Framed within COVID-19 restrictions, Lawrence University student Emily Sara Austin used the trialing circumstances of the pandemic to create an unconventional way of delivering her senior voice recital: opera on film. Titled Unpenned, this film has the explicit goal of dismantling stereotypes, silence, and violence that women face within the operatic world which is subsequently covered up with layers of artistic beauty, and traditionally written by men.
Through a series of visually stunning chapters, Austin’s voice utilizes the canon of music written by men, as early as Claudio Monteverdi and the Baroque style, to examine the narratives written for women. Persephone, dragged down into the underworld and caged by Hades. A piece by Girolamo Frescobaldi, also within that period, is about woman whose lover leaves her for a younger, more beautiful woman. Bonduca, Henry Purcell’s last major work, details a Celtic warrior queen committing suicide when surrounded by the Roman army. This music, staged for film and updated for modern appeal, does not lie within darkness, however. “We can really do something about this,” Austin states. “We can reframe all of this violence, so prevalent in our society, which is now being talked about. We can take this violence and make something beautiful with it.”
Speaking on Ophelia, music from Richard Strauss which is cleverly filmed with the Austin singing partially submerged in a bathtub, the singer has a different take on how the character is portrayed:
“I don’t think she is mad, like Shakespeare and we see her. I think we have completely misunderstood her,” Austin states. “I think she is a creative spirit who sees things in a different a way. [A woman] who is so violenced and silenced that she has to express herself in ways that we aren't used to.”
That is the point of Unpenned. Studying under Lawrence University voice instructor Estelí Gomez, Austin was given a new way to see how she could be a vocalist, an artist, and not just an opera singer. Pursue whatever sounds she wants to do with her voice–both in physical manifestations, and arguably through this film, speak of and change the narratives so many men have written (penned) for women.
We can take this violence and make something beautiful with it. In this film, it is done through traversing historic opera music in chapters that are termed: Loss. Madness. Anger. But then there is a contemporary transition: Friendship. Perseverance. Reclamation. Enlightenment. What new music, what new realities, must be created.
There is an entire subplot to the work. As this was filmed during the pandemic, there is no hiding the inconveniences that this classical conservatory student, preparing for her senior recital, had to face. Masks. Gloves. Mental fatigue… Alex Quade, a recent music graduate from Lawrence University, spent a summer educating himself on YouTube on film technique, and co-developed a version of a recital that only a pandemic could demand: one to be viewed through social distancing. Community support and locations, as well as many creative trips to thrift stores and the assistance of the Lawrence University costume shop, allowed for Quade’s beautiful cinematography the space to shine. Pianists Michael Rivers and Ben Johnson give support to Austin’s masterful voice. Unpenned, featuring Estelí Gomez, Grace Drummond, Ryley Crowe, Sam Farrell, and Thomas Dubnicka, is work that changed Austin’s life over the process.
“Opera is changing,” Austin relates. “They need to start doing things to branch out of the norm, and maybe are in different contexts. Maybe they aren’t on stage, maybe they are on film. Or both. Some operatic companies are doing it, and those are the ones that are going to survive.”
A new project is in the works. Based off of what Emily Sara Austin, Alex Quade, and this group of creatives have done with Unpenned, I am extremely eager to see it.
Unpenned will debut on May 4th, 2021 at 9pm. There is limited viewing available at Lawrence Memorial Chapel, Appleton, Wis., and will simultaneously be shown online on livestream.com. Information can be found on the Facebook page for Unpenned: A Senior Voice Recital.