Art Works Blog

Suffrage Grant Spotlight: Letters That You Will Not Get

War stories, more often than not, are considered men’s stories, told by and about the men who fought in conflict. This includes, of course World War I, which was fought before women were even allowed to join the military. But amid the nightmare of trench warfare and mustard gas, women did indeed play a vital if often underappreciated role, serving as nurses on the frontlines, collecting critical funds and supplies on the home front, and heading to factories and offices for the first time en masse—a phenomenon that presented suffrage skeptics in the United States with undeniable evidence of women’s value as citizens. The 19th amendment was passed just two years after the war’s end.

To amplify women’s stories from World War I, the American Opera Project is developing the opera Letters That You Will Not Get: Women’s Voices from the Great War, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts as part of our effort to celebrate women's suffrage and equality. With music by Kirsten Volness and a libretto by Susan Werbe and Kate Holland, the opera is based on women’s original writings from the war, including letters and poetry. Although the work first premiered as a song cycle in 2018 to celebrate the war’s centennial, its expansion has made space for voices from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, and the United States, showcasing the truly global nature of the conflict. The opera is scheduled to premiere live in November 2021. We recently spoke with Volness and Werbe about the project, and how it brings to life the women of World War I, who have too often been ignored.

NEA: Where did the inspiration for this project come from?

SUSAN WERBE: I have been working for the last nine years on different arts performance pieces—dance, theater, first the song cycle, and now the opera—that look at individuals' responses to the First World War using original writings, letters, journals, diaries, memoirs, novels, and poetry. [These projects] use the arts as the pathway into the history. That really has always interested me. So the notion is how do we bring history alive through the arts? And specifically, how did individuals react to this specific war? It has been an extraordinary experience to be able to bring women's voices to 21st Century audiences. Women's experiences have been missing from the narrative since the war began up until very recently. It has been an exciting thing to put together this libretto and then work with Kirsten—who has such an extraordinary sense of these women and their voices—and who has taken the text and translated it musically.

NEA: You mentioned bringing history to life through art. Obviously, there's no shortage of books or histories written about World War I, or any other major historical conflict. I was wondering how you think art can enlarge and enhance our understanding of the war?

KIRSTEN VOLNESS: I feel like there's already a lot of emotion and content built into the words themselves. My job is to illuminate that, and make it feel more immersive and immediate. Through music we can connect with each other in real time, while we experience these ideas. For me, I think it's just a matter of trying to manifest it in real time, in real life, with real humans who are pouring their emotions into these stories and experiences. Bringing that human energy to a performance makes it somehow feel more immersive, and for me at least, more impactful. The stories themselves are more impactful.

WERBE: To me, the arts are where we come together and talk about our human experiences. One of the things that's so powerful for me about the libretto is the fact that if you don't know where these women are from—with a few exceptions—you really can't tell. In other words, these are universal experiences. By using contemporary music, I think we take this history into our own time and we experience it in the here and now. That makes it all the more powerful.

NEA: I was curious about what sort of research went into this, both archival and perhaps musically?

WERBE: It was all primary and secondary research. One of the things that's been so exciting in the last several decades is all the women scholars who are doing this kind of research [into] women's writings of the war. It has been an extraordinary journey for me, and incredibly exciting to sit in, as an example, the Berg Collection of English and American Literature in the New York Public Library, and in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. And then also looking at anthologies that scholars have edited. An invaluable blog called Behind Their Lines [covered] every single week of the four years from 2014 to 2018. [The blog] published lesser-known poets, and many of them are women, including women of color. That's where I found Alice Dunbar Nelson, an African-American poet active in the Harlem Renaissance and Sarojini Naidu, who is an important poet in India as well as an important political figure. The opera allowed us to bring women of color from Africa as we have in the Malawian folksong; India; Kingston, Jamaica; and the United States with Alice Dunbar Nelson, Addie Hunton, and Kathryn Johnson. That was important to us, because WWI was a global war. Too often, not only have women been missing from the narrative, but women of color in all countries have been missing. This is an opportunity to make a small difference and a small change by making this a truly diverse global piece of art.

VOLNESS: Susan did a great job of sending the performers and me a lot of background information about each song and each writer and their experiences. For some of them, I did listen to traditional Malawian music and Punjabi music. But my interest was less about trying to capture those types of musical influences. In the effort of making this more of a universal experience where you're not sure where these voices are coming from, I did try to avoid making the Irish song sound Irish. I wanted the music to be more universal. I actually [listened to] a lot of music that happened after World War I, so in that sense, it really incorporates many different influences.

NEA: Kirsten, how did you navigate creating music that was both part of this cohesive whole, but that also highlighted each woman's voice?

