Gentle Listener, please find a comfortable place to relax while you inhale this unique opera. Morphine and opium, derived from the poppy, are sedatives and this opera escorts us into the sensual sound world of this altered state and opens us to its extrasensory perceptions. The unconventional ensemble charms the ears and imagination with unexpected combinations of textures, moods, and sounds. The vibraphone fulfills the role of keyboard but is also played with many different techniques, lending a wide variety of unusual sounds. The violin and cello are played traditionally, but also used as percussion instruments. The mysterious and rarely heard waterphone adds chimerical sonic enhancement to the particular scene in which it briefly appears.
Be sure to read the libretto. Aiden K. Feltkamp artfully weaves scientific terms into lyrical poetry. It will be free to sweep you off your feet and out of the ordinary world. The two sopranos, so close and yet so different in character, are two sides of the same person. A mature Gertrud narrates the science and the story elements, while a youthful Marie-Madeleine, like a memory, soars off into the drug-induced erotic fantasy world of her own poetic imagination’s creation. They are sometimes vocally acrobatic and at other times hypnotic, merging and blurring, as when they exchange the line “Poppies are monocarpic…” like a mantra from another world.
For some in contemporary music, the term cutting edge is the ultimate compliment. I prefer to use the term leading edge. I do not want to be cut by any performance. I want to be moved emotionally, realize new things and learn interesting stories, and go places I’ve never been, with people I will never meet in real life. Rosśa Crean is at the leading edge of today’s opera field, as a composer, producer, and prolific artist with many gifts and talents. The way Rosśa uses this opera to reveal the effects of trauma is intended toward healing. Despite the tragic death of Gertrude at the hands of the Nazis, they ultimately failed to kill her. The voice of Marie-Madeleine lives on. – Paula M. Kimper
My father passed away on May 5th, 2018. He went into the hospital, and a week later, I was told his kidneys, heart, and liver were all failing, so I made the decision to let him go in peace. It is what he would have wanted; he said he ran out of purpose once my mother had passed away in 2014, and I think he wanted nothing more than to be with her. It then fell on me to clear out his house and take care of the remainders of his estate. The very first week of cleaning out his house consisted literally of taking boxes after boxes of books to the local bookstore to sell off. The third day of doing this, I sat in an empty chair at the store, sweaty, sad, and exhausted. I looked up from where I sat to find the book Priestess of Morphine: The Lost Writings of Marie-Madeleine in the Time of Nazis (Marie Madeleine, Ronald K. Siegel, Eric A. Bye). I opened the book and read about how this woman, born Gertrud Günther, wrote over 46 books, beginning at age 16. Her first book, Auf Kypros, sold over one million copies during her lifetime. She was a German Jewish lesbian poet and novelist whose eroticism and love for morphine was revealed in many of her shocking, sensational, and bestselling books of the early 20th century.
In 1900, at the age of 19, Gertrud married Baron Heinrich Georg Ludwig von Puttkamer, a member of the Pomeranian nobility who was 35 years her senior. It was Heinrich’s death in 1914 that led to Gertrud’s morphine addiction. During the Third Reich in 1932, Gertrud’s identity was discovered by the Nazis, who in turn condemned her work as degenerate. Her avoidance of the concentration camps during World War II was all due to her marriage to Heinrich, a Nazi official, as well as the fact that her son, Baron Jesco Gunther Heinrich von Puttkamer, had also joined that Nazi Party at this time. In 1943 she was committed to a sanatorium in Katzenelnbogen under the pretense of treating her morphine addiction. She died mysteriously on September 30, 1944 under the care of Nazis doctors.
Around the time of my father’s passing, I had been searching for an unconventional queer historical figure whose life I could present in a new work. Marie-Madeleine’s story immediately led me to choosing her as the figure on which I needed to shine a spotlight. I bought the book from the store that day and brought it to librettist Aiden K. Feltkamp, whom I had previously worked with on our opera The Times Are Nightfall, a queer sequel to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Aiden, upon reading her story, fell in love with Marie-Madeleine’s life and work as quickly as I. Their resulting text tells a beautiful and haunting portrait of the brave woman who, while forced to hide who she was, shared herself and her desires with the world.
THE PRIESTESS OF MORPHINE is a monodrama in the style of a song cycle, consisting of a prelude and six movements. While a monodrama usually has one singer, this piece is written for two sopranos who represent different aspects of our subject. one vocalist portrays the role of Gertrud Günther, the straight-laced baroness who soberly narrates the forensic information about morphine and her trials with the Nazis during World War II. The second soprano portrays Marie-Madeleine, the aspect of Gertrud that shows the audience the wild darkness and chaos of her life, of addiction and hidden desires that she so often sought to quench. Both vocalists eventually come together during the fifth movement, where the conflicts that arose as a result of Gertrud’s double life bring her drug-addled deliriums to a halt.
From the opium-inspired spectral beginnings in the Prelude and the awakening morse-code rhythms in the first movement, to the lulling tension and sleepiness of the final movement, I made it my mission to bring forth the realism and spectacle that was Gertrud Günther’s life: a farm girl who became a baroness and wrote about Sapphic desire with the strongest sense of self-awareness, who was a regular part of the lesbian subculture in Berlin, and a talented wordsmith who defied the Nazis at every turn. The Nazis did their best to destroy the work Marie-Madeleine had created, and they may have succeeded, if it were not for those admirers who never let her work fade into extinction.
It is such an honor to be able to pay tribute to a woman such as Marie-Madeleine, and bring awareness to the words of a woman who did everything she could to live an authentic life. — Rosśa Crean
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