Of Reclamation and The Right To Vote
The women of Lorelei Ensemble have done a bold and powerful thing.
We have sung the world premiere of Julia Wolfe’s Her Story - described as a “feminist oratorio of incendiary power*” written for ten female soloists and symphonic orchestra.
Both our world premiere with Nashville Symphony in September and our midwestern premiere with Chicago Symphony last week met with thunderous responses from our audiences, each one brought to their feet, with many attendees saying that the visceral impact of this piece struck them unlike anything they had seen or heard before -- that it changed their perception of what is possible on the concert stage.
What is it that distinguishes Her Story as a singular work for the concert hall? Why does the world need the impact of this piece in this historic moment?
Most broadly, the piece is a reclamation of strong female voices amidst a national and global climate of growing extremity, autocratic leadership, and suppression of women’s rights. As we see rampant evidence of misogyny at play - from the rollback of Roe v. Wade to violent backlash against women who testify bravely against powerful men, to prevailing inequities for women both at work and in the domestic sphere - it is essential that we carve out new empowered spaces for female voices to speak out in safe community.
Her Story is a response to this call to action. While the two central voices quoted in this work are historic - Abigail Adams and Sojourner Truth - their pioneering voices have such timeless resonance that they remind me of modern-day trailblazers like Me, Too Founder Tarana Burke, U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, or climate activist Greta Thunberg. To wit: it is the intrepid female-driven leadership of Composer Julia Wolfe, Lorelei Ensemble Director Beth Willer, Stage Director Anne Kaufmann, Asso. Director Asher Ehrenberg, and Costume Designer Márion Talán de la Rosa that have shaped this work into a celebration of powerful female testimony from over the ages.
First and foremost, the rich fabric of Her Story is woven through the declamation of text. Wolfe sets brief statements by Abigail Adams and Sojourner Truth that are vivid and telling: each of them reveals an environment in which women had to persist in order to be heard. Initially, from a simple unison expression of Adams' opening words - “Dear John, I desire you would remember the ladies” - the piece develops with the mounting intensity of the text, from simple sung statements to urgent whispers to outright shouting, with dramatic movements and visuals to match:
Lorelei Ensemble, Her Story with Chicago Symphony Orchestra, January 2023
As it progresses, the piece also lays out a series of degrading terms that suffragettes - and women of every generation who have dared to assert themselves - have been called: UNloving, UNstable, UNbalanced, UNmarried, UNhealthy, and UNholy, as we hold up signs to magnify these glaring insults.
And then, a remarkable thing happens: Wolfe starts to pull these words apart into tiny pulsing minimalist beats, separating and abstracting their syllables until their original meaning begins to dissipate. This is especially striking in her treatment of the searing and divisive term UNAmerican. As Wolfe breaks this word apart, she splinters it into bits in groovy, pulsing rhythms that invite both the performers and the audience to dance their sting away. When we finally finish the word, it is disarmed completely: we've all moved beyond its former confines into a new sense of collective freedom.
As we reassert our right to use these terms to empower ourselves, we also reclaim our right to move our bodies and our voices as freely as we like. As we move forward from far-away orchestral balcony all the way to the very front of the stage, we become well-defined individuals who can express ourselves however we see fit:
With all of us ladies up front, the apex of Her Story begins with Sojourner Truth’s words in a striking unison declamation: “Look at me.” From there, as her whole statement is revealed and as she insists that everyone listen, our voices become more elaborate in an ever-intensifying texture that culminates in broad, striking, even beautiful chords.
The bold directness of her words makes for a profound closing statement:
“May I say a few words. Look at me. I am strong.” — Truth
From music to costumes to movement, we move collectively through adversity into empowerment over the course of the entire piece. By the end, each of us performers - as individual artists and thinkers - has fully embodied the language and reclaimed it for ourself.
Performing this piece is a visceral thrill that demands every bit of vocal and emotional stamina. The effect is electrifying. I can feel my grandmothers and all of my ancestors who paved the way for me to be here so vividly present in this moment of reclamation: it is their deep love and tireless work that allows me to be here now.
When I think about the example that we’re setting with Her Story - for women to speak out, and groove, and wail, and rage, and rejoice together without apology - it gives me goosebumps. This is it, I think: this freedom, and this sense of empowerment. This unstoppable joy. This is the world in which I want to raise my girl.
Thank you for bearing witness to this work in this moment. Keep listening: we have so much more to say. The journey of Her Story has only just begun.
* Conductor and Pianist Michael Moricz described Her Story as "a feminist oratorio of incendiary power" in a written response to our performance with Chicago Symphony.