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If you look at the listings of the major orchestras in America you will see two things in common; very few of them are programming major pieces by women composers, and almost none have a woman on the podium. Despite the abundance of wonderful compositions by women, the world of classical music has been, for centuries, a man’s world.

The Sirens' Song at Eastman Opera Theatre

Students at the Eastman School of Music rehearse a suite from the opera "Here be Sirens " by Kate Soper
Brenda Tremblay
Sopranos at the Eastman School of Music rehearse "Here Be Sirens" by Kate Soper

From November 4 – 7th, audiences in Kilbourn Hall will see a piano played in mind-bending ways during a double bill of American operas at the Eastman School of Music.

Recently, I took the elevator to the top floor of the Eastman School’s classroom building and watched a grand piano being assailed.

During a rehearsal of Kate Soper's "Here Be Sirens," two teams of sopranos danced around the instrument, banging on it with rocks, stroking it with picks, and scraping it with metal sheets. The piano’s lid was completely removed so the insides lay exposed. At one point, the sopranos pulled horsehair against the strings inside, playing them like you'd bow the strings of a cello.

For the singers, it's been an education.

“It's funny, I don't think I've ever really understood the true mechanisms of a piano until the entire lid was taken off. I've never touched strings like that, and I've never manipulated the pedals in such a way,” says Alexandra Rose Hotz, who does play the piano in the more traditional methods.

“At first, I think we were all really gentle with the piano because we didn't want to ruin it,” Hotz said, “and then we were promptly reminded that with this piano, we are allowed to mess with it more than we normally would.”

Soper's opera is written for what's called “prepared piano.” The instrument will be rehabbed in the future, so set designers got permission to distress it, incorporating it into the scenery.

A prepared piano is built into the set for Kate Soper's "Here Be Sirens."
ESM/University of Rochester
A prepared piano is built into the set for Kate Soper's "Here Be Sirens."

Stage director Lindsay Warren Baker says the point is to allow the singers to create a web of sound, a dream-scape that pulls listeners into the otherworldly existence of sirens.

Kate Soper's opera is inspired by the deadly creatures who, in Greek mythology, lure sailors to the rocks with songs and then kill them. The suite from Soper's opera pulls back the curtain on one day in the life of a siren, Baker said, adding, “And we get to witness this ritual of the sirens’ life and the music that drives their intention for being and what they do.”

The sirens have different personalities. Peitho falls in love with every sailor who washes up. Polyxo is the academic; she's trying to wrap her brain around their weird existence. Phaino acts more robotically. “She's the oldest siren and maybe the most grounded," said Hotz. "She's perhaps sometimes comes off as the most bored. She's not actually bored. But she's, you know, been doing this for years and years and years and years.”

In Soper's opera, the sirens start to become self-aware. They’re on an island, surrounded by books, and as they read accounts of themselves, they start to wake up to the fact that they’re trapped in an endless nightmare.

WATERHOUSE  Ulises y las Sirenas (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne,1891)
Ulysses and The Sirens, 1891, by John William Waterhouse

Libby Clark, who sings the role of Peitho, says "Here Be Sirens" plays into some of the ways that femininity can trap women.

“The way that the world views women in general can trap us in these stereotypes and in these ways we have to behave," said Clark, "and so I think it's really cool to see three women behaving in atypical ways, breaking the mold of what's expected."

For Hotz, playing a siren has opened her eyes to what relationships among women can be like.

To her, it's a sisterhood.

“That's what we've talked about — that the three of us are connected in a way. Maybe we're trapped. Maybe we are forced to continue to do these things, but we're in it together,” Hotz said. “Sirens don't have to be that classic, you know, Arial-esque kind of mermaid. They can be something more powerful and more connected than than what we've traditionally thought."

Brenda Tremblay

A suite from "Here be Sirens" by Kate Soper is part of a double-bill of contemporary operas by American composers being performed in Kilbourn Hall through November 7th. The shows, starring two teams of three sopranos each, are directed by Lindsay Warren Baker with musical direction by Timothy Long, working together to offer fresh insight into the world of strange, dangerous, and irresistible creatures.

WXXI’s Brenda Tremblay, who’s also a volunteer Friend of Eastman Opera, will introduce the pre-concert talk on Sunday afternoon at 1:00 p.m. in Kilbourn Hall.

Brenda Tremblay has served as weekday morning host on WXXI Classical since 2009.