“I’m not an illustrator,” says Kindness, “and I had a lot of difficulty finding the right look for the main characters.” (Inspiration works in strange ways, though; he came up with the image of the Loathly Lady by painting a face on a piece of ginger root and letting it shrivel up.) It wasn’t so much the vast difference in characters and eras that he “ran aground on” as the sameness. “I kept having the same argument with Wendy (which I always lost) that there were too many Queens,” he recalls. “Making distinctions between an Elf Queen, a Fairy Queen, and a human Queen was just a little too subtle for a male artist.” He was more comfortable with the “pastiches of medieval art we decided to use to reinforce the main action.”

As they discussed the women that Steiner was portraying, she and Kindness concluded that they should be collected, metaphorically speaking, in a book. Among Chaucer’s works is ‘The Legend of Good Women,’ which led Steiner and Kindness to come up with “The Book of Fair Dames.” Since the title was too long for the illustration he had in mind, says Steiner, “John took the Fair out and just did Book of Dames. And it’s wonderful, too, the way the past and the present talk to each other but don’t talk to each other, because dames means something else these days.”

Around that time, Steiner was taking recorder lessons with an opera-savvy musician named John DeLucia. When she showed him the libretto, he not only loved it but made a key suggestion: that each character should be sung in the style of his or her own era—a timeline that encompasses about six centuries of Western music.

“The composer would have to be able to work in a lot of different sort of pastiche modes,” says Steiner, who put an ad in the American Music Center listings—and was promptly “deluged” with files and CDs from composers. She chose Paul Richards, an associate professor in music composition at the University of Florida.

“I was instantly intrigued with the concept, the way she presented it, and even more so when I got the libretto,” says Richards. “It was funny, fascinating, and very musical. She obviously understands how to write for the singing voice, instead of just writing a play. It has various rhyme schemes and interesting meters, and enough repeats in the text that people can understand what’s going on even when it’s being sung.”

The wildly different characters, eras, and musical styles was “exactly the kind of challenge I like to look for,” he adds. “The whole point has to do with communication or miscommunication, to a certain degree. I saw the mélange of styles as being kind of reflective of that aspect of it.”

Steiner has been delighted with her choice. “I really could have done no better,” she says. “He’s a really brilliant professor, and he loved the project and really got into it. His medieval stuff sounds quite medieval, and it’s very challenging to play and sing, and his other ones are funny, as you can imagine.”

Among the vocalists was Susan Hellauer, a member of Anonymous 4, the renowned medieval quartet. What intrigued her about The Loathly Lady was “the prospect of mixing the medieval vocal style and instruments with a modern score,” she says. “It’s my favorite kind of music,” since it “isn’t strictly categorizable as either opera or musical comedy. I like things that don’t fall easily into any one slot.”

While the music is not as easily accessible as, say, a Disney score, Richards suggests that the reason the team has worked so well together is that “we all have an eye or an ear for public taste.”

“No one has ever made progress in the arts without taking risks,” he adds in a follow-up e-mail. “The exciting thing about this project, risky and different though it may be, is that it has instant surface-level appeal: The drawings are beautiful, the libretto is funny and deals with themes that everyone can relate to, and it is my hope that the music I’ve created is at once both comprehensible and fresh.” He believes there will be an “air of familiarity, along with a sense of something exotic, particularly in the use of ancient and rarely heard instruments.”

When it came time to choose an animator, somebody mentioned Dr. Joshua Mosley, associate professor of fine arts, animation, and digital media at Penn.

“I wanted to be involved because of Wendy’s writing and John’s illustrations,” says Mosley. “It was a great combination. I also thought this could be an interesting collaboration if I could include animation students in a project that was both professional and creative.”

To help with the animation, he also brought in Erinn Hagerty C’04, a former student who now teaches in the School of Design. She in turn brought in a couple of interns, Mark Rubbo C’08 and Dana Wulfekotte C’05.

One of the things Mosley liked about the libretto and the score was that, despite being fixed in a thematic genre, they “both had a quirky contemporary character, seemingly assembled from many sources, that seemed to lend itself to the idea of mixed-media animation.”

Before hearing the music, he adds, “we worked on developing the way that characters would move, what they would look like, and how they would fit into their environment. When the rough music arrived, without the lyrics, we could generally work on editing the four parts, and we could discuss the overall content and form of the animation. Once we had lyrics in sync, we could really start working on editing and animation. Since my work on the project was primarily focused on rough editing and facilitating the production, the music, especially the vocal tracks, was essential to outlining the project.”

Hagerty’s duties included converting the illustrations into various graphic styles to “convey different narrative spaces,” as she puts it. “For example, there are three definitive visual changes that occur during the pilot, a change from a tapestry-like canvas into a 2-D space with 3-D texturing into illuminated manuscript. Each change needed to be distinctive to cue the viewer into the passing of space and time.” She also had to determine which method of animation would work best, given the looming deadline and “the movement Wendy required while also staying true to John’s original illustrations.”

From an animation perspective, “lip-syncing opera is definitely a difficult prospect that Joshua, Wendy, and I went back and forth on,” Hagerty says. “We wanted to limit the mouth movements in order to assimilate the lip-sync with the minimal approach we used for action throughout the entire piece.” Given the complexities of opera and the subtleties of movement, she notes, “it’s a hard balance.”

The Wife, The Lady, and the Book of Dames
by Samuel Hughes
Illustration by John Kindness

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©2007 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 03/01/07