Kate Soper: The Hunt

, composer

About

Composer Kate Soper releases The Hunt, a one act chamber opera inspired by a series of medieval tapestries known as "The Lady and the Unicorn." The work is scored for three sopranos who also play instruments onstage (violin and ukulele), and incorporates some of Soper's characteristic compositional interests, such as the use of diegetic music, into this intimate staging.

Audio

# Audio Title/Composer(s) Time
Total Time 55:48
01Prologue: de Monoceron
Prologue: de Monoceron
2:16
02Livestream #1: Day Seventeen
Livestream #1: Day Seventeen
1:26
03King’s Comment #1
King’s Comment #1
0:47
04Riddle #1 (a violin and bow)
Riddle #1 (a violin and bow)
0:52
05On the Unicorn
On the Unicorn
2:56
06First Sighting
First Sighting
0:46
07Rue’s Solo
Rue’s Solo
2:28
08Livestream #2: Day Forty-Three
Livestream #2: Day Forty-Three
1:29
09King’s Comment #2
King’s Comment #2
0:42
10Riddle #2 (virginity)
Riddle #2 (virginity)
1:08
11Maiden-Song
Maiden-Song
3:38
12Second Sighting
Second Sighting
0:44
13Briar’s Solo
Briar’s Solo
2:33
14Livestream #3: Day Eighty-Two
Livestream #3: Day Eighty-Two
1:30
15The Noble Unicorn
The Noble Unicorn
1:48
16Fleur’s Solo
Fleur’s Solo
2:47
17Livestream #4: Day Ninety-Eight
Livestream #4: Day Ninety-Eight
1:39
18King’s Comment #3
King’s Comment #3
3:28
19Troubadour Song
Troubadour Song
5:27
20Riddle #3
Riddle #3
1:36
21Sugar Song
Sugar Song
3:41
22Third Sighting
Third Sighting
1:55
23Not Honey
Not Honey
5:34
24Livestream #5: Day Ninety-Nine
Livestream #5: Day Ninety-Nine
1:25
25Riddle #4 (an onion)
Riddle #4 (an onion)
0:44
26Coda: de Monoceron
Coda: de Monoceron
2:29

During a visit to Paris in 2016, composer Kate Soper saw an exhibit featuring the series of medieval tapestries known as “The Lady and the Unicorn.” In their pictorial storytelling, the tapestries recount a legend that says that the way to catch a unicorn is to lure it with a virgin maiden: once it is lulled by her purity, the unicorn becomes vulnerable to capture by nearby hunters. Finding resonance between this antiquated story and society’s contemporary controversies surrounding control over and exploitation of women’s bodies, Soper was compelled to write a short story about the experience of being unicorn bait. During pandemic quarantine, passing the time with a ukulele and 10th century riddles, she turned that story into a series of video diaries, and then motets, and later, a staged chamber opera for the intimate forces of three sopranos self-accompanying on ukulele and violin.

The result is The Hunt, an opera for three performers that manages to glide through myriad stylistic territory, convey a multi-dimensional narrative, and offer a stark critique of historical and contemporary ideas of sexuality and gender all in one act. The stripped-down instrumentation evokes troubadour culture: three singing musicians, traveling with portable instruments, bringing their tale to attentive listeners. Soper goes beyond the era-appropriate musical allusion however, mining the unique instrumentation for echoes of ironic music theatre (in the “Livestream” update movements), indie folk (track 5 “On the Unicorn”, track 11 “Maiden Song”), homophonic three-part chorales (track 3 “King’s Comment”), parlor song (track 4 “Riddle #1” and track 10 “Riddle #2”), and avant-garde vocal textures that dip into the absurd (track 21 “Sugar Song”). The structure of the piece rotates through these livestream updates, riddles, songs, comments, and solos, forming a kind of cyclical ritual to the way the story unfolds.

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The opening “Prologue: de Monoceron,” with Latin and English text taken from medieval bestiaries, is an annunciation for the three high voices a cappella, playing with counterpoint that snakes in and out of consonant sonorities and unstable intervals. The virgins admonish that “The unicorn can’t be taken alive!” Unless… it is soothed by a virgin maiden. “Livestream #1: Day Seventeen” introduces the temporal slide between the medieval and contemporary worlds, and begins to lay out the plot of the opera. A texture featuring violin glissandi and ukulele strums accompanies an informational mini-aria in a format that Soper returns to several times throughout the piece, as the days and weeks accumulate and the tension grows.

The three “King’s Comments” are scored for the three voices with supporting electronic drone accompaniment. The drone undergoes a kind of ominous disintegration in each, but particularly in the extended “King’s Comment #3”, as the text describes a potentially fatal surgery to restore virginal purity if “any blot of sin” is found to be keeping the virgins from completing their job.

The "songs" feature the ukulele as the anchor instrument, strumming and arpeggiating rhythmic figures that frame the folk style in which they are written. In “On the Unicorn,” a strange text by medieval poet and composer Hildegard of Bingen is set to an angular meter and cheerfully dissonant harmony, producing delightfully irregular phrases. In contrast, “Maiden-Song,” with text by Christina Rossetti, is a steady dirge, as a regular strumming pattern in the ukulele and harmonics in the violin provide the foundation for responsive singing between the three voices.

The three "solos" each present one of the characters' inner thoughts, as represented by the works of symbolist poet H.D. Here, the other two singers provide repetitive, haunting background textures as each virgin in turn expresses feelings of frustration, whether tinged with impatience, longing, or rage.

The instrumental writing is not without its corners and turns. In “The Noble Unicorn”, violinist Hirona Amamiya tears off sul ponticello virtuosic lines over moto perpetuo arpeggios in Christiana Cole’s ukulele. Cole’s accompaniment in “Troubadour Song” traffics in intricately shifting duple and triple groupings, while Amamiya comments on the vocal line with poignant melodic phrases. Amamiya has an extended, seductive solo violin introduction to “Not Honey,” before the ukulele establishes a simple modal figure.

“Sugar Song” and “Third Sighting” break through the formalism and propriety of the repeating movements, and lead the listener into a surreal, internal world. “Sugar Song” features a panoply of wordless extended vocal techniques that spill over into laughter; the virgins, at their emotional limit after months of increasing threat and degradation, have thrown caution to the wind and embarked on a hallucinogen-driven out of body experience. “Third Sighting” opens with a sonic vision, as the unicorn finally appears – a halo of voices saturated with reverb and processing gives way to a cinematic audio image of a hunting party, with gunshots, dogs, and horses, and finally closes with a layered texture of modular, repetitive sung and spoken texts as the virgins process this incredible event separately and together. After this cognitive break in the progression of the piece, Soper brings us back to song with the sensual “Not Honey,” in which the virgins enact their plan to protect the unicorn by secretly losing their virginities, and a final “livestream” and “riddle”. Finally, the piece returns to the text and annunciatory quality of the Prologue in the “Coda: de Monoceron." This time, there is no caveat attached to the key phrase. “The unicorn can’t be taken alive” -- and by extension, neither can the no-longer-virgins. The text from the prologue has been transformed into a battle cry: although we do not know what will happen to the characters after the opera ends, they have found collective strength in the determination to claim their autonomy, and to keep a magical creature from senseless destruction.

– Dan Lippel & Kate Soper

Kate Soper, book & music
Mila Henry, music director
Hirona Amamiya, soprano & violin
Christiana Cole, soprano & ukulele
Brett Umlauf, soprano & ukulele (ukulele on tracks 20, 25 & 26)

Recorded October 16 & 17, 2023 by Ryan Streber at Oktaven Audio
Edited, mixed & mastered by Ryan Streber
Music directed by Mila Henry
Photos by Rob Davidson for Miller Theatre at Columbia University

Layout & design by Kate Gentile

Kate Soper

Kate Soper (composer/librettist) has been hailed by The Boston Globe as “a composer of trenchant, sometimes discomfiting, power” and by The New Yorker as “one of the great originals of her generation.” A Pulitzer Prize finalist, Kate is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including from the Guggenheim Foundation and the American Academy in Rome. Praised by The New York Times for her “lithe voice and riveting presence,” she performs frequently as a vocalist. Kate’s previous operas include Here Be Sirens (2014), IPSA DIXIT (2017), and The Romance of the Rose (2023). She is a co-director and vocalist for Wet Ink, a new music ensemble dedicated to adventurous music-making across aesthetic boundaries.

Mila Henry

Mila Henry (music director) is a conductor, pianist and music director who maintains a versatile career, spanning folk operas to rock musicals to reimagined classics. Hailed “a stalwart contributor to the contemporary opera scene” (Opera Ithaca), she has collaborated with The American Opera Project, Beth Morrison Projects, HERE, Opera Philadelphia, PROTOTYPE and VisionIntoArt, at venues ranging from The Apollo to the Library of Congress to Dutch National Opera. Mila holds degrees from the Manhattan School of Music and Elizabethtown College, and was nicknamed a “Jill of all trades” (Sullivan County Democrat) for her multi- instrumentalist work with The Opera Cowgirls.

Hirona Amamiya

Soprano and violinist Hirona Amamiya (“Rue”, violin) captivates audiences with her versatility. From baroque to contemporary, her operatic triumphs range from “Cleopatra” in Giulio Cesare to “Zerlina” in Don Giovanni, “Sandman” in Hansel and Gretel, “Tsering” in Ga Sho, and “Rue” in The Hunt. A Carnegie Hall soloist, she also brings her warmth and precision to ensembles like the Bard Festival Chorale and New York Chamber Orchestra. Born in Tokyo, Ms. Amamiya embraces her dual musical identity, weaving vocal artistry with the elegance of the violin.

Christiana Cole

Christiana Cole (“Briar”, ukulele) is a performer, teacher, writer, and Austin, Texas native, now in NYC/NJ. BM in Classical Voice: Manhattan School of Music. Previous roles include “Susan” in Harriet Tubman opera by Nkeiru Okoye, at American Opera Projects. Originated the role of “Lauren” in Sir Elton John’s original musical The Devil Wears Prada. Studio singer for Philip Glass (Alice; Circus Days and Nights). Featured on the soundtrack of Sundance hit film The Farewell, score by Alex Weston. Christie is so grateful for this beautiful piece of art. It has healed, challenged, and changed them. Christie teaches voice lessons and writes musicals.

Brett Umlauf

Soprano Brett Umlauf (“Fleur”, ukulele) spotlights women composers’ earliest and newest works with her “pealing, focused sound” and “luminous yet earthy” performances (The New York Times). In the same year she originated the role of Soper’s “Fleur”, she completed a Greek-Turkish Fulbright fellowship, walking in 9th-c. hymnographer Kassia of Byzantium’s footsteps for her project Hazelnut Road: Vows of Stability, Acts of Mobility. Brett is co-founder of SUORE Project, a trio celebrating nun composers, and was a longtime principal artist at Morningside Opera, Company XIV and SIREN Baroque. The Swedish Institute, American Scandinavian Society and Swedish Women’s Educational Association have awarded her work.


Reviews

5

InfoDad

Today’s composers are a great deal more likely to use vocal works to make sociopolitical points – even when they reach well into the past for inspiration. Some composers can do this quite cleverly, one such being Kate Soper (born 1981), whose chamber opera The Hunt is packed with contemporary approaches and sensibilities that are unlikely to sustain over the long term but do not appear to have any such concerns, staying focused on the here-and-now in a kind of forced philosophical manner. The Hunt – which happens to have 26 sections, although the number has no significance – is unusual in design, using three sopranos to tell the story and having each of them play an instrument instead of being accompanied by a separate ensemble. This is diegetic music – that is, the on-stage performers play pieces within the context of the work and can themselves hear the music, thus “breaking” a kind of “fourth wall” of sound as they participate in a narrative, and are aware that they do so, even as they function as characters within it. This and other sensibilities of The Hunt are quite contemporary in nature, even though the work was inspired by medieval tapestries illustrating the hunt for a unicorn through the use of a virgin as bait: lured by purity, the unicorn approaches and can then be captured by hunters. Soper, unsurprisingly for a modern composer, chooses to use the old legend as the basis of a critique of societal attitudes toward gender and sexuality, thus deliberately denying the tale any level of universality that it might otherwise have. She does employ a mixture of styles, including folk and chorale and parlor song and musical theater, and she even uses a mixture of Latin and English to establish the opening scene. Her musical language is unabashedly contemporary: hearing Latin homophony declaimed in strong dissonance with overlays of Sprechstimme is at the very least an intriguing experience. The verbiage (most of it also by Soper, with bits by Christina Rossetti and symbolist poet Hilda Doolittle, known as H.D.) is often self-consciously self-aware, and the vocal techniques tend to make much of the argument difficult to follow even when the underlying music itself is modest in scale. The Huntis an intriguingly experimental bit of avant-garde sort-of-opera, with some elements of genuine creativity (for instance, the voices in First Sighting speak so rapidly over each other that they sound like electronics, while those voices’ high level of clarity in The Noble Unicorn creates a brief Gilbert-and-Sullivan-esque moment). The presentational quirkiness of this (+++) release is actually its most attractive element. It does undermine the intended seriousness of the messages that Soper wants to communicate, but that is perhaps all to the good, since the structure and sound of The Hunt are more unusual and innovative than the rather formulaic meanings it seeks to convey.

