Writer and Librettist
Jessica Duchen is a freelance music journalist, novelist, librettist and playwright whose work appears frequently in the Guardian and BBC Music Magazine, among other publications.Jessica wrote the libretto for the opera, Silver Birch.
13 July 2018
S: How did you get into writing libretti, and particularly opera?
JD: I’ve spent much of my professional life seeking ways to combine words and music, and opera is the ultimate. Roxanna Panufnik and I have been close friends since our twenties and had wanted to work together for years; I wrote and adapted words for some of her choral pieces, but it seemed almost impossible to secure a commission for an actual opera. Then one day her phone rang. She called me and said “Garsington wants to commission me - will you be my librettist?” The result was Silver Birch, which was premiered last year and was thrilling beyond all my expectations.
S: What are the big differences for you in working across different genres, and do you have a favourite?
JD: Opera, opera, opera! Silver Birch was the best professional experience I have ever had. I love writing in all its forms - novels, journalism, even blogging - but the big difference is the collaborative process. In journalism you are dealing not so much with collaboration as with hierarchies - and as a freelancer, you’re at the bottom. Writing a novel is enormously rewarding, but often very lonely. With opera, though, you’re part of a team. As librettist you’re creating a skeleton on which someone will build muscle and add consciousness, and others will clothe it, move it, breathe life into it and applaud it. Silver Birch was a tremendous journey and collaborative from start (with schools workshops on Siegfried Sassoon) to finish.
S: (How) have you seen attitudes towards women change over the years during your career?
JD: There’s been an explosion of consciousness about the role of women in the music world in the past four or five years (indeed, I wrote a couple of provocative articles around 2013-14 which I think may have helped to set the ball rolling). Things are beginning to change for the better now, with initiatives to encourage more women into becoming conductors, songwriters and more.
I do think, however, that things became worse first, especially for performers. Image-consciousness has played an ever-bigger a role in musical careers, especially for young female soloists, perhaps because of ‘marketing’ and also because of the way people use the Internet. That means that sometimes the wrong individuals win the big careers - for how they look rather than how they play. I can’t help feeling that while a man can become a celebrated pianist if he looks like he’s been dragged through a hedge backwards, while a woman has to have good legs first, and only second the ability to get through the Liszt B minor Sonata without crashing its car.
As for my own fields, there are still too few female music critics, and with a reduction in professional posts with national newspapers, I don’t see this improving any time soon. There’s a whole can of worms around how certain male critics review works written or performed by women (not all, for sure, but there are a few prominent culprits). As for writing operas, it’s hard enough to get a commission even if you’re a bloke! And novels? If you write a ‘domestic drama’ as a man, you are hailed for visionary insights into contemporary life, but if you do so as a woman, you’re writing ‘aga sagas’ and someone will put a pink cover on your dissection of the impact of a child prodigy on family life… I find it fascinating to write about families, but I’m trying to do other things now.
S: So many of the staple operas and repertoire are stories and music written by men. Why do you think this is, and do you think that a composer’s/librettist’s gender has any bearing on the kind of music she/he writes?
JD: Much of this is historic. Let’s not forget that at present we are celebrating only 100 years of any British women having had the right to vote! Most of the world’s staple diet of opera is older than that; inevitably, women were not often able to be part of the creative teams as their fathers had to have accorded them a suitable musical education and their husbands had to permit their continuation of career (yuck) (but some did, and hooray for them). Plenty of works by women are crying out for rediscovery and they are now starting to be noticed. If more women composers are to be explored and resuscitated, it will also take the involvement of opera’s administrative framework to find, champion and stage them. It’s easier to get audiences into well-known pieces (though Silver Birch was totally sold out ☺ ) and it’s easy for operatic organisations to be…well, maybe a little bit lazy in this regard.
Does a composer/librettist’s gender have any bearing on the music? No. To prove it, try listening blind. I heard some songs recently by a composer named Poldowski and was impressed by their invention, their tremendous energy, their vivid colours and their beauty, and wondered why I’d never heard of him before. Then I looked him up. Turns out he was a she. ‘Poldowski’ was the pseudonym of Irène Wieniawska, later Lady Dean Paul, daughter of Henryk Wieniawski. She’s amazing.
S: Which female playwrights or novelists do you admire, and are there any of their plays that you think would adapt well to an opera?
JD: Personally I prefer the idea of adapting a novel into an opera rather than a play, because you have to reimagine the whole thing for a new genre. You have to shorten a play to a third of its length, or less, to allow for the pace of singing, and plays are often quite spare enough (I once tried to adapt some Chekhov and it was impossible - he wrote not a word too many and if you remove even one scene, the whole thing collapses). Women’s novels: where to begin…? George Eliot, Daphne du Maurier, Dodie Smith, Iris Murdoch, Angela Carter, Rose Tremain, Arundhati Roy, Toni Morrison, Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall, the Opera, anyone?) - the list is endless. Er, I do have my eye on a favourite Eliot, if any composer is up for it…?
S: Have you ever considered your gender to be relevant to the challenges of your job?
JD: I don’t think it is remotely relevant to being a librettist. It’s been annoying at times in fiction writing, because my first publisher wanted to push me into a ‘women’s fiction’ pigeonhole that didn’t work with what I wanted to write. As far as the journalism is concerned…er, 20 years ago, I’d sometimes find I got a better interview with a male musician if I wore a low-cut t-shirt. I once spent two hours talking to a string quartet with eight eyes fixed throughout on my chest. It is easier now that some are young enough for me to be their mum! And reviewing - if readers disagree with your view and write to tell you, for some of them, especially the elderly men, it will always be because you’re female. And a lot of classical music aficionados are elderly men.
