March is Women’s History Month and I am beyond stoked. Over at Eggshells Kitchen Co., where I kitchen wench on the daily, I’ve got a ton of awesome things planned to spotlight women in the food world.
For me, both in my life as a singer and in my secondary role in the food community, celebrating the achievements and acknowledging women’s contributions is an everyday thing. It should not be limited to the mere 30 days in March, obviously, but it’s great to see social media managers and marketing directors acknowledge Women’s History Month, even if only as a marketing ploy (don’t think I don’t see y’all). ANYWAY. Moving on.
One of my favorite things about being an opera singer is telling the stories of women, both mythical and real, through my singing and character work on-stage. Opera is a place where history comes to life.
Where this gets really interesting is when composers take real-life histories, like that of Mary, Queen of Scots and her relationship with Elizabeth I — and embellish them. Mary and Elizabeth never met, but the confrontation scene in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda gives us a peek at what it might have looked like if they had. Neat stuff for those of y’all with active imaginations.
The operatic canon is pretty vast, but even so, there’s a few women that have found themselves without an opera bearing their name. Here are four women from history that I’d love to see featured in operas:
1. [Saint] Hildegard von Bingen
Hildegard of Bingen was a 12th-century German nun and mystic who was also a philosopher, composer, and author. She wrote on numerous subjects, ranging from theology to letters to botanical and medicinal texts. Hildegard created an alternative alphabet, Lingua Ignota. As a composer in her own right, 69 of her compositions survive to this day.
Born into a family of lower nobility, Hildegard entered monastic life very early in her childhood, perhaps as a result of her mystical visions or as a way for her parents to solidify their political position.
Hildegard expressed that she began seeing visions as early as age three but was hesitant to discuss them with anyone until she began her relationship with Jutta, the nun with whom she was enclosed in 1112. Jutta would teach Hildegard to read and write and some believe this is how Hildegard learned to play the psaltery. Volmar, a monk and frequent visitor to Jutta and Hildegard, mentored Hildegard and encouraged her to follow God’s commands to record her visions.
Hildegard’s body of work spans three volumes of visionary theology, at least 69 extant and 4 lost musical compositions, and medicinal and scientific writings. Her writings on medicine, despite her visions, do not claim any sort of divine inspiration or authority but rather focus on holistic treatment of physical diseases through the proclamation in Genesis that all things were created for man’s use–she became known for “spiritual healing” and the use of precious stones, herbs, and tinctures.
2. Elizabeth Keckley
Elizabeth Keckley was an author, civil activist, and seamstress who found herself the trusted confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of President Abraham Lincoln.
Born in 1818, Elizabeth was born into slavery as the daughter of Agnes, a ‘privileged house slave’ owned by Armistead Burwell, a white planter and colonel. Late in life, Elizabeth would discover that Burwell was her father.
Elizabeth had a tumultuous early life–she began serving families as early as age 4. At age 14, she was “loaned” to the oldest Burwell son and his wife, who detested her and made her life miserable for the next four years. Burwell’s wife asked a neighbor to effectively put Elizabeth in her place–this neighbor beat her severely on multiple occasions. Even after this horror, another white man forced a sexual relationship on Elizabeth and she bore his child.
She earned her freedom and by 1860, moved to Washington, D.C. with her son. There, she worked as a seamstress and steadily gained a large clientele clamoring for dress commissions. One client would be her connection and stepping stone to Mary Todd Lincoln, who chose her as her personal dressmaker. The two became close friends.
Elizabeth wrote an autobiography entitled Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, where she detailed her life and also gave intimate details of her relationship with the First Family and Mrs. Lincoln. The publication of the book would deeply divide Elizabeth, Mary Todd Lincoln, and the public for years. The estrangement would haunt Elizabeth until her death in 1907.
3. [Empress] Wu Zetian
Wu Zetian was the only female emperor in the 4000 years of imperial Chinese history. Born into a rich family, Wu became the concubine of Emperor Taizong. When Taizong died, Wu was consigned to a monastic life (concubines who did not produce children traditionally did so), where she was expected to serve as a Buddhist nun for the remainder of her life.
Wu did not stay in that convent, however. The details are sketchy, but one legend holds that in true operatic fashion, Wu had been carrying on an affair with Li Zhi, her deceased husband’s youngest son, while she was still Taizong’s consort. Li Zhi, now emperor Gaozong of China, brought Wu in as his own consort. She quickly climbed the ranks of Emperor Gaozong’s concubines and progressively gained power. Known to be ruthless in her efforts to wield power, some historians assert that she killed her own daughter in an attempt to frame Empress Wang, who was removed from her title as Empress.
Wu herself gained the title of Empress soon enough, beginning with her rule as the effective monarch following her husband Emperor Gaozong’s illness. Some historians accuse Wu of poisoning Gaozong. When Emperor Gaozong died, Wu was named regent, with one of her sons taking the throne.
Note to sons: always listen to your mother. The son who succeeded Emperor Gaozong did not listen to his mother, queen regent Wu’s wishes, and Wu had him deposed and replaced with another son. This son didn’t please her, either, and Wu forced him to abdicate the throne in 690 C.E., where she assumed full rule, even establishing a “Zhou dynasty.”
There is much debate on the nature of Wu’s rule as Empress–historians claim that she used brutal tactics to wield power, including the elimination of political rivals. Still, during her reign, Wu increased the western expansion of the Chinese empire, broadened the civil service examinations, and elevated the status of Buddhism above Taoism in Chinese society.
And that’s just a LITTLE of what she did.
4. [Queen] Nzinga Mbande
In the 17th century, Nzinga Mbande, as an ambassador to her brother and as the eventual queen of the Mbundu people, resisted the expansion of the slave trade and Portuguese rule.
Nzinga acted as her brother’s embassy in several high-octane situations, including one particularly precarious incident with the Portuguese governor, who had only reserved one chair (for himself, the jerk) for seating during negotiations. Nzinga, refusing to sit on the floor mat the governor reserved for her, motioned to one of her servants, who contorted their body into a chair so that she could sit. Boom.
Nzinga did convert to Christianity, possibly to ease tensions with the Portuguese–but that didn’t stop her resistance.
After her brother’s suicide (though rumors circulated that Nzinga poisoned him), Nzinga became queen and continued to resist Portuguese authority. She formed alliances with other nations, leading her army in a 30 year war against the Portuguese. Resistance against the Portuguese continued long after her death at age 80 in 1663, despite prolonged attempts to take Nzinga prisoner.