VOX Blog: 5 QUESTIONS Justine F. Chen     Feb. 2008

1. So, tell us everything about who you are and why you're here.  No--kidding. Tell us about this new piece of yours, JEANNE.  It's described as "a fractured retelling" of the story of Joan-of-Arc, but what should that mean in a modern-day sense?  Who is Jeanne?

I’m a New Yorker, born and bred.  I grew up steeped in the classical culture of the city- starting from a young age my mother brought me on many trips to the opera, ballet, symphony concerts as well as smaller recitals.  My older sister started piano when I was born, and she began composition when I was about 3, so when I started composing, it wasn’t any sort of romantic epiphany, I took it to be of those skills you acquire because you imagine everyone does it- like walking or talking.

 

“Fractured retelling” - I’ve always been fascinated with structure in music and in story-telling.  Many of my favorite movies are told in a more musical or abstract fashion.  The structure of JEANNE revolves around scenes of Joan in prison, doing what I imagine was most natural to her, confessing, or communing with God.  In these scenes, we discover why she is imprisoned, and learn of the people with whom she came into contact and their relationship to her on a personal and historical level.  Each Joan and Confessor scene acts comes back like a ritornello, or A-theme from a rondo [For you movie buffs, you may notice a striking similarity to Amenabar’s Abre los ojos.]  In addition, each of those prison scenes introduces the next scene by revealing a new character and their context in relation to Joan. 

 

In my research for the opera, I was most intrigued with the transcripts from her trials, especially testimonies from people who came into direct contact with her.  Much of the information of the opera’s testimony scenes was taken from actual transcripts.  We hear an anecdote from her adolescence, we learn about her relationship with her fellow soldiers, and we get then testimony from an eyewitness to her final confession and death.  I wanted to relieve the audience of the heaviness from these prison scenes, so my solution was to achieve a balance with more objective, lighter interludes.

These moments outside the Joan and Confessor prison scenes are little caricatures of the people in her life.  It was a lot of fun exploring aspects of vocal and musical characterization with these scenes. 

 

I had many questions about how I was going to present her story.  For a while I wanted to abstract the story and leave her and religion out of it.  I was encouraged to keep the story intact.  My solution was to write the story, and decide later if I wanted to keep Joan in it or not.  I’ve become quite wary of artistic works based on historical figures or events… I didn’t want to ride on the popularity of her name or her story… I wanted it to function in its own self-contained universe.

 

Though I maintained the setting of France vs. England and the Hundred Years War, I decided to tell the story in modern day English- as if we had period and language translators.

 

In this opera, we see the rise and fall of someone who had one incredible and coveted talent, an innate fluency with her religion.  We meet the people who adored her, the people who hated her, and the people who used her for their own purposes, ie. career-building, gaining power, etc.  The story is also kind of a murder mystery… we all know she winds up at the stake, but don’t all necessarily know how she got there. 

 

2.  So, you're a VOX "old-schooler," huh?  Another of your pieces, MAIDEN TOWER, was featured in 2006.  Have your thoughts on writing opera changed since then?

 

Wow, I feel like I’ve learned so much from opera to opera.  This is just my second- and I thought I had a pretty good handle on my first one- but I definitely took a lot more chances in this one that I’d never considered for my first.  For instance, I wonder if I would have even explored this fractured story line had I not seen the experimentation explored in previous VOX operas.  When I went to my first VOX in 2006, I was so impressed with the variety of styles and thoughts about opera, drama, and the music/text relationship. 

 

I saw interesting creations with different strengths, trying out new ideas, techniques and choices that inspired in me new ideas, and new strings of thought. 

 

As far as my own progress, the main criticism I had for myself for my first opera when I saw it performed at VOX 2006 was that I thought it could use more singing- that is, more complex vocal lines.  MAIDEN TOWER did not show off the vocal abilities of singers, it was almost more like a play.  Of course, one of my biggest pet peeves is bad prosody and unintelligible text, and a confusing story line, so those were my greatest concerns for MAIDEN.  All that aside, I guess when I wrote the libretto for JEANNE, I sought to create a format in which I could easily explore the vocal capabilities of my singers in their roles, hence the fractured structure. 

