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FWO Archives: The Making of 'With Blood, With Ink' (World Premiere, 2014 Festival)

Featuring members of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.

A Dream and an Opera by Peter M. Krask

I spoke the truth. I spoke the truth but none believed me.

That statement could be the beginning of a nightmare. Certainly, it is one of the cruelest of curses, whether embodied in the myth of Cassandra, the death of a martyr, the unjust conviction of a prisoner, a minority member denied equal rights, or a misunderstood creative genius.

From left Padre Antonio (Ian McEuen) Young Sor Juana (Vanessa Becerra) Dying Sor Juana (Sandra Lopez) in With Blood With Ink at Fort Worth Opera
From left: Padre Antonio (Ian McEuen), Young Sor Juana (Vanessa Becerra), Dying Sor Juana (Sandra Lopez) in 'With Blood, With Ink' at Fort Worth Opera. Photo by Ellen Appel.

But, curse or not, buried bedrock deep underneath the pain of it, lies an unshakable conviction: I came to witness the truth. It is in trying to fathom that conviction and, likewise, its hellish cost, as lived by the extraordinary Sor Juana, that With Blood, With Ink takes the stage; nightmares and curses have long been the stuff of opera.

An opera in one act, With Blood, With Ink, is based upon the life of the visionary Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the beloved 17th-century Mexican poet, intellectual, heroic champion of women's freedom, and nun. Her choice of life in a convent over marriage protected her startlingly brilliant creative life until she was betrayed by ecclesiastical authorities. Celebrated as the "Phoenix of America," Sor Juana is the first great literary figure in the Americas. Revered in her homeland, and only now being re-discovered in the United States, Sor Juana once asked a simple question: "Why must I be less than a man?" For this, she was forced by the Inquisition to renounce her life's work, signing an oath of silence in her own blood.

With Blood, With Ink is inspired by the operas of Verdi and Britten, works in which an individual's destiny tragically collides with the implacable forces of history and community. It is in the spirit of her voice, a voice which speaks urgently to contemporary questions about conscience, identity, and personal, intellectual, and religious freedom, that Daniel Crozier and I humbly approached this inspiring, complex, and transcendent woman - a person who knew who she was in a world that found that knowledge unacceptable.

Framed in nine scenes, each introduced by chanted fragments of the Requiem Mass, the opera unfolds as Sor Juana, after two years of forced silence, lies on her deathbed. Facing all of the years her memory can hold, Sor Juana has a feverish vision of her younger self an elusive shadow she cannot reach or warn as events build to their calamitous completion. Then, at last, arms outstretched through the ruin of years and memories, she embraces her younger self. Transformed, she dies.

From Left: Dying Sor Juana (Sandra Lopez), Young Sor Juana (Vanessa Becerra), and Countess Maria Luisa (Audrey Babcock) in With Blood With Ink at Fort Worth Opera
From left: Dying Sor Juana (Sandra Lopez), Young Sor Juana (Vanessa Becerra), and Countess Maria Luisa (Audrey Babcock) in 'With Blood, With Ink' at Fort Worth Opera. Photo by Ellen Appel.

With Blood, With Ink is cast in an eclectic musical language drawing upon several enduring traditions of 20th-century music, moving freely between expansive lyric tonality and the heightened drama of atonality. But always the emphasis remains on fully embracing operatic forms - recitatives, arias, and ensembles - and reveling in all of the possibilities of operatic singing.

Countess María Luisa (Audrey Babcock). Photo by Ellen Appel.
Countess María Luisa (Audrey Babcock). Photo by Ellen Appel.

In composing the opera, Daniel Crozier has described his first task as approaching the characters as a psychologist, or more accurately, a detective, seeking to grasp their individual psyches, with their rich and distinctive contradictions and motives in order to find the specific musical language with which to render them vividly human on stage. And, while painting in the primary-colored emotions is essential, it is also through rendering the expressive half-tints of character that the dramatic portraits are endowed with their full humanity.

Listen closely to the many Baroque flourishes, full of trilling woodwinds and vocal embellishments, which decorate the lines of Sor Juana's father confessor, Padre Antonio Nunez de Miranda, a man who cannot resist asserting his authority via what is today called the "humblebrag ." Or follow the progress of the leitmotiv formed out of Sor Juana's full name, stated immediately in the first scene by Dying Juana, herself, and echoed by the chorus. As she moves through her dream, the leitmotiv of her name goes through a continuous musical transformation mirroring her emotional transformation, colored with anger, pride, tenderness, defiance, and finally resignation.

Dying Sor Juana (Sandra Lopez) and Young Sor Juana (Vanessa Becerra) in With Blood With Ink at Fort Worth Opera
Dying Sor Juana (Sandra Lopez) and Young Sor Juana (Vanessa Becerra) in 'With Blood, With Ink' at Fort Worth Opera. Photo by Ellen Appel.

The central musical element of the opera is the use of the original Gregorian chant melodies taken from the Liber Usualis ("The Book of Use") that match the libretto's textural quotations from the Requiem Mass. Serving as a commentary on the dramatic action, these chant fragments also establish the ecclesiastical environment in which these characters move; the cloister is always present. Moreover, they ground the story in the urgent present tense nature of Dying Juana's quest to make final sense of her fate before she dies. No matter how far she travels in her memory, she always must return to what she knows will be her final night.

