Who are the Dissenters and Rebels of opera? In celebration of our 2018/19 Season, we took a tour through opera history to find seven examples of individuals who upended societal expectations, charted their own course, or inspired others to imagine the world anew.
DISSENTERS & REBELS: HILDEGARD von BINGEN
At a time when women were not able to hold positions of power, Hildegard von Bingen achieved great success as prioress and abbess, founding two convents in addition to being an author, composer, visionary, and prophet. Gaining recognition as a prominent female scholar in just one of these subjects during the 12th century would have been noteworthy; Hildegard carved out a place of significance by achieving in them all.
Hildegard dedicated her life to the church at a young age when she took her vows as a Benedictine nun. Her life in the convent afforded her the opportunity for an enriching intellectual life where she learned to read Latin, to sing and to study music. She is most remembered for her detailed accounts of episodic visions, which she meticulously catalogued over the course of ten years. (To this day, scholars and scientists speculate as to the cause of these visions, as they were likely due to migraines caused by poor living conditions during childhood.)
Over the course of three decades she wrote prolifically. Aside from penning two theological books, one on medicine and natural healing, Hildegard also drafted numerous letters. These 400 letters include responses to humble penitents, as well as to emperors and kings seeking spiritual or political advice. Notably, her collection of poetry and music, Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum, is preserved in two manuscripts with indications that many were sung in her convents, nearby monasteries, and churches during her lifetime.
Hildegard’s extended musical work Ordo Vitrutum (The Order of the Virtues, ca. 1151) was the first non-liturgical musical drama and is considered by many musicologists as one of the first operas. Written as a morality play on the struggle between the Virtues and the Devil over the destiny of a female soul, the characters of Ordo Virutum include sixteen female Virtues and their Queen (including Humility, Love, Obedience, Faith, Hope, Chastity, Innocence, and Mercy), a Happy Soul, an Unhappy Soul, and the Devil, as well as a male Chorus of Patriarchs and Prophets and a female Chorus of Souls. All of the characters except the Devil can sing; he can only speak, shout, or bellow representing his disharmony with the divine. The text for Ordo comes from Hildegard’s own writings Scivas and Symphonia, and tells the story of the two female Souls, Happy and Unhappy, and their temptations to stray away from the Virtues to the Devil. Though the story is religious in theme and content, the fact that this work was not meant as a supplement to a Catholic Mass was unheard of, and all the more unusual because it was written by a woman. Indeed, this piece would have been consumed by a select community of noblewomen, and as entertainment at that! Moreover, the texts were not from the Bible but instead birthed from Hildegard’s stream-of-consciousness visionary accounts, many of which were considered indecent due to her handling of lush and flowery language.
Here is a translation of the final chorus:
In the beginning all creation thrived. In the midst, flowers blossomed. Later the greenness diminished, and the champion saw this and said, "I know this, but the golden number is not yet complete. You, then, behold the mirror of the Father: in my body I endure exhaustion; even my little ones faint. Now remember that the abundance which was made in the beginning should not have dried up. Then you decided in yourself that your eye would never fail until you saw my body encrusted with jewels, for it wearies me that all my limbs are laid bare to mockery. Father, see. I show you my wounds." So now, all people, bend your knees before your Father so that he may stretch out this hand to you.
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In a male-dominated religion—with a patriarchal order of service and repertory of chant music attributed to men—Hildegard dared to make a place for herself through her work, in the margins of text and society. She sought to share her mission and divine gifts through her writings, her preaching, and the two nunneries that she founded despite opposition from the Church. The breadth of her accomplishments speaks to her fortitude. Hildegard is a fine example of opera challenging societal norms in unexpected places.
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Images (top to bottom): Hildegard and her nuns, by an unknown artist; an illustration from Scivias I.6: The Choirs of Angels, from the Rupertsberg manuscript, fol. 38r.