Houston Chronicle previews A Woman’s Life

Sarah Rothenberg spoke with the Houston Chronicle’s Lawrence Elizabeth Knox about A Woman’s Life: The Diary of Virginia Woolf:

“The radically different worlds of two notable women in history collide this weekend in DACAMERA’s latest semi-staged production.

On Saturday, “A Woman’s Life: The Diary of Virginia Woolf” will examine the complex stories of the English writer, as well as pianist and composer Clara Wieck Schumann, through the works of two male composers that juxtapose the life experiences of the two prolific artists. The program at Zilkha Hall in the Hobby Center features the return of Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, who will give voice to the text of Robert Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und Leben” and Dominick Argento’s “From the Diary of Virginia Woolf” to the accompaniment of artistic director and pianist Sarah Rothenberg.

“I think they show very different views of what it means to be a woman, and I found that fascinating,” Rothenberg said of the eight-part song cycles. “They’re both extremely beautiful, expressive pieces.”

 Commissioned by the Schubert Club of St. Paul, Argento’s Pulitzer Prize-winning monodrama, which premiered in 1975, includes excerpts from Virginia Woolf’s diary entries from April 1919 to March 1941, less than one month before she committed suicide.

Troubled with mental illness throughout her life, the fragile writer, born Adeline Virginia Stephen in 1882, had her first breakdown following the death of her mother when she was only 13-years-old. Nine years later, she attempted suicide for the first time after her father’s death and years of enduring sexual abuse by two of her half-brothers. Through emotional turbulence, she struggled to find her identity as a female writer, often consumed by self-doubt, but she became one of the most distinguished, innovative authors of her time, known for using stream of consciousness to portray the ordinary moments in everyday life.

At age 59, Woolf drowned herself in the River Ouse, leaving behind 26 volumes of personal journals, most of which were published posthumously by her husband Leonard Woolf over a decade later.

“This song cycle is very much like an intimate one-woman opera,” Rothenberg said. “You get a woman at the beginning of the 20th century struggling with what it means to be a woman and a writer, observing the world around her, living through World War II at a time when in England, the threat of German victory was very real, and throughout it, dealing with her hypersensitivity, which led to her having real extremes of moods.”

 Woolf eloquently translated her internal feelings and external observations into words, which Argento expresses through music with equal beauty. Although he employed the musical language of the 20th century, the structure of his piece bears a similarity to that of Robert Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und Leben,” Rothenberg explained.
Translating to “A Woman’s Love and Life,” the romantic piece was written in 1840, the same year the German composer, who suffered from mental illness much like Woolf and spent the final years of his life at a psychiatric hospital in Endenich, married his muse the day before her 21st birthday against the wishes of her father and music teacher Friedrich Wieck. Their romance had been tumultuous from the start, as her father often tried to keep them apart until they finally took him to court and won. Clara proceeded to have seven children, all while maintaining an active life as a successful concert pianist and supporting her family.

Based on poems written by Adelbert von Chamisso, Schumann’s song cycle details a woman’s journey from falling in love at first sight and marrying the man she adores to fathering his children and basking in the joys of motherhood. Yet, in the end, sadness consumes her life and her happiness, as she faces unthinkable heartache in the wake of her husband’s death.

“It’s a very interesting story of this romantic view of a woman singing about her home life,” Rothenberg said. “It’s not so much that it’s untrue, but it’s only part of the story. You don’t get the sense that this woman has any life other than the life that is based on her connection to her husband and her children. I think in reading the text today, a lot of women would think it was over the top in terms of how reverent it is for the man, but in fact, if you look deeper at the diaries of Clara Schumann and at the kinds of letters that she wrote her husband, a lot of this is very believable.”

 The text in both works allows the audience to become fully immersed in the emotions of each woman, while providing an enriched understanding of the power of music, Rothenberg explained.

“This is where I feel that art can be so meaningful to all of us because the struggles that artists deal with, everybody deals with to some extent,” she said. “Sometimes for an artist, they’re exaggerated, and it’s that exaggerated sense that becomes so outwardly expressive when it’s turned into art, and then it’s something that all of us can enter into and experience together and gain something from.”

Lawrence Elizabeth Knox is a Houston-based writer.”