The Body of the State
soprano, 11-player ensemble
Libretto by Eliza Brown, Lara Campbell, Jeneth Hughes, Michelle Jones, Melinda Loveless, Anastazia Schmid, and Brittney Watson
Commissioned by Ensemble Dal Niente; premiered October 20-22, 2017, Chicago.
Scene II selected for and presented in workshop production at the Darmstadt Contemporary Opera Workshop at the Darmstadt Summer Courses, Aug 2014, Darmstadt, Germany
The Body of the State is a 3-scene monodrama about Juana of Castile (1479-1555). Juana unexpectedly inherited the Castilian throne when her husband died in 1506, but she never truly ruled – her father quickly declared her insane, claimed her power, and confined her to a house in remote Tordesillas, where she remained for essentially the rest of her life. Recent scholarship poses Juana as an intelligent woman whose erratic behavior, whether calculated or involuntary, was a desperate and understandable response to lifelong suppression of her agency and personal freedom. In this light, The Body of the State aims for a nuanced portrayal of Juana’s psychological struggle to maintain her sense of self within this oppressive familial and social context. Rather than serving as a “pit orchestra,” the instrumentalists who perform the piece are onstage with the singer and involved in the production of the work as both a theatrical and musical representation of the complex relationships and societal forces governing Juana’s existence.
The perspectives of seven contemporary women – myself and six women with first-hand knowledge of incarceration – are also woven into The Body of the State. In the fall of 2016 I took part in a faculty reading group at DePauw University that met via videoconference with the graduate class at Indiana Women’s Prison. The group’s topic was epistemic injustice, which occurs when we discount someone’s ability to be a knower and reduce that person to a knowable object. Epistemic injustice affects many marginalized people, including the incarcerated. As I learned about epistemic injustice from the women at IWP, I realized its role in Juana’s story, and asked the IWP scholars if they would like to participate in the creation of this piece. Several women were interested, and in the end a group of seven of us met regularly at IWP over the next five months. We read a book about Juana together and wrote responses to it in the form of poems, essays, and free-written ideas about the intersections between her life and ours. We synthesized elements from these texts into the libretto for Scenes I and III, and decided to retain my pre-existing (2014) text for Scene II. We developed a group vocal improvisation practice using spoken and sung fragments of text. Recordings of these improvisations, as well as the ubiquitous hiss of the HVAC systems in the IWP education building, are featured in the work’s electronics. I am deeply grateful for the knowledge, talent, honesty, and generosity that each member of the group brought to this project.
Audio Sample: Scene III, Part I
Watch entire opera on YouTube
Photo by Aleks Karjaka