Capital Fringe Review: ‘The Young Wife’ by Terry Byrne

Imagine a world in which more women composed operas.

Since Francesa Caccini unveiled what is considered the first opera by a female composer in 1625 (performed in Florence to celebrate the visit of a Polish prince), there have been only three female opera composers of note, sayeth Wikipedia: suffragette Dame Ethel Smyth, a good feminist pioneer; and 20th Century non-sensations Judith Weir and Nancy Van de Vate. Heard of them? Thought not.

So it took the 2013 Capital Fringe Festival – nibbling on the periphery again, but it’s progress! – to get a world premiere of the fully staged The Young Wife, based on Polish writer Gabriela Zapolska’s early 1900s memoirs, produced by the distaff Unmanned Stagecraft – namely, Polish composer and pianist Katarzyna Brochocka; soprano, star and stage Director Courtney Kalbacker; and Lighting Designer Alison V. Hall. At last, sayeth Etta James.

Courtney Kalbacker as 'The Young Wife.'Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker Photography.
Courtney Kalbacker as ‘The Young Wife.’Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker Photography.

From the first twisted chords of a deranged wedding march when we meet our frazzled but buoyant bride, the music and acting are entwined. We hear a villainous damsel-in-distress musical strain, and we want to yell: “Look out!” She has no idea what she’s in for, as she has married not for love but for money. That is, her husband, Julian, married her for the size of her dowry.

Kalbacker’s every gesture – her gaping eyes, her prayers – can be heard in the music and vice versa. Her delight, her doldrums, hysteria and hysterics. Her suspicion, her snippiness, her settling for what is and what can never be. Kalbacker’s astonishing soprano jumps the octave effortlessly, while Brochocka’s accompaniment sounds deceptively like four hands. The intuitive back-and-forth flow between composer and performer plays out richly before our eyes.

By the time the singer is lying on the floor wrapped in a comforter wallowing in a depressive state and moaning an achingly beautiful aria, we realize that no man could write a woman’s role like this. The emotion is organic … and fleeting, as in each successive scene we get another side of her complex, passionate, poetic prism.

The score is so layered, it seems impossible to play, yet Brochocka barrels through. It pulsates – a quarter- then half-note … quarter, then half-note. A beating heart.

No need to belabor the point. This one-woman opera is only an hour long. An opera for the microwave generation – to be mined for the next 300 years.

More! More!

RUNNING TIME: About an hour.

The Young Wife plays through July 27, 2013, at Redrum Fort Fringe – 612 L St. NW, Washington, DC. For performance information and to purchase tickets, visit the show’s Capital Fringe page.

2013 Capital Fringe Festival Show Preview: ‘The Young Wife’ by K. Brochocka.


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