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In Review: Fresh Squeezed Opera, The Female Gaze

When cultural theorist Laura Mulvey coined the term “the male gaze” in her article on psychoanalysis and cinema, she described it as an objectifying lens reducing female characters from subjects to objects. This heteropatriarchal gaze is threefold: a film’s author or director (more often than not a white man) shapes the way the film’s protagonist (more often than not also a white man) perceives and interacts with any female characters, which then informs the way the spectator perceives this character (usually as a sexualized, two-dimensional plot device). On February 1 at Roulette in Brooklyn, Fresh Squeezed Opera attempted to reverse this objectifying gaze, offering up a program under the title of “The Female Gaze: new music for female voice & electronics.” The program featured three world premieres composed by women for female voices and centering female perspectives, experiences, and representations.

“The Female Gaze” is an ongoing initiative curated by Jillian Flexner, the director of Fresh Squeezed Opera. The project “aims to put women on an equal level to men in the performance of operatic works by flipping the male gaze: the creator is a woman, the characters are women, and the spectators are women.” Although I was initially excited by this description, I became skeptical about the reversal of an inherently objectifying force during the pre-concert talk, when the composers were asked “what do you feel is particularly female about your work?” This sort of talk only serves to further reify the gender binary and risks devolving into dangerous biological essentialisms. I felt like I was being fed pink vitamins as I listened to each composer justify the “femaleness” of her work.

Whitney George’s Lost Without You was a repetitive and pensive sonification of the process that George describes as a “rumination and meditation on the inner dialogue we have with ourselves.” George rigorously conducted a chamber ensemble consisting of voice, bass clarinet, viola, cello, percussion, and piano; the piece also integrates live processing (“in the form of additive and subtractive loops”) meant to convey the experience of getting inside someone else’s headspace. Unlike some composer-conductors whose attempts at authority merely lead to muddled playing, George thoughtfully pulled out significant musical and narrative moments and maintained a clear flow of energy and communication with the musicians. Vocalist Nicholle Bittlingmeyer was a commanding and energetic presence; Felix Jarrar sounded especially lovely on piano.

As compellingly performed as it was, George’s program notes state that the piece was created from “the female perspective” for “the female voice.” (Why not “a female perspective” for “a higher vocal range”?) Again, I worry about this elevation of “femaleness” when it comes to gendered perspectives, since this sort of elevation can risk devolving into essentializing or even transphobic narratives. When it comes down to it, George’s piece isn’t so much an inverse of the male gaze as it is an exploration of the in/coherence of identity, the confusing nature of time and memory, and, as George so eloquently puts it, “our constant negotiation/renegotiation of ‘the self.’” There’s nothing particularly “female” about it, which is totally fine considering the fact that “the male perspective” was universalized for centuries in various narrativizations of identity and negotiation of “the self.”

Gemma Peacocke’s Invocation, the highlight of the evening, sets two texts adapted from Magical Hymns from Roman Egypt. Peacocke describes the first one as “a supplication to Hecate, an ancient goddess of the night, moon, wilderness, liminal spaces, and protector of the newly-born,” while the second is “startlingly threatening in tone,” indicating the drastic shift in representation of Hecate over time as she came to be viewed as “a hag associated with evil, witchcraft, and necromancy.” The piece offers a subtle challenge to the male gaze, weaving the two perceptions of feminine witchery within and against one another. The two hymns were sung compellingly by soprano Jane Hoffman, set against the glimmery backdrop of Peacocke’s electronics, for which she has a notable knack. Cellist Timothy Leonard and pianist Walter Aparicio added additional texture to this enrapturing piece, with the piano chords in particular adding an eerie beauty to Peacocke’s musical language.

Gabrielle Herbst’s captivating First Lady of the Air rounded out the program. The work was inspired by, and depicts moments from, the life of Amelia Earhart, with texts drawn from Betty Brown’s notebook, poetry surrounding Earhart’s disappearance, and quotes from Earhart herself. While George was focused solely on the interiority of experience, and Peacocke was concerned with representations of femininity, Herbst strikes a balance between these two approaches as she explores Earhart’s inner world while also probing what she has come to represent in the popular imagination. George again took to the podium to conduct an enthusiastic ensemble, with Herbst performing live electronics. Percussionist Joe Tucker was especially memorable as he simultaneously bowed and banged on an assemblage of percussion instruments. Vocalist Barbara Porto brought an infectious liveliness to the piece.

During the pre-concert talk, Flexner had commented that, at least in her experience, submissions by female composers are using electronics at greater rate than those by male composers. Perhaps it is because we so frequently fall under the objectifying male gaze that women are more taken with the disembodied possibilities offered by electronic composition. Fresh Squeezed Opera’s wide-ranging program of works for female voices and electronics indicated just how rich this body of work is quickly becoming. It also indicated that concepts of “gazes” and “spectatorship” might not be tantamount in feminist efforts to create more ethical spaces for music-making. What if instead of “flipping” the gaze we decided to close our eyes and just… listen?

Rebecca S. Lentjes is a writer and feminist activist based in NYC. Her work has appeared in VAN Magazine, Music & Literature, Sounding Out!, TEMPO, and I Care If You Listen. By day she studies ethnomusicology as a doctoral student at Stony Brook University and works as an assistant editor at RILM Abstracts of Music Literature; by night she hatches schemes to dismantle the patriarchy.

Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.

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