An opera, first animated, now comes to the stage

"The Loathly Lady" title cardJohn Kindness

Wendy Steiner believes musical theater is more than just song and dance.

“Showboat,” she points out, examined racism in the Deep South. “West Side Story” illuminated gang violence.

“The great musicals have dealt with really serious issues,” says Steiner, Penn’s Richard L. Fisher Professor of English and founding director of the Penn Humanities Forum. “They have always been about gender issues and conflict between men and women. ... The thing about singing is, you can hear serious things in a very beautiful way.”

In that tradition comes Steiner’s new three-act musical piece, “The Loathly Lady,” which poses a pretty serious question of its own: What exactly do women want most?

On April 1, that question will be answered, as “The Loathly Lady” premieres at Irvine Auditorium as the gala finale of the Penn Humanities Forum 2008-09 tenth anniversary year. This one-night-only performance takes place at 7:30 p.m. and will be conducted by Gary Thor Wedow with music by Paul Richards and projected art by John Kindness. Steiner wrote the text of the opera.

Steiner based “The Loathly Lady” on Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” a medieval story of a cruel knight who is given a year and a day to find out what women want most. If he fails, he will be put to death. To save his skin, the knight seeks opinions from a variety of women.

“The [text] raises all these female and male chauvinist issues because there’s a lot of back-and-forth between the knight and these female characters,” says Steiner, an expert in contemporary literature, visual art and aesthetics. “I had been thinking in my own life, ‘What do I want?’ We’re doing a million different things, pursuing a million desires all at the same time.”

In her musical-opera, Steiner explores some of these desires by incorporating several famous literary characters into the knight’s quest, including Shakespeare’s Titania and Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse, author Virginia Woolf, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and magician Merlin—all of whom have definite opinions on what women most want.

A huge fan of opera and musical theater, Steiner decided to try her hand at penning her own after she taught “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” in an introductory English course at Penn on major poets. Chaucer’s compelling and dramatic text, full of the supernatural, violence, desire and love, seemed like a natural fit for opera or musical theater.

“I hadn’t dealt with Chaucer since graduate school,” she says. “I found [The Wife of Bath’s Tale] unbelievable.”

After writing the libretto, Steiner connected with Paul Richards, associate professor of composition and theory at the University of Florida, who had composed work based on medieval music and was familiar with early-period figures of speech.

Steiner worked out a musical concept and passed the libretto to Richards, who took about a year to complete the music.

At the same time, Steiner approached artist John Kindness about creating illustrations to accompany the work. In 2006, the group released an animated version of “Lady” (available for viewing at www.english.upenn.edu/~wsteiner/loathlylady.htm).

When the group didn’t get funding for a full-length film, they turned their attention to the stage.

“We needed a stage production because we have all these nice projections,” says Steiner of Kindness’ work. “The musicians and singers and conductor just signed on for a one-night gig.”

The April 1 performance features soprano Julianne Baird as the Maiden/Elf Queen/Lady of Shalott/Loathly Lady, and baritone Thomas Meglioranza as the knight. The music will be performed by the ensembles Parthenia and Piffaro on a variety of early and modern instruments.

Steiner says the performance is a good fit for this year’s Penn Humanities Forum on “Change.”

Not only does the knight in Chaucer’s story transform from a convicted criminal into a man sensitive to women’s desires, but in Steiner’s version, characters and authors are transplanted from their natural literary environments to her libretto.

“It puts them in a new context. Do they stay the same or do they change?” Steiner muses. “There’s a sense of wonder when I read something that was written in 1400 [to see] what had changed since then and what has remained the same.”

For tickets and more information on the April 1 performance of “The Loathly Lady,” visit the Penn Humanities Forum website at http://humanities.sas.upenn.edu/index.shtml or call 215-573-8280.

Originally published March 26, 2009

Originally published on March 26, 2009