What women want is subject of limited engagement performance at Penn

    At one time or another, in almost every culture, questions about love and marriage appear in songs, paintings and the stage. The modern opera “The Loathly Lady” takes its cue from medieval literature to tell a story that’s as old as history and as modern as yesterday’s gossip.

    The Loathly Lady

    At one time or another, in almost every culture, questions about love and marriage appear in songs, paintings and the stage. The modern opera “The Loathly Lady” takes its cue from medieval literature to tell a story that’s as old as history and as modern as yesterday’s gossip.

    Transcript:
    What do women want?

    Way before Freud, in fact 600 years ago, Chaucer asked the same question in one of his Canterbury Tales.  The story pits a clueless knight against a distressed lady in a life and death riddle. It’s retold in The Loathly Lady, a modern opera premiering this week in Philadelphia.

    Steiner: “The concept  behind this  has to do with the kind of magic of transmission, of communication across time and culture and every sort of cultural difference.”

    Wendy Steiner is an author and literature professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She took the original story and gave it a contemporary twist while maintaining Chaucer’s picaresque language, medieval tinge and universal appeal.

    Steiner: “In my version I just imagine what it would be if the knight could have leaned from some some  women who came afterward and so I have Virginia Woolf and Sheherazade, Emma, and Freud and a number of other people giving him advice.”

    It took Wendy Steiner ten years to bring the The Loathly Lady to the stage. In the process, she wrote the script and found renowned composer Paul Richards to write music that conveyed the literary context  of the work.

    Richards: “In the scenes that take place in Chaucer’s time I’m giving a nod to medieval instruments and medieval music but she’s also set up this very clever procedure where the main character does a little bit of time travel and as the knight meets different people I’ve used instrument and musical idioms and ideas from the time periods in which these characters took place.”

    Richards sees The Loathly Lady as a piece bordering between music theater and opera, so he used  medieval instruments for the piece but took contemporaries liberties in his composition.

    Steiner: “Part way through this process, I decided that modern operas come and go, but if one were to do an animated film it wouldn’t be able to go, it would be around.”

    So for the sake of preservation  Steiner brought in Irish artist John Kindness to create a story board and a short animation that opens and closes the performance and is now only visible on the web.

    How does it all end?

    As in Chaucer’s tale, in Wendy Steiner’s opera, the riddle is solved when the knight eventually figures out what women want.

    Steiner: “It’s a rather wonderful solution to think that what women want is their independence and their love for somebody else.  But once they have that, what they really want to do is make sure that the other person is as happy as possible.”

    It’s what Chaucer calls “mastery in marriage.”

    More information:
    The Loathly Lady opera will have one performance only, tomorrow night at the University of Pennsylvania’s Irvine Auditorium.

    Click here for the  script and other information about The Loathly Lady and author Wendy Steiner at  the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Humanities Forum.

    The animated sequence referenced above can be found by clicking on this link.

    Listen:
    Click on the play button below or right click on this link and choose “Save Link As” to download.  The audio version of this story includes samples of the music from the opera.

    [audio: arts20090331epl.mp3]

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