Today’s headlines tell you all you need to know about UA Opera Theater’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “The Rape of Lucretia.”
”Hollywood studio boss Harvey Weinstein accused of sexual misconduct.”
”Fox fires Bill O’Reilly amid sexual harassment scandal.”
”Former teen actor accuses Kevin Spacey of sexual assault, harassment.”
”Five women accuse Alabama Senate candidate of sexually assaulting them when they were teens, he was in his 30s.”
”Louis CK latest celebrity caught in sex harassment, assault crosshairs.”
“The Rape of Lucretia” follows the same playbook: Powerful men manipulating women, in this case a faithful wife whose reputation and honor a power-hungry prince wants to destroy.
The production, to be performed twice this weekend — on Friday, Nov. 17, and Sunday, Nov. 19, at Crowder Hall — is the first from Cynthia Stokes, the newly named director of the University of Arizona Fred Fox School of Music’s Opera Theater. Stokes, who guest directed with the school last year, landed the position in August and immediately got to work with the student cast on the production.
Stokes, who has built a national reputation for mounting operas in non-traditional spaces, said the piece works with the strong student cast, which includes two graduate students with professional opera experience.
“One of the reasons I wanted to do it is I think we have some extraordinary singers who are adept to sing this Britten music. All of these singers are stage monsters,” she said. “They really understand not just singing but storytelling. It’s a very exciting thing watching them on stage together.”
Britten, an ardent pacifist who had fled his native England for America at the start of World War II, penned “Lucretia” in 1946 almost as a testament against war. The story is set in the Roman Empire, which has sunk into depravity in the midst of war with Greece. The king’s son, Prince Tarquinius, is leading the fight when a group of his men leave the front lines to check on their wives at home. When they discovered that all of the women except Lucretia have cheated, they dare Tarquinius to seduce Lucretia, and when she resists, he rapes her.
The next morning, shamed and humiliated, Lucretia kills herself.
“I think the thing that strikes me most about this is first off you hear Britten’s complex response to war and the propaganda of war and what it meant to be a pacifist,” Stokes said. “But the men around her used her as a pawn to further their agendas. Two men made a bet and she is the pawn to everyone in power. It’s a very interesting, complex story.”
Stokes is staging the work with UA Arizona Symphony Conductor Thomas Cockrell’s musicians on stage along with a handful of audience members. The idea is to create an intimacy between the performers and audience.
“From my own artistic point of view, I wanted to take a look at how we deal with performance space,” explained Stokes, the founder and artistic director of San Diego’s City Opera, a company that specializes in mounting operas in site-specific locations including abandoned factories or warehouses.
And while this weekend’s production will be on the stage at Crowder, she said to expect some theatrical surprises that will reveal themselves through the setting.
Stokes made her UA debut in fall 2016 with a pair of short operas based on fairytales: Giannini’s “Beauty and the Beast” and Ravel’s “L’Enfant et les Sortilèges.”
Despite the heavy subject of “The Rape of Lucretia,” Stokes said the message is uplifting and can serve as a lesson for those celebrity-heavy sexual-abuse headlines.
The story is told through two narrators — the Male Chorus and the Female Chorus. They are from the late 1960s, looking back on the story. That was the height of the 60’s feminist movement. Stokes said that sends a strong message of empowerment.
“I think people will come away feeling inspired,” she said. “We come away from this feeling like we are empowered to make change. Take that idea one step further: In the face of that, what’s the playbook for how do you stand up to something? I think this says, ‘Question. Always question and don’t accept the party line about what something is’.”