“Self-Portrait as a Lute Player,” Artemisia Gentileschi.
A rape trial from the 17th century is the basis of Artemisia, an opera by Madison composer Laura Elise Schwendinger, premiering in New York City Jan. 7.
Schwendinger, professor of composition at UW-Madison and artistic director of the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, used original documents from the Baroque-era trial of Artemisia Gentileschi to write the full-length opera with librettist Ginger Strand, a New York-based author of works including The Brothers Vonnegut (2015).
Gentileschi (1593-circa 1656) was a well-known painter whose canvases are still housed in collections around the world. She brought suit against her tutor, Agostino Tassi, when she was 17 years old, claiming he had raped her. During the grueling seven-month trial, Gentileschi was subjected to gynecological examination and even torture with thumbscrews, in an attempt to verify the truth of her testimony.
Schwendinger says she and Strand were attracted to Gentileschi’s story because she made a name for herself at a time when women artists were often marginalized. “The fact that she was the first woman member of the Accademia di Firenze is beyond wonderful,” says Schwendinger. “She is an amazing artist who had an operatic, larger-than-life bio. Artemisia was on both of our radars as being a great and important artist.”
Schwendinger, who also paints and has worked with clay, says she attempted to translate painting terms to musical expression. “I’m not a Broadway composer, and I’m not a minimalist,” she says. “There’s a sense of line and melody.”
“What you hear in my score is sort of hazy, very painterly chiaroscuro,” says Schwendinger, referring to contrast of light and shade. She also mentions sfumato (where outlines are blurred), an effect made famous by Leonardo da Vinci, nearly a contemporary of Gentileschi.
“Artemisia also used [sfumato],” Schwendinger says. In painting it would mean that “you use very thin layers, so you see the expression, say, on Mona Lisa’s face. The effect is that you don’t see the edges of things.”
Chiaroscuro and sfumato recur throughout Artemisia, “to pull you back into this earlier time, and also really taking those two artistic ideas by painters and using them in the music,” she says.
Unusual for an opera, Artemisia is something of a docudrama, based on letters and rape trial transcripts retrieved from Italy.
Schwendinger says one of the show’s climactic arias is about “the making of art, and how that transcends all.” Even after surviving rape and the humiliation of the trial, the overarching tragedy of Gentileschi’s life may have been the growing blindness that led to her death.
The world premiere of Artemisia will be performed at New York’s famed Trinity Church, as part of the annual Time’s Arrow Festival. Schwendinger anticipates that the performance may be made available by Trinity through online streaming or recording.