UW-Madison professor pens a new opera about a neglected female painter

images - wigout - 051916 - Schwendinger“Official” artistic canons have historically recorded a greater number of men than women among their ranks. But that discrepancy is shifting in both the present and the past, as female artists in the modern era stake their claims and female artists from the past are honored by research and scholarship.

One recent project with Wisconsin ties will bring two such women forward, one from the 21st century and one from the 17th. UW-Madison music professor Laura Elise Schwendigner has been awarded more than $75,000 in grants in order to finish her first full-length opera Artemisia, a chamber opera based on the life of Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian Baroque painter.

“The story of Artemisia hit me when I was an artist-in-residence in Rome (in 2009),” says Schwendinger, who herself paints. “I visited a lot of galleries and was struck by her works like “Judith Slaying Holofernes.” There weren’t very many women painters at the time.”

Schwendinger says she hopes Artemisia, which she is developing with librettist Ginger Strand, will change the historical perception of Gentileschi (1593–1656). While the artist holds the high honor of being the first female member of Florence’s prestigious Accademia di Arte del Disegno and was a respected artist in her time, history books remembered her for centuries merely as a teenage victim of rape by her tutor, fellow artist Agostino Tassi.

Following the assault and the older Tassi’s ultimate failure to marry the 16-year-old girl as promised, Artemisia’s father, the Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi, pressed charges against Tassi for taking his daughter’s virginity. The lawsuit, highly unusual for the time, resulted in long, protracted proceedings, during which Artemisia was subject to gynecological exams and torture to verify her testimony. The proceedings also revealed a plot by Tassi to murder his wife, adding to the sensationalism of the lawsuit. Tassi eventually was sentenced to one year in prison, but never served any time.

Gentileschi would go on to have a long and successful career, rare for a female painter in her time. But later generations would obscure her contributions to the Baroque period, some of her work even attributed to other artists.

In recent years, that perception has begun to shift back, with Gentileschi again credited as one of the period’s greatest painters. Schwendinger hopes her opera can spread Gentileschi’s story, further righting the wrong done to her by historians.

Schwendinger’s opera, a co-commission of Trinity Wall Street Novus in New York City and San Francisco’s Left Coast Chamber Ensemble that will premiere on the East Coast in early 2017, will take an unusual approach to Artemisia’s story, emphasizing the artist’s work as it goes. The painter’s most important canvases, including her self-portrait, will be seen as onstage projections to introduce various sections of the opera. The performers will emerge from the projected tableaux to tell the opera within the visual context.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like that in opera before,” Schwendinger says. “The visual elements will be the thing that audiences will talk about after the performances, but I hope they talk about the music, too.”

While this is Schwendinger’s first full-length opera, it is by no means her first composition. Born in Mexico City to a pair of U.S. foreign exchange students and raised in Berkeley, California, Schwedinger began making up melodies at age 4 and playing the flute at age 8. Her debut with the Berkeley Youth Orchestra at age 13 included a performance of “Between Two Continents,” her first orchestral composition.

When Schwendinger applied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to study flute, her application included several compositions as well, which caught the eye of composer John Adams, best known for his operas Doctor Atomic and Nixon in China. He invited her to study composition with him, and she afterward went on to receive both her master’s degree and Ph.D. in music from the University of California-Berkeley.

Her career has since taken her to multiple locations, though she has been a professor at UW-Madison for more than a decade. That university recently awarded her a $60,000 Kellett Mid-Career Award, a grant sponsored by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and awarded to nine other faculty members for the 2016–17 academic year.

Schwendinger also received $16,500 as part of OPERA America’s $200,000 Opera Grant for Female Composers, awarded to seven women and seven opera companies, which she will use in addition to the Kellett Award to finish and mount the upcoming productions of Artemisia.