Friday, August 28, 2015

Female musicians in historical fiction - interview with Sarah Bruce Kelly

Greetings, commies! Today I am pleased to feature an author who writes on a subject that's very near and dear to my heart - lives of musicians throughout history. Sarah Bruce Kelly states that her mission is "to tell with truth and love the stories of the unsung heroines and heroes in the history of music."  She is the author of The Red Priest's Annina, the story of Vivaldi and Anna Giro, and Jazz Girl, a novel of Mary Lou Williams.

MJN: Having grown up in the family of classical musicians, I have deep appreciation for historical novels featuring the lives of composers and musicians - and often the lesser known figures who were unfairly obscured. How do you balance the ration of iconic and obscure characters?

SBK: Historical novels about composers and musicians are rare. I realized this when I conceived the idea for my first novel, The Red Priest’s Annina, and consequently I had no real “model” to help guide me. I think the reason for this dearth of music-related historical fiction is the necessity for an author to not only be intimately familiar with musical terminology and techniques, but ideally to have experience themselves in the performing arts. Fortunately my long background in musical performance and education, along with my MA in music history and research, gave me the necessary tools to portray historical musicians convincingly within the context of the time and culture in which they lived.

Balancing well-known characters, Vivaldi for instance, with more obscure characters, such his protégée, Annina Girò, is an intriguing challenge but a challenge nonetheless. Painstaking and meticulous research is the key, with a bit of informed imagination thrown in. Historical letters, diaries, memoirs, reviews, and other documents are helpful, but even more so are the “hunches” that come about unexpectedly from less concrete sources. For example, I spent years studying the music Vivaldi wrote for Girò, and the more I got to know her music the better I got to know her as a person. Not only that, but the touching nuances of the music he was inspired to create for her say a great deal about the nature of their artistic and personal relationship. When such hunches are backed up by documentary evidence something indeed “clicks,” and the story and characters become all the more real.

MJN: The Red Priest's Annina is said to be written for preteen and teen girls. I am happy to see so many historical novels targeted at the young female readership. I have a friend who's an English teacher, and she said that it's very hard to convince teenage girls to read historical fiction. The common complaint they hear is, "What does this have to do with real life?"

SBK: Many historical novels for young readers focus on some sort of physical action or adventure set in a particular time and place and often fall short of creating characters that young people can relate to on an emotional level. These “costume dramas,”as they are sometimes called, stem from models put forth by the entertainment industry, and their lack of psychological depth usually fails to sustain the interest of young readers.

When I first conceived the idea for The Red Priest’s Annina I had envisioned Annina’s story as engaging young girls in particular. When the finished product started to attract attention I was pleasantly surprised to learn that not only girls, but boys as well as men and women of all ages were equally taken with the story. I believe this was due to the deeply emotional nature of Annina’s music which, as I mentioned above, made her so real for me that I was able to portray her feelings, fears and desires in ways that made her real for readers. This is what all readers, including young people, love to experience in stories. If they can identify with a character on an emotional level they can relate that character’s story to their own lives.

MJN: This is the second book that features a contralto. Last year I read a novel "Goddess" about a French contralto Julie d'Aubigny. My father was an operatic coach, and he told me that contraltos were not in demand, and it was hard for a vocalist with that range to reach the same diva status seemingly reserved for sopranos. There simply aren't enough leading roles written for contraltos.

SBK: It’s true that there are few starring roles in opera for contraltos. However Annina Girò was a mezzo soprano, a voice type that was quite popular in the 18thcentury. This is why current-day mezzos such as Cecelia Bartoli and Anne Sofie von Otter focus largely on the Baroque era for their performance repertoire.

Keep in mind also that the real super stars of 18th-century opera were the castrati, castrated males. The term “diva” (goddess) didn’t come about until the late 19thcentury, in connection with the “grand operas” of Verdi and others whose works now dominate the stages of most opera houses. Vivaldi himself favored the warmer, richer tones of the mezzo voice and wrote many dazzling prima donna roles for Girò in that vocal range. Orlando Furioso,La Griselda, and Rosmira Fidele are just a few examples.

MJN:  In the past decades, the Catholic Church has been subject of scrutiny. Liberal media loves to demonize Catholic priests as predatory and hypocritical. So when you see a religious figure portrayed in a benevolent, liberating light, it's refreshing.

SBK: An intensive study of Vivaldi’s life and work is indeed gratifying and refreshing, not to mention fascinating. He was a Catholic priest who devoted his life to creating some of the most sparkling and innovative music of the 18th century. His many hundreds of concertos, operas, and sacred works were composed in praise of God and Mary, expressed by the unique monogram he inscribed at the top of his musical scores, which means: “Praise be to God, and to Mary, the Blessed Mother of God, Amen.

He was blessed with extraordinary talents, which he used to put his faith into action. Not only was he a brilliant composer and musician, he was also a gifted teacher who shared the gift of music with countless students. Due to a respiratory ailment he had since birth, he was unable to say Mass. Instead he devoted much of his life to bringing the joy and magic of music into the lives of the abandoned and the unwanted. He spent the better part of his career teaching music at a foundling home, the Pietà, which was a refuge for homeless girls. The all-girl orchestra and chorus he established there became internationally renowned, and visitors from all over Europe came to Venice to hear them perform.

As for his long association with Annina Girò, my many years of research did not turn up anything to indicate they were ever anything more than good friends and artistic collaborators. Vivaldi himself referred to their relationship as an amicizia, which means a “close friendship.”

MJN: You make a rapid switch from Vivaldi's Venice to 1920s Pittsburg. Social norms have certainly changed in terms of religious freedom and gender roles, and yet many of the challenges that musicians face have remained the same. Artists are still vulnerable to the whims of their benefactors and unwanted attention from fans who don't respect boundaries.

SBK: As I see it, there are more similarities than differences between the stories told in The Red Priest’s Annina and Jazz Girl, and I was inspired to write both for much the same reasons. True, Mary’s world—an inter-racial Pittsburgh neighborhood in the 1920s—was quite different from the environment Annina experienced in 1720s Venice. But the contrasts between these settings simply provide different frames for the two heroines’ stories.

The similarities between the stories are much more significant. Both Annina and Mary were self-driven to master their musical gifts from an early age. Each had serious obstacles in their way, including disinterested mothers and dysfunctional home situations. Both girls were fortunate to attract the attention of adult mentors who helped guide them toward achieving their goals.

Indeed, the long, hard road to musical stardom has not changed much over the centuries. Young women in particular have always had their own particular challenges to face, and both Annina’s and Mary’s stories exemplify this truth. It was and continues to be an honor and a privilege for me to share the stories of these two unsung heroines in the history of music!

No comments:

Post a Comment