Saturday 9 February 2019

From the Pens of Women: Kitty Whately on her forthcoming Wigmore Hall recital & the challenges of bringing music by women composers to the fore

Kitty Whately (Photo Natalie J Watts)
Kitty Whately (Photo Natalie J Watts)
From the Pens of Women is the name that mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately and pianist Simon Lepper have given to their BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime recital at Wigmore Hall on Monday 18 February 2019. they are performing songs setting poems by Ursula Vaughan Williams, Virginia Woolf, Edna St Vincent Millay and Margaret Atwood, in songs by Jonathan Dove, RVW, Judith Cloud, Lori Laitman, Dominick Argento, Rebecca Clarke and Juliana Hall. I met up with Kitty recently, in a gap between rehearsals, to find out more about the programme, and talk about how she is responding to the challenges of performing more music by women composers. And also to look ahead to hear apperance in Bernard Hermann's Wuthering Heights, a piece with a text from the pen of another woman, Emily Bronte.

Margaret Atwood (Photo Jean Malek)
Margaret Atwood (Photo Jean Malek)
One of the poets included in
From the Pens of Women
Kitty is one of the founders of SWAP'ra (Supporting Women and Parents in Opera), whose mission statement says it was 'established to redress unconscious gender bias and to provide a supportive platform to effect positive change for women and parents in opera.'. In her own recitals Kitty is keen to address the issue, and so is aiming to programme in a way which balances the genders. So From the Pens of Women, includes songs to texts by women and four of the composers are women.

Another emphasis in the programme is on the contemporary, with five living composers including Jonathan Dove, whose songs Kitty has recorded, and the distinguished American opera composer Dominick Argento. Margaret Atwood is one of Kitty's favourite poets, so she was very pleased to discover settings of Atwood's poetry by two female American composers, Judith Cloud, and Lori Laitman, along with another American composer, Juliana Hall, setting Edna St Vincent Millay. These are joined by RVW (setting poems by his wife Ursula) and songs by RVW's pupil, Rebecca Clarke.

Kitty intends that this is the way her own recitals are going to be in future, with a nice balance of genders. But of course, with the lack of prominence for women composers comes the difficulty of learning about and acquiring their music. This is one of the issues that SWAP'ra plans to work on, and they want to initiate a research project to dig out operas by female composers from libraries and make them more known, to bring them into the light. Though of course, this will need funding.

This initiative comes because though SWAP'ra is keen to encourage the opera industry to perform more music by women, they are aware of the huge amount of work that it requires to seek out and edit the works to create performing material that opera companies can use. Kitty feels that this sort of positive action is the only way we can change things, and points out that on International Women's Day last year the Southbank Centre hosted a Wikipedia marathon, with volunteers creating Wikipedia pages for ignored female composers.

It is now far more acceptable for a woman to be a composer, so there are plenty of works by contemporary female composers. Yet Kitty feels that the contemporary style of music is not necessarily easy for listening for those unused to it, or if it is easier to listen to it is dismissed as cheesy and swept under the carpet. So there is a long way to go before singers can easily plan recitals with a good gender balance.

Kitty comments ruefully that whilst she was a BBC Young Generation Artist she learned a considerable amount of repertoire which she hoped would stand her in good stead for recitals to come. Yet this is all music by male composers, so there is more learning to do.

Cécile Chaminade
Cécile Chaminade, whose songs
Kitty will be singing in 2020
Kitty will be returning to the Wigmore Hall in 2020 in the company of pianist Joseph Middleton, and they will be performing a programme of late 19th and early 20th century song including songs by Cécile Chaminade and Clara Schumann. Whilst Kitty knew of Clara Schumann's songs, those of Cecile Chaminade were new to her. Chaminade had a distinguished career during her long life, yet her music has rather been in the shadows until recently.

In May, Kitty will be appearing as Isabella in Bernard Hermann's only opera Wuthering Heights at the Opera de Lorraine in Nancy, in a production directed by Orpha Phelan and conducted by Jacques Lacombe and a cast including Layla Claire, John Chest, Rosie Aldridge, Alexander Sprague and Johnny Herford. Kitty is playing Isabella Linton, a role in which she has to sing and play the piano on stage which will be a first for Kitty.

Wuthering Heights is Hermann's only opera, he worked on it from 1943 to 1951 but though her recorded it complete, it was never staged in Hermann's lifetime and the first performance in 1982 in Portland, Oregon was significantly cut. The work has something of a history in France, because the first live performance of the complete opera was in 2010 at the Radio France and Montpellier Languedoc-Rousillon Festival, conducted by Alain Altinoglu.

Kitty was very keen to take on the role of Isabella, partly because she enjoyed the book and partly because she likes Hermann's music. She comments that the music for the opera is in fact very filmic. Isabella is a great part, though not as big as in the book, she is very feisty and rather hateful with some interesting things to sing.

This will not be Kitty's first visit to Nancy, she was there for Britten's Owen Wingrave in 2014 (with Ashley Riches as Owen) and loves the city. This visit will lead to complex family logistics, as Kitty has two children and her husband, the tenor Anthony Gregory, will be touring with Les Arts Florissants in Bach's St John Passion directed by William Christie whilst she is performing in Nancy.

18 February 2019, 1pm - From the Pens of Women, Kitty Whately & Simon Lepper at the Wigmore Hall, see the Wigmore Hall website

 2, 5, 7, 9, 12 May 2019 - Bernard Hermann: Wuthering Heights at Opera National de Lorraine, see the opera house's website.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Black composers series 1974-1978 - CD review
  • In the hell of a small town: Janacek's Kat'a Kabanova at the Royal Opera (★★) - opera review
  • Through an Eastern filter: Nathan Davis' striking dance-opera Hagoromo (★★½) - CD review
  • A very modern spectacle: Ponchielli's La Gioconda at La Monnaie  in Brussels (★★) - opera review
  • Engaging first thoughts: A reconstruction of Mozart and De Ponte's initial ideas for Cosi fan tutte (★★) - CD review
  • Strong, muscular yet tender and very direct: Haydn's The Seven Last Words of Christ alongside Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary (★★★★) - concert review
  • Semele and beyond: Harry Bickett talks about the English Concert's latest Handel opera tour  - my interview
  • Of arms and a woman: Blondel late medieval wind music inspired by Christine de Pisan (★★½) - CD review
  • 1769: a year in music from Ian Page & The Mozartists  (★★★★) - Concert review 
  • Requiem Masses for murdered royalty: HerveNiquet & Le Concert Spirituel in Requiems for King Louis XVI & Queen Marie Antoinette by Cherubini & by Plantade (★★★) - concert review
  • In transcription: Berlioz arranged Liszt and Richard Strauss arranged Willner at Conway Hall (★★★★)  - concert review
  • Home

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