 

I discovered that I have very strong ideas about what opera should do, how it functions, and what it is.  Seeing all these other highly successful experiments and observing my own trials has helped me solidify my own concept of opera.

 

More details: I’ve always hated excess, such as plot points, songs, or characters that do not further the story.  As I mentioned earlier, text should be intelligibly set and relevant to the story.  Music should somehow reflect the sentiment of the character or situation.  Story should be inclusive, not exclusive – I don’t enjoy attending an opera or any kind of show where I feel they are catering to a very specific demographic, rather than the audience as human beings.

 

3. You like to write your own libretti.  Why is that?  Why not collaborate with a librettist?

 

Haha.  That’s a long story.

 

I had never thought to write my own libretto before I wrote for my first opera- something I had only done out of sheer necessity that I had first picked up the pen (ie. time crunch, and the wish to not alienate more friends by firing them as librettists).  I actually love collaboration, I’ve worked a lot with directors and choreographers before- I love the stimulation and cross-pollenation of ideas, when there is more than one creative mind at work, the two of us become parents of brand new ideas. 

But, the more I discussed opera, and in collaborating with writers, the more I realized that I already had a strong concept of how the libretto should be, how it should function - the language, the density of the plot, how events would unfold, meting out of information.  I also knew about another important element in the entirety of the opera: what was possible or could be conveyed with the music. 

 

I’d tried working a few times with librettists in the past, but we never seemed to agree on how to proceed.  Also, I didn’t realize it when I was working with these other librettists, but I already had a pretty strong concept of what I needed to achieve with the libretto for the story.  For instance, my very first librettist was a terrific writer who loved words.  I wanted to converse more and discuss the characters, but he wanted freer artistic rein.  That method had worked for us in the past, when the story was already a familiar one (Adam and Eve up until banishment) - I created that project for us because I wanted to work with a writer without the pressure of having the audience comprehend the story, since most everyone already knows it.  But for this my first opera, there was a lot to accomplish: I wanted to adapt an old Azerbaijani tale for the future so I could use electronics in a way that was organic to the story, we had to make the computer essential to the story, and I wanted it to last about 40 minutes – the libretto needed to be extremely efficient.  After a year or two of slow progress, many drafts and little communication, I knew I needed to find another writer. 

 

More time passed, and I needed to take control because I had secured a performance date without having written the entire opera (bless you, Stephen Clapp at Juilliard!).  I needed the libretto ASAP because the performance date was in three months, and I didn’t have the time or energy to bring another writer up to speed, so I decided to write it on my own.  I knew what had to happen, and by that point I had been talking about and reshaping the story for 4 years

 

After that experience, I had tried working with other writers on different projects.  It was almost always the same story, I would have an idea, then the writer would come in and start working on it based on my what must be a vague description of the story or concept.  Of course, they would want to make it their own, but… there would always be something not quite right for that particular project.  I blame my own inarticulate self for that.

 

I don’t know.  I’m still open to working with a librettist.  I don’t think I’m a particularly good writer, and because I don’t have any training, it takes a mighty long time for me to write!  I’m still looking for the right person, I guess.

 

4.  The story of Joan of Arc has been adapted so many times in every possible medium (and yes, opera too!) that I have to ask you...why did you choose to make this character your own?  Were you at all worried people might feel it was a retread?

 

A retread.  That’s funny.

 

When I had decided to pursue this topic, I had somehow never seen or read any adaptations of her story.  The catalyst was a painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Joan by Jules Bastien-Lepage.  I was wandering around the museum with my friend Ricardo who knows all the museums of Manhattan like the back of his hand.  He pointed out this particular painting.  I am actually not a huge fan of this style of painting- I’m more of a Picasso Rothko fan, so I would not have seen it otherwise.  He said, “Look at this painting.  Look at her eyes.”  And I looked.  And I was completely absorbed.  I had been in a bit of a funk before that moment because I had just finished my first opera, and had just graduated, and wasn’t sure of the next step; but at that moment, I knew that Joan of Arc would be my next opera subject.  I had just undergone a grueling doctoral process, and I felt a kinship with her and her circumstances.  It wasn’t until later that I knew more of what her life work was.  It was more the concept of a solitary figure fighting for what she believed, armed almost exclusively with her faith.

