Program Notes to
The Peabody Chamber Opera’s World Premiere of
The Yellow Wallpaper
Music by Catherine Reid
Libretto by Judith Lane
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
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
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.