The story of Proserpina, about a young woman's abduction by the god of the underworld, dates back as far as the eighth century B.C.E. According to Professor Annie Randall, music, it's a story that keeps getting retold — in literature, poetry, visual art — and in the case of the upcoming Oct. 14 performance to be held at the Weis Center for the Performing Arts at Bucknell University, opera.
While doing research in a German archive in the 1990s, Randall found the handwritten score for Proserpina, a piece for solo voice, orchestra and choir written in 1777 by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Karl von Seckendorff, which scholars had thought was lost. At that moment, the wheels of a future performance — the first since its premiere in 1778 — began to turn.
"The initial concept was to take this little-known work by Goethe and to put it on stage," Randall said. "To make it relevant to a modern audience, we decided to pair it with another composition of exactly the same story, but ultramodern."
And that's where composer Paul Botelho, music, comes in. The performance will include two parts. The first will be the 1777 opera conducted by Professor Beth Willer, music, and performed by the New York Baroque orchestra with Bucknell's Camerata. Part two will be Botelho's new opera for solo voice and electro-acoustic fixed media. Both segments will feature soloist Tiffany DuMouchelle, chosen for her rare mastery of both classical and contemporary vocal style and technique.
"As a singer, it's unusual that I have the opportunity to present more than one side of a character," said DuMouchelle. "Both Seckendorff's Proserpina and Botelho's Proserpina were composed as collaborations with their singers and offer the opportunity to showcase the voice in unique ways. Seckendorff's composition has all of the elegance of the period's cultural center, the Weimar court: Proserpina is strong-willed and hopeful, and we clearly see her as goddess and queen. Botelho's Proserpina is much more of an inward experience."
The story of Proserpina is usually told from an outside point of view — a traumatic tale about the character's experience — but Botelho approached his original composition by trying to get inside Proserpina's mind as she awakens after she's been kidnapped.
"I wanted to work with the text as sound, not so much for literal meaning," he said. "From that blossomed this idea of the audience swimming within Proserpina's thoughts. My piece is completely electro-acoustic — it's surround sound, including 10 speakers and four subwoofers surrounding the audience. We hear the text layered very densely, coming from all directions in many parts, and we're all as confused as she is."
DuMouchelle said that Botelho's use of electronic sounds allows her to respond in real time to her own voice, which reflects the ever-present interior voices of our minds. "It is very raw," she said, "exposing the inner world of the victim in a very real and compelling way." Botelho goes on to bring in a new element that he explained better reflects the role of women today — an expression of Proserpina's agency and strength.
"It is very emotional," Botelho said. "When you're faced with a traumatic experience and you have all of these thoughts racing in your mind, they aren't necessarily linear and, they can be happening at the same time. That's what I'm trying to represent."
The project has captured the interest of faculty outside of music, who have used it in their classes as well. During spring 2016, Professors James Shields and John Hunter, comparative humanities, took students in their course, Enlightenments, to the Weis Center for a preview event, which included a short introduction to Proserpina and the project, snippets of Botelho's work-in-progress and a rehearsal with the New York Baroque orchestra.
"The course is basically a history of ideas that runs from the Renaissance through the mid-19th century and involves analysis and discussion of well-known works and cultural products in the spheres of literature, poetry, philosophy, political theory and science," said Shields. "In the past, we had studied Goethe's work via The Sorrows of Young Werther, as a portal to early Romantic conceptions of love, death and subjectivity, but given Annie's planned production of Proserpina, we switched texts and decided to use Proserpina instead. Among other things, this allowed us to introduce music and performance to the course, an element of cultural production and expression which had been lacking."
Shields said that the students found it fascinating, particularly Botelho's non-traditional rendering of the Proserpina story, which allowed them a different perspective on questions of gender, power and suffering.
The project has garnered support from the Office of the Provost and the Bucknell University Class of 1953 Lectureship. Provost Barbara Altmann, who also attended a preview, said she is looking forward to the performance.
"Proserpina is a fascinating figure whose story has been told and retold for 2,000 years," Altmann said. "In this concert, we will see two very different but complementary re-tellings of the tale that came about as a collaborative project involving music history research, composition, and instrumental and vocal performances. We're in for fine performances and a powerful experience. I hope every seat in the hall is filled."
Preview both acts below. Learn more about the performance and buy tickets through the Weis Center for the Performing Arts.