Written by Julia Bullock

January 24, 2022

How am I feeling as I head into the opening week of Theodora at the Royal Opera House? Well…

I was first introduced to the oratorio Theodora when I was seventeen. I watched a DVD of this 1996 Glyndebourne production, on a small TV back in St. Louis, Missouri. And it changed my life. It helped me understand the power of staged classical music; it was the first time I would hear and watch the craft of mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, whose artistic practice continues to spark deep inspiration for me; it was my introduction to soprano Dawn Upshaw, who years later became a mentor when I attended Bard College; and it was my first exposure to the work of director Peter Sellars, who gave me my initial jobs in this operatic field, is now a friend, and someone with whom I often collaborate.

Fast forward seventeen years to right now, and I’m receiving guidance from the discerning and insightful conductor, Harry Bicket who also was a part of that legendary Glyndebourne production. I’m working alongside another visionary director, mentor and advocate, Katie Mitchell. I say advocate, because of our various conversions about values and culture in rehearsal rooms preceding our work together. During one chat over a year ago, I shared past challenging experiences in which I haven’t felt safe, or been put at unnecessary physical and psychological risk during intimate and violent staging. Instead of just sympathizing, she took responsibility, acted on it, and asked to have the intimacy director and coordinator Ita O’Brien for this production (a first time experience for me and also the Royal Opera House), along with fight directors Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown, founders of Rc- Annie. The importance of having these roles filled, in order to share tried and trusted protocols and techniques, has not only proven significant for this production, but I also now know to request that these essential roles be incorporated into other creative processes in the future.

Besides the preparation for singing and interpreting the role, I did my own independent research and exploration of Theodora based on additional source material. Over the past months, I’ve been reading about various Theodoras who lived centuries before the librettist Thomas Morell and composer George Friedrich Handel premiered their oratorio in 1750 at the Royal Opera House.

Among these Theodoras were several political and spiritual leaders, empresses and saints honored in both the Roman Catholic and Christian Orthodox Church. I’ve been struck by some of the similar circumstances in their lives –– the extreme misogyny and abuse they attempted to survive as young women, their commitment to their communities, their fierce faith –– and also how their stories have been represented, documented and interpreted through parallel, if not identical, language and metaphors.

I have no idea how much Morell/Handel knew about these “other” Theodoras, but I feel that this 21st-century production is bringing forward the legends and legacy of Theodora’s namesake, and it offers realities that are ferocious and sometimes frightening. One aspect that has ignited me as we’ve rendered Theodora during rehearsals is the dismissal of the trope of the sacrificial character, particularly as it plays out in many operas when it’s channeled through the body of a woman — namely that she must be represented as an ideal reflection of a human being that’s to be revered. Katie has described this to me as a radical intervention in operatic space –– she’s directed some 40 operas, so I can’t argue with her there. But I don’t know… it doesn’t feel so radical as I enact it… it just feels grounded in an inclusive embodiment of more women’s histories.

What presents another dimension of complexity is this constant balancing of internal tensions while singing G.F. Handel’s searing and soulful music publicly for the first time. I say this, because on one hand Handel’s music is so poignant and powerful, as it doesn’t shy away from addressing charged subject matter that interrogates, if not outright combats, various forms of human violence and oppression, expressed explicitly in Theodora through condemnations of genocide, exploitation and rape. But on the other hand, I also know that Handel himself invested repeatedly in trans-Atlantic human trafficking companies, seeking to financially profit from enslavement and colonialism during the 1700s in order to support his artistic endeavors. While I acknowledge that Theodora was written almost 30 years after his last documented financial investment, it makes me wonder: did Handel come to realize his transgressions, and aim to eradicate them? Either way, this repeated assertion of “liberty and life” in Theodora’s poetry and music complicates the message when it’s contextualized in this way, and I can’t ignore it as a Black identifying American woman, who also has English and German roots her in heritage.

So I’m holding all of this in my consciousness: my personal seventeen year history with a work that carries intense themes which are illuminated in resoundingly deep poetry, and is amplified by music which has crystalline clarity; the social and political aspects that consciously acknowledge shifts in culture; the reality that this is the first time I’ll sing Handel in public in my life; and the significance of making my debut in a space where this oratorio premiered 250 years ago and hasn’t been since… I mean… yeah… I’m undeniably flooded with many thoughts and feelings.

But when I step back, it centers me to know that I will share a platform alongside a phenomenal cast and crew, who have been steadfast throughout this extended creative process. And despite all the ups and downs, stops and starts (even while several of us on this project contracted COVID-19 during the rehearsal process), I have been surrounded by generous resources of support.

I may still be a little scared, but honestly, I’m just genuinely excited to be onstage at this point and time. And I’m feeling quite empowered as I seek to give voice to Theodora.