Field Crafts Sensitive Production of ‘Lucretia’


Courtesy of Yevhen Gulenko

As Lucretia, Conservatory senior Rebecca Printz rests while Tarquinius, played by Conservatory senior Michael Floriano, lurks in a doorway. ‘The Rape of Lucretia,’ performed Nov. 11, 13, 14 and 15 by Oberlin Opera Theater and the Contemporary Music Ensemble, uses sexual violence against the title character as a metaphor for the destruction of Western Europe during World War II.

Louise Edwards, Arts Editor

Editor’s Note: This article discusses sexual violence and suicide.

At the end of the opera The Rape of Lucretia, which the Oberlin Opera Theater and the Contemporary Music Ensemble presented on Nov. 11, 13, 14 and 15, the Female Chorus kneels by Lucretia’s side and mourns her death; Lucretia has committed suicide after being raped by a Roman prince and soldier Tarquinius. The Male Chorus rests a hand on the Female Chorus’ shoulder in an attempt to console her, but she shrugs it away.

The scene illustrates how Benjamin Britten’s complex opera spans many time periods, putting various related contexts in conversation with one another. While the Female and Male Chorus act as contemporary narrators, the opera retells a story that happened circa 500 BCE.

In a faculty presentation and discussion on “Women and the Ancient World” that contextualized the opera, Assistant Professor of Classics Chris Trinacty read an account written by ancient Roman historian Livy. Livy describes how Roman soldiers waiting to lay siege to Ardea boasted about the virtuousness of their wives. Yet when some of the soldiers decided to ride back to Rome in the night to check on their wives, they found that only Lucretia had remained faithful to her husband. “Sextus Tarquinius, inflamed by the beauty and exemplary purity of Lucretia, formed the vile project of effecting her dishonor,” Livy writes.

Anger over Tarquinius’ rape of Lucretia and her subsequent suicide caused a revolution. Director of Opera Theater Productions Jonathon Field describes such political turmoil. “The dynasty of the Tarquinius [was] completely overthrown, and Rome became a democracy,” he said. “It was no longer governed by kings. They got a senate and it really changed things. In a way, out of this horrific incident and destruction of innocence and violence, something good came and kind of laid the foundation of Western civilization.”

Britten and the librettist Ronald Duncan added another layer of historical context to the opera, first performed in 1946, by using the story of Lucretia as a metaphor to describe “the rape of Europe” during World War II and the destruction caused by the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Field further elaborated on why Britten and Duncan likely chose this metaphor for comparing these different forms of violence. “Of all the kinds of violence that human beings perpetuate on each other, rape tends to be the most long lasting because in its violence, if the victim lives, they’re changed forever,” he said. “Rape is very, very unique, and the composer and librettist probably thought long and hard about using that metaphor and decided it was an appropriate one. They were also talking about the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The librettist wrote about that and how upset he was by that, and he felt that he and Benjamin Britten needed to respond to that. And if you’ve ever seen photos of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bomb dropped, it’s absolutely horrifying.”

Lucretia’s compelling story has been reproduced in many mediums across centuries. William Shakespeare published a long narrative poem in 1594 titled “The Rape of Lucrece,” and several paintings of Lucretia were produced in Renaissance Italy, one of which is housed at the Allen Memorial Art Museum. However, Field notes that opera is a particularly apt medium through which to relay the story because music, combined with the libretto, adds another layer of depth to the work. “You have music, which is going to heighten the emotionality of any situation,” Field said. “You have a libretto that is quite poetic. … You have music that represents not only the characters but also the states of mind of the characters. … So I think that gives dimensionality to the title character.”

Conservatory senior Elissa Pfaender, who played the Female Chorus in one of the two casts, said that Field and the cast worked hard to bring out complexity in the characters and storyline. “I think it was part of my job, my colleagues’ job, to be able to present something like this in a tasteful yet effective way,” she said. “I personally feel like we achieved that, and I hope that others felt that way.” College senior Micäela Aldridge, who played Lucretia in one of the casts, agreed and said that the accurate portrayal of the story elicited emotional feelings not only from the audience but also from the people involved in the production. “There were a couple acting moments where it wasn’t really acting,” she said. “On Friday night, I was looking at the conductor for a cue, and he just would not look, and he said, ‘I couldn’t even watch it.’ But I guess that’s what I sort of want: to make people uncomfortable. Art should make people uncomfortable, but a productive amount of uncomfortable. … It can’t be something done so dramatically or so romanticized that you don’t really see anything, you don’t see the underlying problem.”

Conservatory junior Ruby Dibble, who was also cast as the Female Chorus, described how chance circumstances also made the opera more real for her. “It was crazy [on Sunday]. A squirrel crawled into a generator and all the lights went off and we had to perform with the house light up and the work lights on the stage,” she said. “It was weird because I felt like, in some ways, it was more powerful because the rape scene was more realistic in a way. It’s not happening with all these pretty lights and effects.”

However, because the opera felt so realistic, the performers found singing and acting in the opera challenging. “The first act, I was supposed to be very removed emotionally and from a narrator standpoint,” Dibble said. “But as the show went on, my character got more and more attached to Lucretia, and it was just so hard because I couldn’t do anything to stop any of it. I just let myself get really invested in it character-wise, so it was really difficult every time I did it. I would just cry every time.

Despite the difficulty of performing in such an emotional piece, cast members were still able to find messages of female empowerment within the opera. Pfaender said that the Female Chorus lends her voice to Lucretia in the narration of the story. “I definitely think that there is female empowerment in it, that the female chorus in our version stands up for Lucretia, fights for Lucretia, which I think is incredibly moving.” Aldridge also noted that attending the presentation at the Allen gave her a new perspective on Lucretia’s suicide. “In the lectures, [Trinacty] talked about how suicide was a form of heroism [in Ancient Rome],” she said.

Aldridge emphasized that even though the story happened hundreds of years ago, it still has significance in modern society. “It’s still very relevant because obviously these things do happen, to put it bluntly,” she said. “It’s still relevant because you see a lot of these issues of rape culture, which plays a huge part. There’s one character Junius, even though he doesn’t play the rapist, [he] basically represents rape culture because he initiates this whole thing. I wouldn’t say it’s a 100 percent feminist work, but it does show the problems of the patriarchy, and these are problems that exist today; I feel like not much has changed in some regards.”

Both the performers who played the title characters visited the Lorain County Rape Crisis Center and talked to counselors to better understand how rape survivors and victims feel and to learn about the psychological harm caused by rape, which informed their performance. Field also explained that counselors from the Center were present to support audience members. “We had the Lorain County Rape Crisis Center there at every performance, so that people could take the experience of the opera and either talk to someone or realize that there were outlets and sources for this sort of thing, so that actually it wasn’t just a pretty little opera happening in a theater; it actually had ramifications outside in the community,” he said. “So yes it was historical, yes it was metaphorical, but yes also at a very real level, [sexual violence is] something that goes on.”