 

At the recommendation of City Opera’s all-knowing dramaturg Cori Ellison, who I had met because of my VOX 2006 nomination, I started looking at some works- the Jean Anouilh play The Lark, the Dreyer film The Passion of Joan of Arc, the Honegger Jeanne d’Arc au Bucher, and the testimonies and court transcripts from her trials.

 

On my own, I watched about 3 or 4 other movies on Joan of Arc, but they were all quite similar- telling similar anecdotes, often using the exact same text.  Clearly, these were historical anecdotes, but I felt that the verbatim repetition of these same stories did not celebrate her existence or explain how extraordinary she was to everyone around her.

 

What made Dreyer’s film utterly unique and powerful, what had achieved in his film that I had not seen in the other anecdotal films was an extreme focus.  He didn’t re-enact a series of anecdotes, he showed her specifically through her trial, he focused the story on her faith and suffering throughout the trial. 

 

I decided I to paint a portrait of her through the eyes of others, to meet people who knew her and could talk about her.  We would hear from her, but not the traditional anecdotes with the well-worn dialogue.  Instead, we would see a Joan with emotions and desires, someone adored, feared, loathed, and used by friends and enemies for their own ambition.

 

I don’t know how people will take my version of Joan’s character.  My greatest concern is that people will be able to connect the dots and understand the story I’m telling.

 

Whenever anyone hears I’m working on an opera based on Joan of Arc, I believe they all imagine a heavy biblical epic, like Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments, complete with fire and brimstone, there is usually some recoiling involved...  Mine is a more delicate and intimate portrait. 

 

More information:

As far as my research of other adaptations … I’d also begun reading G. B. Shaw’s Saint Joan, but I didn’t get very far.  Let me preface this by saying I am very fond of Shaw’s plays, but while I was reading the lengthy preamble (and I usually love his preambles), I realized that Shaw had a very strong opinion of her character, and I found myself disagreeing with his assessment!  So, I thought instead of finishing the preface or his play, I should complete my own research so I can finish creating my own concept of Joan.  I also read Brecht’s St. Joan of the Stockyards, and I got through that play.  It was very politically charged.  It was my first Brecht play, so I was quite unprepared for a play functioning so starkly and severely as social commentary.  I probably need to take a course or something…

 

I consciously chose not to name my opera “Joan of Arc” because I was worried that it would be mistaken for a clone opera (like those clone movies).  Actually, I have also only heard the Honegger oratorio, I haven’t yet heard the Verdi or Rossini Joans.  Perhaps when I am closer to finished with my opera, I’ll take a look at their libretti and scores.

 

5.  Okay, one last thing.  What would you say to people who are on the fence about trying out "new operas?"

 

For those who don’t know or enjoy opera at all…

I’ve found that opera is perhaps the closest one can get to watching a real-time live music video or film.  The main difference is that sometimes the stress is more music than anything else (ex. visual, dramatic), and sometimes it’s difficult to follow the plot, appreciate just the music, or hear the words. 

 

Similar to contemporary music, I’ve found that many people who don’t know classical music like contemporary music more than say Beethoven, and it makes sense to me because this is music written by people now living with similar stimuli and influences (contemporary TV, film, music, etc.).  It is probably easier to understand and communicate with someone living next door today than it is with someone living 300, 200 or even 100 years ago in a different country.  The proximity of time and space make the likelihood of feeling a kinship with the opera of your time greater than with say a Handel opera.

 

And for those who already love opera, say you like Verdi, Wagner, or Mozart… consider that you might be able to meet the Wagners or Mozarts of today.  They wrote for the people of their time, and their operas addressed contemporary issues.  How much would you pay to get in a time machine so you could talk to them (nevermind the language difference)?  Now imagine you can meet up with people who are doing that right now. 

JUSTINE F. CHEN

COMPOSER AND VIOLINIST

2020 WINNER

OPERA America's Opera Grant for

Female Composers Seven Sisters

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