The Witch Hour: How My Opera Enchants Old Stories Through New Eyes | Opera

I can not remember how old I was when I first heard about my ancestor, who was sentenced to death in Salem for the crime of witchcraft. The centuries-long link is through my mother’s page. There’s a book, The Choates in America, which tells the story of that part of my family from their first arrival in the United States. Among the pictures of various ancestors, I remember that I came across a reference to the witch. I imagined being her and what the world might have looked like through her eyes. In my slightly egocentric and certainly whimsical teenage mind, I imagined her as a different version of me. I imagined how scared she must have felt, but most imagined she was someone brave enough to risk standing out in 17th-century Salem.

Maybe this is part of why encountering Rebecca Tamá’s 2019 collection of poems Witch led me to write an opera. Tamás’ poem gave me strange and witchy dreams, and I felt a strong impulse to engage creatively in what I found there. Tamás looks at the world through the witch’s eyes, which made me see the world and our way of being in it again. Her witch is full of desire and power, but she is neither bad nor good – she exists outside that framework. It was the first time I had found material that I could imagine diving so completely into that I could write an opera. In this case, an hour-long work, also called Witch, for chamber orchestra and 10 singers.

I am attracted to the space between what we logically know and what we feel and believe. Tamás describes this space beautifully: “I do not know what is happening in, between and around the glittering membrane of the world, the spaces of snow, of glass, of roses, but my body and my mind tell me that there are inhuman voices, lights, that seeps through in shards, the smell of sun and plant material. “This membrane of the world, this space between rationality and a kind of” other “knowledge, this is where we place the witch’s occult magic, but this is also where poetry and music liver.

'Between and around the world's glittering membrane'… Freya Waley-Cohen.
‘Between and around the world’s glittering membrane’… Freya Waley-Cohen. Photo: Patrick Allen

These three – poetry, magic and music – come together in the form of spells, and it felt appropriate to bring these spells into the ritual framework of the opera house. In Witch, two stories weave around each other, ingeniously brought to life by Ruth Mariner’s libretto. The main characters are Jane, a healer in the 1590s in a small town in Scotland, and Sarah, a modern teenager who finds an online pact. While the latter gives himself power by regaining the word “witch”, this identity is constructed around Jane in a way that leaves her trapped and powerless.

Jane’s world haunts Sarahs, a darker shadow that gives weight and meaning to the modern girl’s fears and struggles. Structurally, this provides an unusually fast pace in stage changes for an opera. They start as quite separate worlds of sound, woven together like a blanket. Sarahs is bright and multicolored, orchestrated with playful woodwinds, lots of percussion, celeste and piano as well as strings. Rhythmically, it is changeable and irregular. Jane’s world is much more limited in the beginning. Only strings, with occasional visits of open horns or a few whistles, happen all around her with almost extreme rhythmic regularity. But her way of seeing the world pushes up against the restrictive rhythmic regularities, her melodic lines pull towards everything around her, slipping and sliding into different harmonic worlds in the brief moments where she is alone.

Rehearsals for Witch by Freya Waley-Cohen at the Royal Academy of Music, London, March 2022
Rehearsals for Witch by Freya Waley-Cohen at the Royal Academy of Music, London, March 2022 Photo: Royal Academy of Music

In the middle of the work, when Sarah and Jane finally share the same space, their voices mingle in a duet over the fearsome beat of dark, low, stable chords. This duet is the moment when the full orchestral color palette is finally allowed to break into Jane’s world, and musical material from each side begins to seep into the other.

There is exuberant humor in Ruth’s libretto, but there is also something deeper in the power of the sung and ritualized word. Sarah and her covenant turn to spells and the power of rituals to feel safe and demand their own power. Spells performed by teenagers trying to find a way to be in the world is an excellent performative medium to play with! When coven casts spells, I use melodic lines and counterpoints that refer to early, sacred vocal music as well as simple vernacular, and spin these into closely intertwined canons to mimic the kaleidoscopic nature of how it can feel to hear countless voices on the Internet.

'Twenty percent of those killed as witches were not women'… a scene showing the hanging of George Burroughs for witchcraft at the Salem Witchcraft Museum, Massachusetts.
‘Twenty percent of those killed as witches were not women’… a scene showing the hanging of George Burroughs for witchcraft at the Salem Witchcraft Museum, Massachusetts. Photo: David Lyons / Alamy

By crossing centuries and a continent to go back to Salem and my ancestors, deeper research into their involvement in the witch trials showed me how complex the word witch was for that society. While an ancestor signed signature collections to end the hysteria and free his uncle and aunt, John and Elizabeth Proctor, from their death sentences, his own father testified against Rachel Clenton, who was eventually hanged.

In my opera, spells become protests, and slogans fly around from all sides, including “we are the daughters of the witches you did not burn” (a paraphrase of a line in Tish Thawer’s 2015 book, The Witches of BlackBrook). Since the 1960s, activists have taken on the identity of the witch and used it in real-life protests, most notably WITCH (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) using slogans similar to this one, which resonate with me on several levels.

Folklore and history revolve around the figure of the witch. In folklore, we associate the word with women, and in history this was also most often the case, even though about 20% of those killed as witches on Salem’s witch trails were not women. My opera cove reflects this, but my main roles are women. It was her eyes I wanted to see through. A witch was often a person who stood outside the accepted norms of society. Fairy tales, stories so rich in retelling that they run deep in the blood of society, warn children against becoming this person, and instead present archetypes clearly defined in narrow and suffocating gender roles that offer two possibilities for female identity: be helpless but loved , or be powerful but hated and feared.

It’s time to reinvent the stories we go through generations and the archetypes we use to tell those stories. If I can see through the witch’s eyes and give her music to sing, can I see a different way of existing in the world – a different way of relating to gender and gender roles, and a different story to tell for a different future?

Witch is at the Royal Academy of Music, part of an opera triple bill, 23-26. March. The first performance on March 23 will be livestreamed from kl. 19.00 (GMT) and then available to watch for free on demand for 30 days.

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