- opera scene, photo courtesy of Sarah Bebhinn. All rights reserved.
In This Issue
Confessions of a Closet Diva
Divinity and art have been constant companions throughout human history, pre-history and herstory. Passionate lovers, supportive partners, contentious adversaries and mutual nemeses are Art and the Goddess. From the first bloody handprint left on the first cave wall to electronic symphonic programs inspired by science fiction, the two are tangled and intertwined.
In our own community there are at least as many artists as there are women. (I, for one, am at least four artists.) We Goddess women express our art in countless ways. We are poets, painters, potters, dancers, designers, dramatists, singers, sculptors and satirists. We are also kitchen witches, bead mistresses, organizers, herbal experts, web gurus, Goddess scholars, conflict transformers, divinatory artists and well-dressed women! Our art is as varied and dynamic as the women who make up our loosely defined community.
In this column I want to dive into the Matrifocus community and harvest the treasures of our numbers. I will devote each issue to one or more women making art in a particular medium. It need not be a traditional "fine art" or performing art but it must be original work of the imagination that makes a personal expression about women or Goddess or another topic of interest to our community. Since the publication deadline had arrived by the time She spoke to me about this project, I am writing this first column about myself.
The Making of a Diva
If you know who I am, you probably know me as an event organizer or as a folk singer -- aspects that have held the foreground of my life for the last ten years, and have been rewarding in many ways. But I'd like to tell you about what currently consumes 99.9% of my time, energy and spirit: An art form of old dead white men, yet for me an ecstatic experience of Goddess.
y first opera role was as a living prop in Susanna by Carlisle Floyd. I was two. My dad, a member of the chorus, held me on his knee during a church scene, while Rev. Olin Blich, one of the most quietly sinister and misogynistic characters in all of opera, delivered one hell of a baritone sermon. I don't remember this, but as an adult I've seen the opera three times and can only imagine the impact of such energy on a child's psyche.
When I was four and a half, back when those half years were really important, my dad dressed me up and took me and my best friend Carmen to see the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet. We got corsages, and during intermission a news crew interviewed us. We were, no doubt, adorable. I remember that day more vividly than what I had for breakfast this morning. Dad always loved to tell everyone -- and I do mean everyone; Dad was a chatter -- that I sat through that three-and-a-half-hour opera with eyes wide open, never saying a word. If Susanna didn't do it, Carmen did: I was bit by the opera bug and have yet to recover.
Dad had already graduated, but he went back to his small liberal arts college all the time to work with his voice teacher and accompanist. I remember him carrying me around while he sang in the small studios and I remember the angel-faced woman (my future voice teacher) who said she wished she could take me home. She still likes to tell that story, as I learned when I called her for a voice reference last year.
Through the next decade or so, I grew up. I fell in love with all manner of music, especially musical theater. I was the perennial lead in the high school musicals and thrived in that environment. When I graduated in '91 I went off to my parent's college, becoming the fifth generation of our family to study there, with the absolute certainty that musical theater would be my life. Remember absolute certainty?
So there I was, a musical theater devotee in the middle of this opera school. How was I to know that the college I was predestined to just happened to house one of the best undergraduate opera programs in the Midwest? It always amazes me how quickly I adapted. There was some small talk during the first week of classes of forming a musical theater appreciation club, but then I was assigned my first three opera scenes, a chorus part in the full-scale opera, a dozen pieces of choral music and the repertoire for my freshman recital . Who had time for musical theater?!
"Why did you leave there?" students at the university I now attend will ask me, upon hearing of the operatic utopia I abandoned after my fourth year of study. The truth is, my dad got sick and rather than deal with my grief, I found solace in the new technology that was emerging at the time. Talkers, a more advanced and expressive form of chat rooms, was where I spent the transition year between school and real life. Fortunately I resurfaced from the Internet in time to spend good quality time with Dad before he passed away, and I was able to assist in his passing. Unfortunately, I didn't resurface in time to save my academic career.
I'm not sure why I abandoned my opera passion so completely in the next decade. Maybe it was too much work maybe it reminded me of Dad. But I wouldn't trade those ten years for anything. Discovering and exploring the folk music of my Celtic ancestors has been an incredibly profound experience, and my time spent as a ritual priestess has given me invaluable lessons. The places I've been, the things I've seen, the songs I've written and sung and oh the women! The caring, generous, challenging, fabulous women who have become my life. I know so much now that many people my age don't and never will. Now that I'm back in the "real world" of the patriarchy, I sometimes wonder if I know too much.
Viva la Diva
So what does passion for an art form, created almost exclusively by old dead white men, have to do with Goddess? How many different answers do I have space for? I got my religion from my parents. I can't remember a time when I didn't go for walks in the woods with Mom and hear her say "I get closer to God in nature than in any church." And though Dad would probably shift in his urn to hear me say it, he showed me God, not during the countless church services he made me sit through, but during the even more countless operatic experiences he gifted me with.
I get closer to Her when I'm making brilliant music, or sitting quietly in a grove at twilight, than during any ritual or spell work. Of course making music involves magic. I've always known that, and my study of ritual has enhanced my abilities as a performer. Audience glamoury is a wonderful tool, as is controlled broadcasting empathy.
Last year I decided to go back to school. After a semester of trying to figure out just why I was in school if I didn't want to be a high school teacher, I've hit upon it. I've started studying women composers. You've probably heard of Mozart, Schumann and Mahler but have you heard of Strozzi or Beach? All five of them were women! Nannerl Mozart was Wolfgang's sister and a child piano prodigy whose talents rivaled her brother's. Clara Schumann was a piano virtuosa who managed to write remarkably beautiful works for piano and voice despite her troubled relationships with her father and later, with her husband Robert Schumann, who struggled with mental disorders throughout their marriage. A young Alma Mahler married a much older Gustav, inspiring his work and going on to compose lush and rich songs and piano works of her own. There are so many stories like these, and I am so excited to be starting on this incredible journey of discovery and reclaiming. I feel like, in this work, my passions have found a home in which they can all live. What a relief!
I am currently working toward my junior recital, in which I'll perform works by Clara Schumann, Alma Mahler, Amy Beach and Libby Larsen (a fascinating contemporary composer from the Twin Cities area), as well as Wolfgang Mozart and Gaetano Donizetti. Other students -- usually those who'll be performing nothing but the works of old dead white men -- keep asking me why I'm singing so many women composers. I ask them why don't they have women on their recital? When I have my own voice studio, women composers will be requisite.
The thing is the most delightful, surprising thing is when I decided to sing these composers, I thought it would be a political undertaking. Surely the music was buried because it was not up to par, because it was lacking in some way. In fact, these pieces are far more interesting and soul-stirring and in some cases even more challenging than the music I've done in the past. Much of the work is Goddess themed and some of the songs carry covert messages to a secret lady-love. It is exciting to find the path I've chosen so liberally strewn with treasures!
As I look to the future, I know I will never sing all of the repertoire by women composers, but I intend to try. What excites me most is the thought of singing works by women like Kay Gardner, who wrote about Goddess and women -- no holds barred. And of course I look forward to joining the composers' ranks.
If you have an idea for a future article, please email the author at Bebhinn73@hotmail.com