S: What do you think needs to be done in order to balance out the male to female composer/librettist ratio that we currently see in opera? What is already being done?
JD: Opera Companies Need To Commission More Female Composers And Librettists. Some are doing so. More need to join in. Simples.
S: Led by the recent Keychange initiative, founded by the PRS Foundation, many UK festivals have pledged to programmes a 50/50 gender split in relation to performers and composers by 2022. This has been met with mixed reactions in the media. How do you feel about quotas?
JD: I don’t want quotas. I don’t like the idea at all and I never have. Yet I’m now reaching the point where I think there will have to be quotas, because otherwise nothing will change. I know many other women in the music industry who feel the same way.
S: Do you think the theory that women are naturally less authoritative than men is a true? If so is this just nature, or is this something that is conditioned in us from early childhood?
JD: Conditioned from childhood. Can you think of a politician who had more authority than Margaret Thatcher? I couldn’t stand her, but I wouldn’t dispute her power. It’s interesting, too, that the media seem to focus on Theresa May’s ‘lack of authority’ rather than the fact she’s simply pursuing appalling policies. Meanwhile, look at the marketing of kids’ clothing and toys. Look at the targeting of adverts at children, the food industry, the image-making - it’s very difficult to escape it. Don’t get me started on pink. I live in a suburb in which children seem born with scooters attached to their feet - and the girls’ contraptions are always pink.
The logical conclusion of this was my disastrous book cover that was…pink. Designed by a woman for a team of women editors and a female author! Have you ever seen a pink piano? Excuse me while I go and have a quick scream.
Once I visited a friend whose five-year-old daughter was wearing a big blue dressing-up costume. ‘What a lovely dress,’ I said. ‘It’s great to see a princess wearing blue for a change!’ The little girl glared at me and said: ‘I’m not a princess. I’m the Virgin Mary.’
S: What do you think are the biggest barriers are for women entering the world of classical music, particularly for composers/librettists?
JD: I think the barriers appear early. More girls than boys take music at school stage, but when it comes to the profession…what’s gone wrong? Could it be that something happens - probably at college level - that puts people off?
I was encouraged to try composing at school; went to Cambridge in the mid-1980s hoping to pursue it further, especially as there were many composers on the faculty; and my hopes lasted two weeks before I realised how deeply unwelcoming the environment was for women who wanted to compose. This arose from some of the other students as well as the staff, probably more, and that kind of hostility can be incredibly offputting. The lack of role models was a big problem. As they say, you have to see it before you can be it.
Barriers for libretto writers are more difficult for me to identify, because it’s something I have fallen into comparatively recently. It’s not for want of trying earlier, but you have to find the right projects and the right composers, and if there is no commission involved you have to be willing and able to start working for nothing.
S: In a business where there is always a plentiful supply of artist ready and willing, do you think changes should be made to make the industry more inclusive for artists with families and/or dependants?
JD: At this point, various debates on the subject often veer towards the thought of storming parliament! Of course the industry should be more inclusive for artists with families/dependants - but then, so should our whole society! The UK is unbelievably backward in this respect. This is not a family-friendly country. In most European countries it is easier and cheaper to access child-care and schooling; timing is set up to be amenable to family life; and the work ethic, eg in Denmark, takes one’s need for family life into account. The UK fetishises long working hours - often at the expense of actual productivity. Our school day is a hangover from the 1950s, paying no heed to the fact that most mummies can’t be at the school gate at 3.20pm Monday to Friday because they are working their socks off to pay for food, clothing and rent. The inequality of our society is flabbergasting, frankly to a disgusting degree, and worsening. Heaven knows what it will be like after Brexit (assuming that goes ahead). So if opera can do its bit to help its practitioners, that would be wonderful - but there have to be bigger changes at the state and societal level as well.
S: Which operatic heroines most interest you?
JD: The ones who have complex emotional lives, many sides to their characters, rounded personalities and ferocious determination. Among these I would count Madame Butterfly, Maddalena in Andrea Chenier, Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier and certain Wagner characters, notably Brünnhilde and Kundry.
S: Which women in the opera industry do you admire?
JD: First, Roxanna Panufnik, my dear composer colleague! Her music never fails to astonish me. And I am full of admiration for how well disciplined and organised her working schedule is and how precisely and sensitively she arranges the balance of her professional and family lives.
Our Silver Birch team was full of fabulous women. Our director Karen Gillingham, has an extraordinary understanding of not only stagecraft but of how to get large numbers of people, often young people or non-professionals, to listen to her and do her bidding.
Suzi Zumpe is the animateur par excellence, seemingly able to teach anybody to sing to a professional level. One participant called her “the magic singing woman” and now I will always think of her as exactly that.
Meanwhile, I admire star singers like the all-giving Ermonela Jaho, the radiant Joyce DiDonato, and the peerless Anja Harteros. Among composers, I enjoy the excellence and imagination of Errollyn Wallen’s music, the quirkiness and unpredictability of Dame Judith Weir, and the other-worldly atmospheres of Kaija Saariaho. Directors: we need more! I loved Fiona Shaw’s production of The Marriage of Figaro at ENO and I have huge admiration for Deborah Warner and Katie Mitchell.