VOLNESS: One thing that's interesting about this opera is that there's not really a specific narrative arc and specific characters—they're more archetypes and vignettes of people's lives. It's an interesting experience where the focus will shift dramatically between different songs, and that keeps it exciting for me, but I also felt like I was able to follow an emotional arc and be able to sculpt the music in such a way to support that.

At the beginning, the texts we're using are from early in the war, and then as it progresses, the end of the piece is talking about the end of the war. So that gives it an overall structure, but in the end, it becomes this whirlwind of little glimpses into individuals' lives that are connected musically. I tried to use a few musical themes that come back.

NEA: What has the process been like to transition this piece from a song cycle to an opera?

VOLNESS: One challenge for sure was that the very first song introduces all of the characters, almost in a collage, with very short lines that they'll sing, and then the next singer will come in with her line. [For the opera], the new version of that first song, Dear Alice, was expanded. So Susan and Kate actually added lines in the middle of the song where new characters were inserted. One of the greatest challenges was trying to make that work musically. I came up with something I can be happy with, but it was definitely a feat of craft to try to make it feel cohesive and flow appropriately.

It was a necessary and important step, but that was one of the great challenges: trying to rewrite songs to include more music and characters and have them still make sense. But overall, a lot of it was just re-orchestrating for a larger ensemble. Instead of just two string players, now we have a string quintet, and I had more options for harmony now that I had six women singing, so that was fun.

WERBE: Kate and I had never done a libretto for an opera. So when AOP approached us and asked us if we would be interested in expanding the song cycle to a chamber opera, we were obviously delighted and thrilled, and sat down with Dear Alice. An example of when you don't know what you don't know, meaning if we had really thought about it, we would have said, "Oh, my God! We could never ask Kirsten to throw different voices into the middle of an existing song!" [Kirsten] was incredibly, incredibly kind to us.

But it was an exciting opportunity to add more voices. We were so thrilled with the song cycle, but it was a very Eurocentric piece. We now had the opportunity to expand it and make it much more authentic in terms of the voices that are represented. What it allowed us to do is make it a more representational piece of what this war really was, and how a range of women experienced it.

NEA: Susan, why did you end up choosing the letters and poems that you did. What attracted you to them?

WERBE: They had to sing to me. I came to the table with a basketful of possibilities—women who had a range of experiences. Women on the frontline who were ambulance drivers and nurses in casualty clearing stations, which is just about as close to a trench as you could get. Women sitting at home and women who had lost husbands or sons. I was also thinking about how you engage modern audience members to think about conflict. I'm very interested in not only asking the question why this war, but why war? And using people's experiences through their writing to ask those questions and to actively engage the audience. That's a lot of what motivated me when choosing potential text.

NEA: What made you realize that an opera, even if it was not a conventional one, would be the right medium for this piece?

VOLNESS: I think of opera as the original immersive, multimedia art form, where the whole world is being designed in front of you. In lieu of making theater, or a film of some sort, [opera is] the closest thing I would say you could get to world-building and really giving [an audience] a meaningful, clear sense of what those people's lives might have been like and what they were going through. Being able to manifest it as a performance, in person, in front of people, where you're able to create this immersive world, I think is the best way we could tell this story.

WERBE: I agree. There's something magical about sitting in a theater. I'm not going to say, "I hope to God we do it again." I know we will do it again! There is something so extraordinary about experiencing art together. That is a priceless gift! And to have women—all women—[guide this performance]: all the women's voices in the [letters], the two librettists, the composer, the quintet, the six singers, and the music director—that's extraordinary!

NEA: What do you hope people take away from this piece?

VOLNESS: For me, it's a lot about giving voice to women who didn't have a voice before. Acknowledging the range and the depth of what these people went through, I think, is very informative. And it helps you approach difficulties that we're facing now, too, because I think a lot of times history repeats itself. It's important to take a look at these things a little bit more closely, hear different perspectives, and expand our understanding of history. Because it's always shaped by whoever's writing the book about it, right? In terms of the music, I hope you would leave with a song stuck in your head. These words are so beautiful. The poems are so great and so rich. Hopefully the music is enhancing them, and helping keep them stick with you a little longer.

WERBE: Having spent a lot of time in high schools, I love the idea of young people coming and engaging with this music, and engaging with the words, and taking what resonates and then sparking conversations. I really feel that's what happens. As an audience member, I come out of any number of performances, whether it's music, or dance, or theater, and I love listening to what people have to say when it has really moved them. I hope Letters will move people, and, as importantly, make them think. Think about this period. Think about the role of women in this war, and understand that women really did play a role. I hope they are going to get a sense of women's experiences, and what it means for all people to experience conflict.

Learn more about the Arts Endowment's efforts to celebrate the centennial of women's suffrage.

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