For someone who spends so much of her time performing opera written in the 17th and 18th centuries, one would think that Canadian soprano Mireille Asselin is accustomed to playing the caricature of a fragile female. Surely, it goes like this: The older the opera, the more in distress the damsel?
It’s certainly hard to escape the fact that art written in any period will reflect its own contemporary views. Yet opera of the baroque, so strongly rooted in the stories of Virgil, Ovid and Homer, seems to sidestep the sexist slant of its time, telling stories of smart, ambitious women through the imaginary and allegorical worlds of myth.
Though she’s not exclusively a baroque singer – her Metropolitan Opera debut in 2015 was as Poussette in Massenet’s Manon – Asselin’s instrument fits like a glove with early music. She is a favourite of Toronto’s historically informed Opera Atelier, and she sings often with the Boston Early Music Festival and other period ensembles.
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“I personally, as a woman, often enjoy the canon of baroque opera,” says Asselin. “There were goddesses and queens and interesting women who take vengeance.”
Many sopranos vie for 19th-century roles such as Lucia di Lammermoor, Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly, or Violetta in La traviata. These women’s stories come out of the limitations in their lives – a dearth of options and the frustrating social norms that surrounded them. They are cornered into tragic situations, thrust into unwanted marriages, pushed to suicide or stricken with consumption as some sort of cosmic penance for having sex or finding meagre amounts of independence without the help of a man. “That’s the thing,” says Asselin with a laugh, “they all get karmic tuberculosis.”
It’s in baroque opera where Asselin gets to step into a parade of female roles that are brimming with agency and strength. She relishes the chance to sing characters such as Minerva, the “warrior-goddess, shaping destinies” in Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses, and Morgana, the bold younger sister of the sorceress in Handel’s Alcina. “She’s just a sexed-up fairy character who chases men.”
Asselin’s current baroque role is Eurydice in Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Orphée. She sings opposite countertenor Siman Chung as Orpheus in Against the Grain Theatre’s adventurous production directed by Joel Ivany; entitled Orphée⁺, the “electronic, baroque burlesque descent into hell” opens April 26 for a three-day run at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre.
Orphée is the 1774 French version of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, written first in Italian in 1762. It’s based on a myth that pervades Greek mythology: Orpheus, the famed lutenist and son of the god Apollo, falls in love with Eurydice, but their love is cut short when Eurydice dies shortly before their wedding. Orpheus descends to the underworld and convinces Hades to let Eurydice leave with him and come back to life. Hades allows it, under the condition that on their way out of the underworld, Orpheus may not speak to or look at Eurydice. The pair almost make it out, until Orpheus loses his resolve, turns to look at her, and Eurydice is swept back down, gone forever.
Against the Grain’s Orphée⁺ is a far cry from the kind of work Asselin often does with “historically informed” companies, where the aim is to preserve the style of the time the opera was written. “It’s all basically educated guesses,” says Asselin of the interpretive spectrum, a sliding scale that ranges from exhaustively researched reconstruction to inspired reimagination. She loves the grotesque, bold aesthetic of the baroque, where expression takes priority over beauty. Against the Grain Theatre – a company well-known for turning traditions on their heads – is treating Gluck’s opera with a healthy dose of irreverence; it will likely be the first time Orphée is performed with burlesque dancers, aerialists and electronic music.
Particularly so in Gluck’s opera, Eurydice is a character with challenging passivity, a role less developed than Asselin’s usual pick of baroque queens and goddesses. Orphée begins with Eurydice’s funeral; the opera follows Orpheus’s harrowing trip into the underworld, and we don’t meet Eurydice until the final act. “I find that fascinating, that this libretto chooses to skip over all of the exposition of the story, and it goes straight to postcrisis,” says Asselin. “That’s an interesting choice, and I wonder why they chose to do it that way.”
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There’s another interpretive choice woven into the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, which has the potential to expose one’s deeply held biases. In some versions, such as Monteverdi’s 1609 L’Orfeo, Orpheus turns to look at Eurydice because he doubts she is truly following him out of the underworld. In other tellings, such as Gluck’s Orphée, Eurydice is confused and hurt by Orpheus’s silence and refusal to look at her, and eventually convinces him to turn toward her. “She doesn’t trust that he loves her,” Asselin adds. “He can’t speak to her, and therefore that means that he doesn’t love her any more.”
The Orpheus myth has shades of meaning, depending on how you look at it. Some will read a story of a man worn down by his own insecurity; for others, it’s about how a woman’s doubts throw a wrench in what is otherwise a straightforward plan. For those in search of sexism – passive or otherwise – there’s bias to be found in the facets of this story.
It’s refreshing that for all her love for the bold women of the baroque, Asselin is not put off by the challenge of playing a woman at the mercy of a man. Opera, for all its years and traditions, has a history of empowering women. “I can only imagine that the theatre was where women could deign to attain certain levels of power, and prestige, and excellence in a field.” Indeed, Asselin follows a centuries-long pedigree of women singing opera professionally, including the two women who debuted Gluck’s Eurydice: Lucia Clavereau in Italy and Rosalie Levasseur in France.
Perhaps that freedom in the industry, and Asselin’s own independence as a successful, sought-after performer in her own right, allows her to marvel not at any thinly veiled opinions on women in opera, but instead at what’s true and timeless about a story like Orpheus and Eurydice. “I think that it’s fundamentally about the trust between these two people, and their inability to communicate in the moment,” says Asselin. “They both succumb to their humanity, to their doubts and their fears.”
Orphée⁺ runs April 26-28 at Toronto’s Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront Centre (harbourfrontcentre.com).