Philosophy and purpose of “Imogen”
(SPOILERS for a 400 year old play)
I don’t remember the first time I thought “I want to write an opera.” As a composer who loves writing for the voice and a classical singer myself, it’s been an idea percolating in the back of my mind for decades. I remember being dissatisfied with so many traditional opera plots where the females are helpless or mad or the subject of violence. I contrasted those misogynistic stories with stories I’d like to tell with my music, so many of them having to deal with historical women who became powerful against the odds (like the roaring 20s female gangsters of Sydney), or women who bucked the system to save themselves from a bad situation (like the 2 “wives” of Attila the Hun). But I am not confident in my poetic powers, and I had no personal contacts to work with me on a libretto (the words for an opera), so I didn’t write any operas.
(Photo by Elizabeth McQuern)
I identify as a “queer”/pansexual cisgendered woman. (I promise there’s a reason I just told you that. Allow me to explain.) Pansexual means that gender (and/or genitalia) plays no role in whether I am sexually or romantically attracted to another human being. Cisgender means my birth certificate read “female” on the day I was born and I think of myself as a woman. If, as the conservative upholders of the patriarchy and their apologists in our lives often try to tell us, we have already achieved true equality, then gender shouldn’t determine the plot in any context. If we are truly equal, then cisgender, transgender, nonbinary, male, or female...anyone of any gender should be able to achieve anything anyone else can achieve: in relationships, in the workplace, in society. With these thoughts fresh in my mind, a few years ago I read Shakespeare’s Cymbeline for the first time.
Being one of his last plays (premiered no earlier than 1611, several years after the death of Elizabeth I, and not published until 1623), Cymbeline is often described as being an undefinable play, a crazy mashup of Shakespeare’s favorite ideas from other plays, but in trying to include everything he created a very long, rather unwieldy story that is not very coherent. In editing for this libretto, I removed a whole subplot with its characters (the Romans/tribute/war) and focused my attentions on the much more interesting (to me) character development on the themes of love, fidelity, truth, and honor and what they mean in the context of romantic and familial relationships. When Leonate is banished for marrying Kymbeline’s heir Imogen, the couple each have to trust that the rules they have set for their relationship (sexual fidelity) will be followed by the other party. Because Leonate sees Imogen as a possession rather than as a partner and friend, Leonate falls for Iachime’s manipulation (fueled by Iachime’s greed and lack of thought for other people’s emotions or even safety) and Leonate is convinced that Imogen has “betrayed” their wedding vows. Only when Leonate begins to see Imogen as a life partner instead of a possession can their relationship become stable and because the partnership has such greater value than their previous imbalanced relationship, then the question of sexual fidelity becomes rather moot. There’s no reason for the genders in this tangle to be the genders that Shakespeare originally intended. A long distance relationship is difficult no matter who the people are, and any relationship without balance, deep trust, and true connection can be broken, as this one is.
The expectations of women were certainly different in the early seventeenth century when Shakespeare was writing, but different still in the first century which is the time period in which Shakespeare (attempts to) set this play. Cunobelin was a real king in the time of Ceasar and he ruled part of southeastern Britain in the first century AD. (Tangentially, Regan was the name of the historical king’s wife, so I’ve thereby given our noble spouse a name.) In spite of the lower societal place of women in his time (to the point of disallowing women from even acting in his plays in spite of the fact that England had recently been ruled by an intelligent and powerful queen) Shakespeare rather unexpectedly writes us a well-rounded, fully autonomous lead “female” character in Imogen. This character knows who they are, what they want, and Imogen is willing to defy even the crown/their own parent to get it. When Imogen is tricked into leaving the comfort of the palace to be murdered, instead of “becoming a man” I had Pisaniu suggest that Imogen should become low-class, a serf. This way we still don’t have to worry about gender for Imogen, but it also makes it somewhat more believable that Kymbeline and the other royals at the court don’t recognize the lowly “page” as the heir to the throne. The unwillingness of Imogen to compromise their self-determination in the name of societal/royal expectations creates a lot of confusion and conflict, even for Leonate, the spouse who eventually discovers they actually truly do love Imogen.
I have refocused the opera around Imogen, including, obviously, renaming it. I have removed the play from our historical timeline altogether, to further allow for believability in gender expression. Place names have been changed to emphasize this. I have written/edited this libretto/opera with the expectation that gender expression and identity (or the lack thereof) and the societal baggage that comes with it will be an integral part of the artistic expression. I have written it for a multitude of treble voices and a small number of lower voices, though a few roles could be done in either register. All of the roles could still be portrayed as the genders Shakespeare would have expected, or any of them could be portrayed as a variety of genders including nonbinary. All of the characters have been given non-gendered names (to my 21st century North American ears, anyway). I have done my best to remove all gendered language, including pronouns for all characters, with the exception of Leonate’s “Bastards” aria, where I think leaving the highly gendered language will make a stark point about the inherently wrong-minded thinking going on in the character’s head. Cloten’s lyrics have been particularly difficult to ungender. I am considering emphasising the utter self-involvement and entitlement of Cloten by making that character be the only one to “normally” use gendered language (perhaps to the discomfort of the rest of the characters?) But I’m not 100% sold on that idea as it diminishes the effect of the language in Leonate’s aria, and so am still working on ways to ungender Cloten’s dialogue as well. I am hopeful that the upcoming workshop with New Moon Opera will help me untangle this last knot.
The character of Belariu(s) in the original play was a trusted friend of and warrior for C/Kymbeline. I have removed and changed some of that language with the expectation that, rather than strictly a warrior-friend to the crown, Belariu will be portrayed as Kymbeline’s previous romantic/life partner (an actual loving partner, juxtaposed with Regan) and the second parent of Imogen, Guid, and Arvi. (This would explain why Belariu took the two young princelets, but did not kill them.) Belariu should still be portrayed as a hunter who is confident in their outdoor prowess, but the familial tie here should also come through. Dramatically this can become another way in which Regan (and Cloten) have manipulated their way into breaking up Kymbeline’s family and dynasty. (I see Regan as a failed Eleanor of Aquitane, trying to get the crown to fall upon their own offspring’s head rather than the head of one of the heirs of Kymbeline.)
Pisaniu does what they can to preserve the life and honor of the two people they care most about, Imogen and Leonate. Sometimes this means telling lies to people who are untrustworthy or evil (Regan and Cloten). How do we reconcile this with our ideas of honesty? Is it honorable to tell lies when you know that the truth will hurt good people and uplift evil? And as for Arvi and Guid, how is it that they love Fidele (Imogen) on first sight? How do they somehow feel drawn to their sibling in spite of not knowing who Imogen is, or even who they themselves are?
The unrepentant, some might claim brutal, nature of my edits to this Shakespeare play will probably make some people uncomfortable with this piece. I’m ok with that. Art is sometimes uncomfortable. Shakespeare has great things to say, but he was definitely a product of his time and horrifyingly misogynistic (Taming of the Shrew, anyone?) and can definitely bear some heavy handed editing, in my opinion. I hope this retelling helps us all to see that individual humans are far more the same than we are different.