Thursday, September 21

The witching hour: how my opera conjures old stories through new eyes | Opera

I can’t remember how old I was when I first heard about my ancestor who was condemned to death in Salem for the crime of witchcraft. The centuries-distant link is through my mother’s side of her. There’s a book, The Choates in America, which chronicles that part of my family from their first arrival in the US. Among the pictures of various ancestors, I remember coming across a reference to the witch one. I imagined her being her, and what the world might have looked like through her eyes. In my slightly egocentric and definitely whimsical teenage mind, I imagined her as another version of me. I imagined how scared she must have felt, but mostly pictured her as someone brave enough to risk standing out in 17th-century Salem.

Maybe this is part of why coming across Rebecca Tamás 2019 poetry collection Witch led me to write an opera. Tamás’s poem gave me strange and witchy dreams, and I felt a strong impulse to engage creatively with what I found there. Tamás looks at the world through the eyes of the witch, which made me see the world and our way of being in it anew. Her witch de ella is full of desire and power but she is neither bad nor good – she exists outside that framework. It was the first time I had found material that I could imagine diving into so completely as to write an opera. In this case an hour-long work, also called Witch, for chamber orchestra and 10 singers.

I’m drawn to the space between what we logically know and what we feel and believe. Tamás describes this space beautifully: “I don’t know what happens in, between and around the glinting membrane of the world, the spaces of snow, of glass, of roses, but my body and my mind tell me that there are inhuman voices , light leaking through in shards, the smell of sun and plant matter.” This membrane of the world, this space between rationality and some sort of “other” knowing, this is where we place the occult magic of witches but it’s also where poetry and music live.

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‘Between and around the glinting membrane of the world’ … Freya Waley-Cohen. Photographer: Patrick Allen

These three – poetry, magic and music – come together in the form of spells, and it felt fitting to bring these incantations into the ritualistic setting of the opera house. In Witch, two stories weave around each other, brilliantly brought to life by Ruth Mariner‘s libretto. The protagonists are Jane, a healer in the 1590s in a small town in Scotland, and Sarah, a modern-day teenager who finds an online coven. While the latter give themselves power by reclaiming the word “witch”, that identity is constructed around Jane in a way that leaves her trapped and powerless.

Jane’s world haunts Sarah’s, a darker shadow lending weight and meaning to the modern girl’s fears and struggles. Structurally, this makes for an unusually fast pace of scene changes for an opera. They start as quite separate sound worlds, interwoven like a quilt. Sarah’s is bright and multi-coloured, orchestrated with playful woodwinds, plenty of percussion, azul and piano as well as strings. Rhythmically, it’s changeable and irregular. Jane’s world is much more restricted at first. Strings only, with the occasional visit from open horns or a pair of flutes, everything around her is happening with almost extreme rhythmic regularity. But her way of seeing the world pushes up against those restrictive rhythmic regularities, her melody lines pull against everything around her, slipping and sliding into different harmonic worlds in the brief moments when she’s alone.

Rehearsals for Witch by Freya Waley-Cohen at Royal Academy of Music, London, March 2022
Rehearsals for Witch by Freya Waley-Cohen at Royal Academy of Music, London, March 2022 Photograph: Royal Academy of Music

At the midpoint of the work, when Sarah and Jane finally share the same space, their voices intermingle in a duet above the dread-inducing beat of dark, low, steady chords. This duet is the moment when the full orchestral color palette is finally allowed to burst into Jane’s world of her, and musical material from each side begins to seep into the other.

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There is sparkling humor in Ruth’s libretto, but there is also something deeper in the power of the sung and ritualized word. Sarah and her coven de ella turn to spells and the power of ritual to feel safe and claim their own power. Spells done by teenagers trying to work out a way to be in the world are a brilliantly performative medium to play with! When the coven casts spells, I use melody lines and counterpoint that reference early sacred vocal music as well as simple folk idioms, and spin these into tightly knit canons to mimic the kaleidoscopic nature of how it can feel to hear myriad voices on the internet.

'Twenty percent of those killed as witches were not female' … a scene showing the hanging of George Burroughs for witchcraft at the Salem Witchcraft Museum, Massachusetts.
‘Twenty percent of those killed as witches were not female’ … a scene showing the hanging of George Burroughs for witchcraft at the Salem Witchcraft Museum, Massachusetts. Photograph: David Lyons/Alamy

Crossing centuries and a continent to go back to Salem and my ancestors, deeper research into their involvement in the witch trials showed me just how complex the word witch was for that community. While one ancestor was signing petitions to end the hysteria and free his uncle and aunt, John and Elizabeth Proctor, from their death sentences, his own father was testifying against Rachel Clenton, who was ultimately hung.

In my opera, spells become protests, and slogans fly around from all sides, including “we are the daughters of the witches you didn’t burn” (a paraphrase of a line in Tish Thawer’s 2015 book The Witches of BlackBrook). Since the 1960s, activists have taken on the identity of the witch and used it in real-life protests, most notably WITCH, (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) using slogans similar to this one, which resonates with me on several levels.

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Folklore and history tangle together around the figure of the witch. In folklore we associate the word with women, and in history this was most often the case too, although around 20% of those killed as witches in the Salem witch trails were not female. My opera coven reflects this, but my leads are women. It was her eyes I wanted to see through. A witch was often someone who stood outside of the accepted norms of society. Fairytales, stories so rich with retelling that they run deep in the blood of society, warn children against becoming this person, instead presenting archetypes clearly defined in narrow and suffocating gender roles offering two options for female identity: be helpless but loved, or be powerful but hated and feared.

It’s time to reinvent the stories we pass through generations and the archetypes we use to tell those stories. If I can look through the eyes of the witch and give her music to sing, can I see a different way of existing in the world – a different way of relating to gender and gender roles, and a different story to tell for a different future ?

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