The Everlasting Fight For Women’s Equality: An American Oratorio

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Julia Wolfe’s oratorio ‘Her Story,’ featuring the Lorelei Ensemble, premiered with the Nashville Symphony and is soon headed for the Chicago, Boston and San Francisco Symphony Orchestras. (Kurt Heinecke)

PERSPECTIVE — We can’t escape the time we live in, so here’s a quote to treasure as a tribute to our stalwart grandmothers, or great-grandmothers, ten thousand of whom marched up New York City’s Fifth Avenue in the spring of 1912, demanding the right to vote and provoking hysteria in the hometown newspaper.

Julia Wolfe, above, collaborated with director Anne Kauffman on the project. (Peter Serling)

“Granted the suffrage, they would demand all that the right implies,” stated the New York Times’ next-day May 5 editorial, which warned that women would “play havoc with it for themselves and society, if the men are not firm and wise enough and, it may as well be said, masculine enough to prevent them.”

Women did eventually get that right to vote, in 1920, when an action by Tennessee, as the 26th state to ratify, led to the incorporation of the 19th Amendment. But Julia Wolfe’s cautionary oratorio Her Story, originally intended to premiere in the centennial year of that landmark achievement, was among the big projects derailed by Covid. 

An ambitious multimedia work featuring the Lorelei Ensemble of female voices in a semi-staged concept by theater director Anne KauffmanHer Story was to include projections, lighting, costumes – too much for a symphony orchestra under Covid restrictions in spare times.

Wolfe’s enterprise is back on the boards at last: The Nashville Symphony opened its current season with the world premiere, led by music director Giancarlo Guerrero, and now the work is set to travel to the hometowns of its co-commissioners.

Later this season, Guerrero will lead performances by the Boston Symphony (March 16-18) and San Francisco Symphony (May 25-27).

Alsop on opportunities for women: “Often times there’s a drift after there have been advances.” (Adriane White)

But next up is a presentation by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with guest conductor Marin Alsop, Jan. 6-7. Alsop finds the delayed premieres of this 40-minute work to be ironic, given the Supreme Court’s June 2022 decision affecting other women’s rights in the meantime:

“I think that Her Story is an important piece to do at this moment, with the Supreme Court overturning (1973) Roe vs. Wade, and to be doing art that takes a stand and has a point of view, opening up a discussion,” she said by telephone between tour dates.

“Julia’s piece does that. It has a point of view. I know her work, although to date I have only conducted one or two of the smaller pieces. I like the fact that many of them are events inspired, or politically inspired, as most great art is anyway.”

Kauffman, the director, and Wolfe conceived Her Story to work with the singers out in front of the orchestra at the lip of the stage. “But there’s also a platform behind the orchestra where they can sing and act a little bit, allowing for some traveling around,” Alsop said. “The staging is not at all over the top. 

“And there will be lighting, but that’s not over the top, either. There are no Hollywood blackouts or other massive effects, just enough to support the fantastic text and the music.” The oratorio’s texts come from various sources, including popular songs, letters of Abigail Adams, and political slogans, cartoons, and speeches of the day.

Just prior to the Covid onset, Wolfe described her own thinking about Her Story as more akin to a little opera, even though, as she put it, “You can’t go wild with staging, and the musicians have their own needs, and the orchestra has only so much time.” 

Composer Julia Wolfe acknowledges applause for her oratorio after its first performance at the Nashville Symphony. The work’s texts come from various sources, including popular songs, letters of Abigail Adams, and political slogans, cartoons, and speeches of the day. (Kurt Heinecke)

If inspiring, Her Story is also clearly a cautionary opus. Given the events of the last century, one might ask how it could be otherwise. Alsop’s own account resonates with that warning:  

“A piece like this always raises such difficult questions for me, such as whether I am a feminist or this or that. I have to say I was shocked by the fact that another amendment, the Equal Rights Amendment, which was first put forth in 1923, and only recently ratified, is now being hung up by an archivist who says No, it’s too late, the time has elapsed. I don’t know how the U.S. can not be able to pass this. So, if that defines an activist, to be outraged by injustice, then I guess I am.

“I really don’t like labels, but my experience as a woman in the field has been revealing, and I realized pretty early that one of the challenges especially for conductors is having enough opportunities to work with your instrument, the orchestra. It’s why I decided to see if I can’t create these opportunities for women in a way that’s not life or death, not make or break, but where they can just experiment and try things in a safe way, and that’s how the Taki Alsop conducting fellowships started.” (The 19-year-old program has so far provided fellowships for 30 women conductors.)

These are the latest Taki-Alsop fellows and award recipients. For more on this program for emerging women conductors, visit https://takialsop.org/

“And I’m happy to see more opportunities coming, but often times there’s a kind of a drift after there have been some advances — the sense that, oh well, they have enough now, it’s time for other things. If that is really true, then good on us, and huge progress has been made, but I hesitate to claim progress with what we see going on politically in the society as a whole, with some advances made, and then the backlash, or the re-grouping.”

Alsop’s Chicago Symphony program also includes works by two CSO composers-in-residence past and present: This Midnight Hour, a single-movement work from 2015 by 42-year-old English composer Anna Clyne, and Rounds by 41-year-old American composer Jessie Montgomery, the latter to be performed by pianist Awadagin Pratt, for whom it was written in 2022. To date, the CSO has had six female composers-in-residence: Shulamit Ran (1990-1997); Augusta Read Thomas (1997-2006); Anna Clyne (2010-2015); Elizabeth Ogonek (2015-2018); Missy Mazzoli (2018-2021), and Jessie Montgomery (current).

In Boston and San Francisco, where Guerrero once again takes up the baton, Her Story will be performed by the Lorelei Ensemble but paired with different works:

Giancarlo Guerrero conducted the world premiere of ‘Her Story’ on September 15, 2022, with the Nashville Symphony. The work has special significance for Tennessee, which was the 38th state to ratify, sufficient to turn the amendment into law on August 18, 1920. (Lukasz Rajchert)

At the Boston Symphony in March, it shares a program with Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, featuring soprano Aleksandra Kurzak.

At the San Francisco Symphony in May, it is set off by Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

And folks in the Washington, D.C., area may note that the National Symphony is listed as a co-commissioner, as well.