflect our own fractured time as well. Gilman demands to be seen and acknowledged as a person, not a statue, not a goddess, not a possession. She has recognized the dangers of ignorance or arrogance within our history, our national wallpaper. In the opera, the women within the wallpaper create a metaphor to frame our story embracing a history of women past, present and future.

As our protagonist withdraws deeper and deeper into her own mind, repeating “I am alone,” she begins to search beneath the paper for something tangible, identifiable, perhaps instructive. On a more universal level, examining closely behind the surface could be a metaphor for any of us faced with an insurmountable challenge. No doubt someone has been up against this challenge before. When we can give history a voice, we are actually never alone. By standing up and pointing to the injustice of the “rest cure,” Gilman started a movement towards recognition and equality which continues to thrive.

— GARNETT BRUCE, stage director

Les demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907
by Pablo Picasso; 
New York, Museum of Modern Art

Present at the birth…

A composition that bears the distinction “world premiere” takes all of us who are involved in its gestation and birth on a unique journey. It is sometimes accompanied by fear, reluctance, even anger that the trek is so difficult; there is pressure that the time is so inadequate and we always feel we’re not ready. But a certain anticipation and energy develop as well, as we become more comfortable with the stages of development, marvel at the fact that we can see progress and move to wearing our new roles as birth family proudly. We are, in fact, the givers of life to specks of black on paper, translating ideas to sounds and actions to innervate a new work.

The Yellow Wallpaper of Catherine Reid speaks in many musical languages. John’s perception of his wife, indeed his desire for her to be the stereotypical woman of the time, is painted with musical-theater overtones, rhythms, and what is considered conventional tonality. But, the work is filled with a variety of thematic elements, as well as bi-tonality, polytonality, rhythmic intensity, to mention but a few. Most interesting of all, five undefined, uncharacterized female voices form an ensemble which permeates the work, providing an additional layer of orchestration. Employing the unique colors and qualities of the human voice, they haunt, comfort, question and support, filling many roles. They reveal facets of their mistress’s life, her insecurities, the history of the yellow wallpaper that dresses the room and the Woman’s struggle to break out of the corset of convention and publicly be the person she privately feels she is.

Catherine and Judith have presented us with a challenging work, a task that seemed quite daunting at the onset. How would we ever translate difficult pitches and rhythms into every-day conversation and interaction? Could we articulate the complex text clearly and convince the listener that, as composer and librettist perceived it, this is the musical and dramatic language into which it was born to speak? We have taken great care and spent much time in preparation; it has taken, not a village, but a dedicated artistic ensemble. Our labor is finished. We proudly exhibit this new creation that is The Yellow Wallpaper. We invite you into the nursery.

— JOANN KULESZA, music director

About the creators

  Librettist Judith Lane
Librettist JUDITH LANE studied creative writing and music composition at Bennington College and at New York University’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program. Working both in collaboration and solo, Ms Lane has written a variety of music theatre pieces ranging from musical comedy to operas for adults and young performers. She has been commissioned to write works for the Children’s Opera Company of Ossining, and has received awards from the Commission Project, the Bronx Council on the Arts, ASCAP, the Moore Opera Competition, KidSing2000, and the New American Musical Festival. Ms. Lane has been an artist-in-residence at The American University and at numerous artist colonies in the US and abroad. She is also the author of a children’s book entitled Buster, Where Are You? Currently she is writing an oratorio based on the Salem Witch Trials.

Composer Catherine Reid  
Composer CATHERINE REID received her MFA in Musical Theater Composition from NYU, where she met her collaborator and partner-in-crime, Judith Lane. Catherine is currently composing an overture for the Glens Falls Symphony and has been commissioned to compose several chamber pieces to be based on paintings at the Hyde Collection. Her musical The Colossus of Rhodes (with libretto by Carey Perloff), about the rise and fall of Cecil Rhodes, received a full production at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and at the White Barn Theater in Connecticut. She was commissioned by American Opera Projects to compose The Broken Jug with librettist David Ives for the Indianapolis Opera Company, and she orchestrated several episodes of ABC’s One Life to Live. She currently lives with her husband Stu Kuby and two children (Leo and Lucy) in the Adirondacks where she teaches music at Lake George High School and co-creates original cabarets with Wild Women Productions.

The composer and librettist gratefully acknowledge the VIRGINIA CENTER FOR THE CREATIVE ARTS, which offered them two collaborative residencies during which they wrote The Yellow Wallpaper.

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