Interview by Chris McGovern
3 July 2012
Composer-conductor Victoria Bond had some time to talk to me via Skype about, among other great things in her music history as both a composer and performer, the New York preview of her opera Mrs. President. The official premiere of this piece about the once-controversial historical figure Victoria Woodhull is going to be in Anchorage, Alaska this coming October, but if you are in the New York area next week on Monday, July 9th, at 7:30 PM at Symphony Space, you’ll be able to see this opera first-hand at a special preview performance.
CM: So, the main character of Mrs. President is a real, not a fictional, person?
VB: She is! If you Google Victoria Woodhull, you’ll find she was a very controversial person! She was not one of these lilly-white sufferages, she had very fascinating baggage attached to her name. She ran on the equal rights party ticket in 1872 against Ulysses S. Grant in his second term, and her running mate was Frederick Douglass. A little bit ahead of their time I would say!
CM: Even today it still seems radical to have either a black person or a woman running for president–Of course now we’ve crossed that threshold!
VB: And neither of them could vote! Women didn’t have the right and neither did African-Americans, so, it was a very, very radical move. And one of her platforms was free love. Can you imagine how that would go over with the Tea Party? And the reason for that was because women basically did not have any freedom–When they married, they gave away all their rights. If they divorced, they had no rights of property, to children, to anything. So many women had to stay in loveless marriages just because they had to! So, free love was, if you fell out of love with somebody, you had the freedom to separate, to leave that person, and still maintain your autonomy, as a human being. Very radical for those days!
I’ve been collecting articles from all over the world about women’s difficulties worldwide, such as Iran and Africa, all sorts of stories, even in our own backyards, of women whose freedom is so severely compromised. I think that even though the right to vote is not something that’s an issue (although I guess it still is, in some remote corners of the globe) women’s freedom and women’s equality is still very much an issue, so I think she felt that people would come after her and pick up her message and carry it on, and certainly there have been tremendous strides in that direction since 1872, no question about that. So, as they say, “it ain’t over yet”!
CM: It’s wonderful that music can be such a great social informant on many issues!
VB: Opera is such a powerful medium because it goes right to the emotions! This subject, I feel so emotional about. She was such a strong personality, and what she had to really fight against was such a power structure, that I think music can best illuminate that kind of turmoil and struggle, and there’s more than one interesting character in this. Henry Ward Beecher, who was her nemesis, was the most famous preacher of his day–he had basically all of the politicians and the financial people in his congregation, and even though he was an abolitionist, he was very much, theoretically, for women’s equality. Still, he was having a lot of affairs with his female parishoners, which people did not know about because people considered him “the right hand of God”. So, this was a very interesting personality, and then there was his younger sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe who became a follower of Victoria Woodhull, much to his chagrin. Many fascinating characters, and basically seven principals, and each one of them has an interesting story to tell, and of course they all intersect in this opera.
CM: Can you talk about the cast?
VB: We have a fabulous cast! Our Victoria Woodhull is Valerie Bernhardt, who is a young dramatic soprano. Now, as you know, that’s not a voice type that comes around every day, and she totally blew us away. She’s an amazing singer! And the Henry Ward Beecher is Scott Ramsay, who’s with Lyric Opera of Chicago, and he is a fantastic tenor! He’s really got the power, the heft and the look–He’s got the whole package!
CM: I have to ask you about “The Page Turner” with Kathleen Supové playing the piano, or actually at first she wasn’t playing the piano, she was playing the page-turner!
VB: I don’t know another pianist that has that comedic sense! Every time I see that, I’m on the floor laughing, she is so fabulous! Basically, what I did, was I wrote out a scenario, and then she and Oleg Dubson, the other player, improvised, and we made a couple of little touches and suggestions, and they’d done it a couple of times, and I definitely want them to it on Cutting Edge Concerts! We need more humor in contemporary music, and her performance is just perfect!Those of us that play piano–All of us have stories to tell about page-turners. There’s a disaster waiting to happen in every page-turner’s situation! What I wanted to do was to have the insults and injuries escalate, starting off with just a minor infraction. First of all, the page-turner is dressed in something more colorful and eye-catching than the pianist, which is, of course, a no-no, because a pianist never wants to be upstaged, by the page-turner of all people! Kathy, of course, has a wardrobe of very sexy clothes, and between the two of us, we put together as much loud jewelry as we possibly could! She takes all the jewelry and her shoes off, and she sits down and plays the piece! When the audience thought when “the pianist” chased the page-turner off the stage, people thought that was the end of the show, and then of course she comes back and plays the piece.
CM: Did people get the impression it was like a John Cage thing where there was no music?
VB: In the hands of someone else, it could be done that way, but Kathy, as you’ve seen, got huge laughs from the way she interacted with Oleg. But yes, it could be done in a Cagean matter where people are thinking.
CM: And of course the musical half is yours as well.
VB: Yes, it’s the first movement of a piece called Binary, which is a solo piano work!
CM: So, it’s a work-within-a-work?
VB: Yes! The framework of “The Page Turner”, actually, can be done with any solo piano work!
CM: Conducting vs. composing–Do you have a preference? [laughs]
VB: Composition always came first, but I thought my double life was going to be as a singer and conductor because my first performing profession was singing. I did a lot of contemporary music–I did small roles in opera and did a fair amount of recording. I did an opera of Harry Partch. His whole system of tuning and invention of instruments is absolutely wonderful, and if you have the Columbia Masterworks recording of Delusion of The Fury, I am the Old Goat Woman! I think I was about 20 at the time!
I had to conduct some of my own music, and I found that I wasn’t really good at it, so I decided to study conducting in earnest, and then the conducting became something more interesting for me than the singing was, and it related even more to the work I was doing as a composer.
And then the funny thing that happened was that the conducting kind of took over in terms of career, and when I graduated from Juilliard, I got my first job, with the Pittsburgh Symphony. Conducting became my profession, and the compositions had to be done in-between. Around 1985, I discovered that the horse and the cart had been put in reverse positions, and I was having less and less time to compose, whereas I started conducting simply to conduct my own compositions–It kind of took over my life. At the point when I was music director of the Roanoke Symphony in VA, and artistic director of Opera Roanoke, and doing a lot of guest conducting, that’s when I decided instead of being a conductor-composer to be a composer-conductor, and just reversing those two titles made a huge difference. I earn a lot less money now, but I’m definitely in the right direction. This is really the lifestyle that I want, is to be spending the majority of my time as a composer, and conducting, but much less than I was before.
An opera by Victoria Bond
Monday, July 9th, 7:30 PM
Leonard Nimoy Thalia at Symphony Space
2537 Broadway at 95th St
New York, NY 10025-6990