Vocal Womb: Background

Opera is an act of erasure

The first erasure occurs within the body. Opera is an intensely physical art. Singers train for a minimum of 10 years with instruments hidden inside our bodies. Opera transports audiences to the sublime heights and depths of human emotions, but only if the voice is perfectly rendered. For singers, performance can be a fight against the agency of our bodies which are fallible and highly responsive to our inner emotional state. By performing opera, we seek to control our bodies and conceal our own self in service to the music we sing – but there are times when our fragility is involuntarily asserted in the cracked note, the quaver and the glitch. In these moments, where human physicality disrupts the transcendental experience of the music, Werktreue is ruptured. So we train our bodies to respond ever more seamlessly in the production of sound in search of something intangible. If we succeed, we render the physicality of our voices invisible for the audience. This struggle is symbolic of many who seek to affirm their literal or metaphorical voices against forces beyond their control. Vocal Womb was inspired by these reflections and a question: how would our understanding of ‘voice’ change if rather than emanating from within, its quivering mechanisms were exposed to view?

The second erasure is figurative. As a singer within the operatic tradition my performing body is shaped by the pedagogies that inform its training and by the stories I give it to enact. Opera companies primarily perform historical repertoire, with repertoire of living composers constituting less than 10% of works reproduced by the world’s major operatic institutions (1). This significant imbalance between the performance of newly composed operas and the performance of historical repertory means that the bulk of performed operas were composed and written by men. Wayne Koestenbaum argues that “if words and music take on the gender of their authors and not their performers, then words and music in an operatic collaboration are both symbolically male”(2). Canonical repertoire further erases the female body through the perpetuation of historical narrative tropes which kill or violate female characters as a mechanism for revealing masculine emotional journeys or redressing transgressive femininities. When female-identifying operatic singers perform characters such as Carmen, Lucia, Tosca and Cio-Cio-San, they re-render these problematic femininities for contemporary audiences through the medium of their body.

Because I find the ways in which gender is portrayed in opera, through my body, to be troubling, the solution has been to take control of the opera my body sings by composing new work, and rendering my female body visible for operatic audiences. Vocal Womb is one such contribution.

1) Statistical information provided by Dornic (1994) and Littljohn (1992). These findings were reinforced in the Australian context by the National Opera Review which found that Australian opera companies were increasingly presenting a higher proportion of “popular operas”, and repeating the performances of these operas more frequently so that the overall range of repertoire being presented has narrowed significantly.

Department of Communications and the Arts (2015) National Opera Review: Discussion Paper. Canberra: Department of Communications and the Arts. Department of Communications and the Arts (2015) National Opera Review: Final Report. Canberra: Department of Communications and the Arts. Dornic, A. (1994). Opera Performance Survey. Available at: http://opera.stanford.edu/misc/Dornic_survey.html [Accessed July 18, 2011].
Littlejohn, D. (1992). The Ultimate Art: Essays around and about opera. Berkeley: University of California Press.

2) Koestenbaum, W. (1994). The Queen's Throat: Opera, homosexuality, and the mystery of desire. New York: Vintage Books.

Image courtesy of MONA and Jesse Hunniford.

Image courtesy of MONA and Jesse Hunniford.