Introducing each scene, the chant melodies shift and grow almost becoming characters in their own right. The familiar and often-quoted Dies Irae ("Day of Wrath") is the source of an extended musical interlude, a tense and ultimately thunderous fugue, heard before Sor Juana's disastrous interview with Archbishop Seijas. The Sanctus ("Holy, holy holy!"), first heard when Juana takes her conventual vows, returns towards the opera's end when Dying Juana faces her younger self bleeding and defeated. This time, however, it appears as a simple tender lullaby, at first painfully ironic, and then gloriously radiant; this evolution making music out of the driving conceit of Sor Juana's greatest poems: the hope of glory in what looks like devastation; the phoenix soaring up from the ashes.

Watch an excerpt from With Blood, With Ink.

At the risk of invoking melodrama, or making a cheap comparison, that journey from doubt and silence to renewed life is one that Daniel and I have taken with our opera as well. With Blood, With Ink is an old "new" opera. Developed over twenty years ago, when we were both graduate students at the Peabody Conservatory, under the astute, encouraging, challenging, and generous direction of Roger Brunyate, our opera was born in a brilliant student production - for one day only.

Opera is an embodied art; it cannot live on the page alone. Our hope was that our beloved Juana would come to life again and again, so great was our belief in the power of her story and in the necessity of telling it. Very slowly, our opera made its way in the world with several other wonderful university performances. But it could never break through to the professional opera world, a goal that seemed well-nigh impossible.

Until now.

And in the most hospitable home imaginable.

Soprano Corrie Donovan as a nun carring for Sor Juana in her final hours, photo by Ellen Appel
Soprano Corrie Donovan as a nun caring for Sor Juana in her final hours. Photo by Ellen Appel.

So here we are - on Easter Sunday, no less! - awaiting the first professional production of our first opera, written when we were kids, really. At the time of our opera's creation, Dan and I were deeply drawn to Young Juana's conviction that she had something to say. Her consuming desire to make art: I came to witness the truth.

Today, much like Dying Juana (although without the dying part!), from the vantage point of middle-age. we look back on the work of our youth, filled with the tender knowledge of hopes and disappointments. Like her, we marvel at how we got from there to here. Nightmares and curses may be the animating stuff of opera, but we know now that, in life, a cherished dream can come sometimes true.

Joined by a marvelous and talented company of artists, and a tireless and dedicated staff, we walk forward together in the footsteps of a giant and a genius, a woman, who, to quote from one of her poems, " ... with her blood, if not with ink, wrote the lesson her life.''

Young Sor Juana (Vaness Becerra) with the Countess (Audrey Babcock) Ellen Appel
Young Sor Juana (Vaness Becerra) with the Countess (Audrey Babcock). Photo byEllen Appel.

Director's Notes by Dona D. Vaughn

It is a joy to be a part of the professional debut of Daniel Crozier and Peter M. Krask's haunting opera, With Blood, With Ink.

I first heard the music and libretto from this heartbreaking story of Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz in 2010 as part of New York City Opera's VOX program which presented excerpts from new American operas.

Countess Marí­a Luisa (Audrey Babcock) with the cast of 'With Blood, With Ink.' Photo by Ellen Appel.
Countess Marí­a Luisa (Audrey Babcock) with the cast of 'With Blood, With Ink.' Photo by Ellen Appel.

The story of Sor Juana, a seventeenth-century nun, still resonates in our world today. A self-taught prodigy who was born poor. illegitimate, and beautiful, Juana spent several years living in the viceregal palace of Mexico where she was a favorite of the Marquis and Marquise de Paredes. One can never know exactly why Juana entered the convent, but at that time it was the only place a woman could obtain an education. She took her vows at the age of twenty, and lived in the Convent of San Jerónimo for over twenty-five years. For most of those years she was a prolific writer of poetry, plays, and philosophy.

Check out this CBS Dallas/ Fort Worth Behind-The-Scenes Segment!

A talented musician, Juana taught music and drama inside the convent. An accomplished mathematician, she also kept the books for the convent; however, it was her writings that brought about her greatest success and ultimately her downfall.

Admired by members of Mexico's royal court, she became celebrated as a published authoress and the leader of a literary salon. The first editions of her poems were published in Madrid in 1676. and publishing of her musings and poetry continued until 1691.

Alas, the Catholic Church welcomed Sor Juana's success only as long as the church could share in her luster. When Sor Juana began insisting upon the right of women to be educated, the church turned against her. It is important to remember that the Catholic Church had long sheltered and encouraged writers of poetry, plays, philosophy, and fiction as long as the writings did not blaspheme against the teachings of the church. These protected writers all had one thing in common: they were men. Sor Juana's success and popularity offended many of her superiors in the church who sought to bring about her downfall.

Dying Sor Juana (Sandra Lopez) and Young Sor Juana (Vanessa Becerra) in 'With Blood, With Ink' at Fort Worth Opera. Photo by Ellen Appel.
Dying Sor Juana (Sandra Lopez) and Young Sor Juana (Vanessa Becerra) in 'With Blood, With Ink' at Fort Worth Opera. Photo by Ellen Appel.

After 25 years in the Convent de San Jerónimo, it was traditional for nuns to renew the religious vows which would permit them to remain under the patronage of St. Jerome. Sor Juana was not allowed to renew her vows until she agreed to sign a decree swearing that never again would she spend time writing instead of solely committing herself to the religious life of a nun. Sor Juana signed the decree in her own blood. Less than two years later she died.

Many things have changed since Sor Juana struggled for women's rights, and many things remain the same. In too many parts of the world women still struggle for equal rights in society, politics, religion, and the workplace. The story of Sor Juana's dedication and courage is a beacon of strength to those of us who continue to struggle for equality for all people regardless of race, gender, or social status.

I am honored to be a part of this premiere production.

Read an exclusive interview with Director Donna D. Vaugn on Theater Jones:

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