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The World's Wife

The Regazze Quartet and Lucia Lucas performing on stage in red outfits

In The World’s Wife, the poet Carol Ann Duffy explores history from a female perspective; Tom W Green’s chamber opera brings her poetry vividly to life in a contemporary meditation on gender politics.

Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry collection The World’s Wife (1999) is a unique response to the way that women have been pushed into the shadows of their menfolk over the centuries – in myth, fairy tales, the Bible and history itself. From the bitter ennui of Mrs Aesop to the insights of a very modern young girl in ‘Little Red Cap’ and the single-verse disgust with which Mrs Icarus watches her husband plunge to earth, the former Poet Laureate brings to well-known narratives new angles that are always fresh, sometimes funny and often furious.

Tom W Green’s idea for this work was sparked when the leader of the Mavron Quartet asked him to create a substantial piece for the ensemble. He had previously written this all-female group a 10-minute quartet; now a longer span with the addition of a solo soprano offered greater possibilities. This combination is further extended through the use of loop pedals, a live electronic device that enables the singer to create the effect of a vocal ensemble, bringing back motifs or phrases in extra layers of sound as the music unfolds.

Looking for a suitable text, Green came across The World’s Wife and was enchanted, both by the topical gender politics and by Duffy’s use of language, metre and timbre. He was able to meet her backstage after a reading, introduced himself and in due course received her permission to set the poems, selecting 11 from the original 31, chiefly, though not exclusively, homing in on the fictional or mythical characters.

The World’s Wife was conceived initially as a song-cycle, but soon spiralled into a fully stageable chamber opera. It was first produced by Welsh National Opera in 2017.

‘It makes excellent theatre – a theatre of sound and words, certainly … and all the better for a certain ambiguity of aim,’ wrote The Arts Desk’s critic Stephen Walsh. It was subsequently shortlisted for a BASCA award.

For this new production, Green has recast the opera for the dramatic baritone voice of Lucia Lucas, cutting a few verses and one whole scene (‘Frau Freud’) and adding an epilogue that homes in on insights from the performers. Five years on, refreshing the work for a trans baritone, Green says that he intends also to renew the work’s intense relevance to gender politics of the moment, bringing today’s preoccupations into focus.

All the musical substance is derived from works by women composers of different eras who were sidelined by the misogynistic attitudes of their day. They include Francesca Caccini and Barbara Strozzi of the Italian Baroque, the 19th-century Clara Schumann and the British 20th-century modernist Elisabeth Lutyens. Strozzi is a particular favourite of Green’s, who praises her ‘sense of line’ as a powerful inspiration to him in general, not only here.

‘I wanted to make a conscious point that there are other voices contributing,’ Green comments. ‘We’re always standing on the shoulders of giants, and as composers, we always inhabit a musical space that others have opened up for us before. Just as the poems demonstrate that women have been erased from mythical and historical narratives, women have also been erased from compositional narratives, despite contributing enormous amounts.’

The opera opens with ‘Little Red Cap’ and her encounter with the Wolf, the tale reinvented for the present day: an inquisitive young woman is deflowered by a predatory older man and ultimately takes revenge. Next, Pilate’s wife is haunted not only by her soft-handed husband, but by the man he is condemning to death on the cross. ‘Mrs Aesop’ is bored and exasperated by Mr Aesop’s dull and clichéd fables. The extended, icy story of ‘Queen Herod’ is full of horror and fear for her own child; here, Green says, the music is built from material by Clara Schumann and Elisabeth Lutyens.

‘Salome’, shown as a drunken seductress, is a pointed contrast, followed by ‘Mrs Icarus’, the shortest and most sardonic poem. ‘Medusa’ is depicted as a wife tragically soured by jealousy over a philandering husband. ‘Anne Hathaway’, however, is the one moment when the possibility of love shines through. Widowed, she cherishes the memory of her husband William Shakespeare: ‘Some nights, I dreamed he’d written me, the bed a page beneath his writer’s hands.’

‘Mrs Beast’ delves towards the heart of the matter, evoking a cavalcade of fairy-tale figures in dire straits or, in the case of the Little Mermaid, fishnet tights. Now there builds the Wives’ Choir, in which the singer’s loops mingle into a self-generated, multivoiced ensemble.

The final ‘wife’ is liberated from all that has gone before, without reference to any male figure: ‘Demeter’ evokes the pure motherly love of the Greek goddess for her daughter – implicitly Persephone, returning from winter in the Underworld. Again, the loop device creates a suitably other-worldly effect.

The new version of the opera ends with an epilogue based on extracts of interviews with the performers themselves, bringing the story finally into the here and now.

© Jessica Duchen

Programme and performers

Tom W Green The World’s Wife

Ragazze Quartet:
Rosa Arnold
Jeanita Vriens-van Tongeren violin
Annemijn Bergkotte viola
Rebecca Wise cello

Lucia Lucas baritone

Tom W Green composer
Carol Ann Duffy libretto
Jorinde Keesmaat director
Sammy Van den Heuvel scenography
Sasja Strengholt costumes
Lalina Goddard dramaturgy
Radna Berendsen make-up and hairstyling
Tim van ’t Hof, Rohan McDermott lighting
Koen Keevel sound
Kate Packham production manager
Daniel Whewell technical manager


Artist biographies

Produced by the Barbican

Supported by Cockayne – Grants for the Arts, The London Community Foundation, and Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands