“Three wise women would’ve asked for directions,” joked Stanford Associate Professor of Musicology Heather Hadlock during her Faculty Research Fellows presentation at the Clayman Institute this fall.
The Wise Women: A Christmas Mystery Fable, American composer Conrad Susa’s 1994 one-act opera performed by Stanford University students and staff this December at Memorial Church, figured as the centerpiece of Hadlock’s presentation. The “Christmas mystery fable,” as Susa called it, tells the Nativity story through the perspectives of three wise women who are left to contemplate the mysteries of life when the Three Wise Men depart on their journey to see the Christ Child.
In her program notes for the full performance in Memorial Church, Hadlock emphasized the gender reversal of the story in this opera: “It features the familiar angels, shepherds, Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, and the three ‘wise men.’… Unlike an ordinary pageant, these wise men have female counterparts: the Maiden, the Goodwife, and the Crone. They represent the Feminine at different stages of life. A living Star, sung by a trio of sopranos, presides over the action.”
Hadlock’s Clayman Institute presentation began with a performance by the trio of Stanford students who played the three Wise Women and who were accompanied by a flutist and the show’s music director, who played the keyboard. Each soprano sang a Lament from the scene in the opera where the Wise Men have left the women behind. Hadlock then offered a reading of the opera which revealed how, through story and music, it criticizes and subverts patriarchal biases in both opera and Christian tradition. She noted how the music and poetry depict youth, adulthood, and old age as archetypal stages of the female lifecycle, and the wisdom and vulnerability associated with each stage.
“The designation ‘Christmas mystery fable’ links The Wise Women to medieval mystery plays, while its humor and dance elements resemble ‘folkloric’ religious music-theater like villancicos and pastorelas,” Hadlock explained in her presentation. “A more modern model for Susa were the three “church parables” composed by Benjamin Britten in the 1960s. All these genres use music, theater, and simple vivid story-telling to teach Biblical stories and morals.”
While Hadlock’s reading of the opera as a feminist work relied upon the larger cultural movement of gay male artists like Susa who challenged the patriarchal structure through their identification with the feminine, she was quick to note that (apart from the singers) none of the opera’s original creators were women. The librettist, composer, conductor, stage director, choreographer, and producers were all men. This disparity between topical focus and production reveals what Hadlock specified, in an invocation of Virginia Woolf, as the historical tendency for women to serve as muses but rarely creators or producers of art. “This reflects the extreme gender inequality in classical composition and conducting, where women remain a tiny minority,” Hadlock stated. “It also reflects a tendency of gay male creative networks to exclude women even as their art uplifted ‘the feminine’ in resistance to toxic masculinity, militarism, arrogance, domination.” It is therefore significant, she observed, that the Stanford production was stage-directed and conducted by two women, Wendy Hillhouse and Marie-Louise Catsalis, with financial support from the Clayman Institute. To this end, it is important to recognize that women’s contributions to creative production occurs both on and off stage.