— Mark Estren, 4.19.2024

5

Fanfare

Kate Soper’s one-act opera, The Hunt, might just as easily be called a music theater piece. There is no orchestra, only a cast of three sopranos singing either a cappella or accompanied by instruments—violin and ukulele—that they play. The fairy-tale plot is about hunting for the mythical unicorn, but the message, strongly feminist, mingles medieval and contemporary elements. Texts for improvised folk songs come from Hildegard von Bingen and Thibaut de Champagne in the Middle Ages, for example, but the three maidens at the center of the story also send livestream updates to the King who has sent them on their quest.

The origins of the unicorn legend lie in antiquity, but the medieval beast became a white horse that symbolized purity—in an elaborate Christian allegory, the Virgin Mary tames the wild creature with a glance, and parallels were drawn between hunting the unicorn and the Passion of Christ. Soper takes her inspiration from gender politics, ascribing to the King the harshness of subjugating the three maidens, the violence of hunting down the unicorn, and the desire for power that the creature will give him. The kernel of this theme comes from the medieval belief that only a virgin could capture the unicorn.

What I’ve described so far will probably be a generational litmus test. The feminist intention to liberate the virgins’ sexuality and the hold that men have over them will strike a chord with young audiences but might cause older listeners to turn away. Sincerity and smugness are both in evidence. The Hunt was commissioned by the Miller Theater at Columbia University, and the premiere in October 2023 was a genuine event (there’s an extensive New York Times review online). The costumes, lighting, and background projections were reportedly first-rate. The abstract unitary set, which was primarily a depiction of a clearing in the forest, looked more like a prison (not surprisingly) trapping the three virgins. All of this, along with Soper’s reputation for composing theater pieces—a previous chamber opera, Ipsa Dixit, was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Price in music—helped to lighten the programmatic feminism of the tale.

Soper’s score, as experienced without the staging, is often light, sly, and mischievous. She leans heavily on the faux naif, particularly at the outset, when the three virgins view their search for the unicorn in good spirits—they sing, have lunch, and occasionally hear a bawdy riddle from a silent Stable Boy, whose voice is sung by one of the sopranos, as is the offstage King’s. The opera is divided into 26 numbers with clear, repetitive tiles, primarily Riddle, Song, Livestream, and King’s Comment. In the course of events the three generic virgins acquire personalities as Fleur, Briar, and Rue. They discover their sexuality and gain a singular freedom by losing their virginity, Rue by sleeping with the Stable Boy, Briar and Fleur with each other. In this way they reclaim power over their bodies, which the King arrogantly possessed before.

I haven’t heard any of Soper’s previous operas, but The Sirens, in which she also sang, was also for three sopranos discussing gender issues. In The Hunt she adroitly avoids the monotony that could have set in from an hour of unrelieved soprano singing. The idiom is contemporary but accessible and theatrically effective. There are no memorable melodies, but the close harmony between the three voices is often traditionally consonant. Soper is very fortunate in her talented cast, who easily encompass the score’s demands and sing with real accomplishment. Characterization doesn’t always keep up, but Soper’s libretto is broad (featuring, for me, uncomfortable sexual explicitness), and everyone’s enunciation is crystal clear.

In short, a contemporary feminist parable in medieval guise gets an ideal treatment. The hit movie “Barbie” proved that issues of gender politics can be treated with humor and imagination. The medicine doesn’t go down quite as easily in The Hunt, and one can imagine it becoming dated before long. For the moment, however, Soper’s opera is like an extended livestream for our times.

— Huntley Dent, 5.11.2024

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