Two operas, two strong female protagonists’ stories still captivate audiences with their central human truth that transcends the hundred plus years ago the operas were written.
by Jennifer Kellow-Fiorini
“Suor Angelica” is the story of a woman forced into a nunnery by her wealthy family when she gives birth out of wedlock. “Cavalleria Rusticana” centers on Santuzza, a young Sicilian girl who is abandoned by her lover, and, it is implied, is pregnant. Both stories are tragic, and in their own way, empathetic to the plight of women born into southern Italian society and religion that allows women little if any agency over their bodies and their lives. Director Keturah Stickann, who is renowned for her inventive reimagining of operas, spoke with Toledo City Paper on her work with Toledo Opera and what makes “Suor Angelica/Cavalleria Rusticana” operas that will resonate with today’s audiences.
While the costumes will be true to the opera’s period, Stickann is quick to point out that there’s a difference between traditional and period. “When you look at the words and the score of ‘Suor Angelica,’ if you change the word coach to car, you can set this opera in any time period and the story still plays, which is what’s so amazing about the piece.”
People are finding more ways to pair one act operas together. “We’ve taken ‘Suor Angelica’ and ‘Cavalleria’ and put them together because of their similarities with regard to the woman’s plight,” notes Stickann. “Both women’s lives have been changed due to restrictions placed on them by the church. In ‘Suor Angelica’ we have a woman placed into the convent by her family due to a pregnancy out of wedlock. We don’t know the circumstances of the pregnancy, but we know she wanted her child and is forced into a religious life to constantly atone for what is considered a sin but is really a sin against the family.”
Stickann set “Cavalleria” in the 1890s, a little further ahead in time than is written because it was a time of upheaval in Sicily, a time of socio-economic turmoil that underlines the desperation in this story. She explains, “Santuzza is a girl who falls in love with Turiddu, a young man returning from the army, who promises to marry her. They had sex out of wedlock, and she confesses this to the church and is excommunicated. So here we have one girl forced into a religious life and another who is turned out from her community.”
Santuzza becomes desperate to get Turiddu to follow through on his promise of marriage. The gravity of this punishment may be lost on a contemporary audience, but it would mean being shunned completely and left to fend for herself.
While sex and potential parenthood obviously involve both sexes, only one takes the brunt, and sadly this still holds true today. These are the reasons Stickann is so passionate about these operas. “How is it,” asks Stickann, “that we are still fighting for women’s bodily autonomy, for women to be in charge of their own person?”
Stickann’s work as a dancer has influenced the way she directs opera. There is, she says, a tendency to “park and bark,” meaning main characters on stage tend to stand apart from each other and sing facing the audience. “I don’t like to direct that way; I want the text to come through and the storytelling to come through. I never want us to get into a situation where performers are losing connections to each other and singing beautiful music with no context for it.”
Stickann also has high praise for the Toledo Opera cast. “This has been a terrific cast, they’ve come to the table with their own ideas, and we’ve had a good working relationship within the cast.” When asked about the challenges of directing these operas, Stickann says big chorus scenes are always the most challenging.
“In ‘Suor’ there is a scene with all the women in the convent and they all have their own personalities written into the score. It’s not easy to make sure that all of these personalities shine rather than relegating them to background voices.” Here Stickann finds the heart of these operas – to give a voice to all women, not as background voices, but as vibrant individuals — allowing the audience to see themselves reflected in the characters.
Toledo Opera will perform “Suor Angelica” and “Cavalleria Rusticana” at the Valentine Theatre on Friday, October 14 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, October 16 at 2 p.m. The Opera will host a pre-concert talk one hour before each showtime, in the Grand Lobby of the Valentine Theatre. To learn more about “Suor Angelica” and “Cavalleria Rusticana” cast and production team and to buy tickets, visit: toledoopera.org.