the Wandering Womb

55′ – Music Theatre in 9 scenes.  English libretto by Wannes Gyselinck – Sopr/Vl./VCl.

First Performance 23rd. March 2013 @ Music Centre De Bijloke, Gent (B).
Performers : Elise Caluwaerts (soprano), Marcio Kerber Canabarro (dancer), Paulina Sokolowska (violin), Benjamin Glorieux (cello)

Music : Joris Blanckaert
Libretto : Wannes Gyselinck
Choreography : Nelle Hens
Director : Geert Vandyck
Typography : Laurens Teerlinck

Commissioned by Music Centre De Bijloke, a coproduction of Muzi a Zeny vzw & De Bijloke, with support of the Flemish Community.


The Wandering Womb. From hysteria to aria (and back again).

To the woman he said,

‘I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;

 with painful labor you will give birth to children.

Your desire will be for your husband,

    and he will rule over you. Genesis 3:16

The suffering womb-man as spectacle

The Wandering Womb is a chamber opera about female suffering, written by men, and commissioned by male programmers. This may sound like a striking paradox, but it is in fact a truthful reflection of the ancient and only recently effectively contested relationship between the suffering woman (the passive model) and the gazing male (the active artist). Since the beginning of times – Genesis to be precise – women own the monopoly on suffering. However, men obtained the monopoly on the imaginative representation of this female suffering. For centuries women were virtually invisible on the public fore, except when they were caught in the ‘male gaze’. Women could earn visibility by turning their suffering bodies into a –initially mute–spectacle, as was common in the time of the early Christian martyrs.

The Wandering Womb focuses on female martyrs of later times. The story is set ‘somewhere near the end of the nineteenth’ century, when ‘la maladie féminine’ (the female disease) –better known as hysteria–was at its peak. It is no coincidence that composers of that time wrote insanely difficult aria’s for soprano voice to represent the madness of his female protagonists.

The Wandering Womb ends up adding insult to injury by taking these two nineteenth century strands as a combined backdrop for its story: the first modern psychiatric hospital founded and led by Dr Charcot (1825–1893), and the tradition of the female ‘madness aria’, mainly culled from Donnizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1797–1848).

‘La maladie féminine’

The middle ages literally demonised women who ‘stood out’: they were deemed witches. From the eighteenth century onwards the idea gained currency that female (extreme) emotionality had its roots in a physical deficiency, a disease. Another hundred years later ‘la maladie féminine’ – hysteria – became one of the most common diagnoses used by (male) doctors to stigmatize women who did not behave in accordance with male expectations. Madness, in this specific case, became a label designed by a patriarchal society to libel women who opposed, consciously or unconsciously, mail repression.

The wandering womb

The term hysteria was coined by the Greek ‘father of medicine’, Hippocrates. He used it exclusively for women, and this for obvious reasons. Hippocrates explained the ‘typically’ female emotional outbursts as a result of a disturbed blood circulation between the womb (hystera in Greek) and the brain. In later times doctors believed hysteria to be caused by the womb that started wandering around in the female body in search for a child. Naturally, a common treatment of hysteria (even in the first decades of the 20th century) was to stimulate the female genitals into a ‘hysterical paroxysm’ (better known as ‘orgasm’).

In the nineteenth century ‘hysteria’ became a synonym or symptom of ‘being a woman’. It was used by a waning patriarchal society to exercise power over women who increasingly opposed these male power structures, as a consequence of their growing access to education. The clinical literature of that time explicitly stated that ‘educated women’ were more prone to hysteria than uncultured and hence healthy lower class women. Emancipation caused illness, so it seemed.

The hysterical diva

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the hysteric ‘grande attaque’ was turned into a spectacle. The famous French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (1825–1893) was the first to found a scientific research centre for female hysteria in La Salpêtrière, the infamous hospital in Paris for mentally ill women. Central to his research was his collection of thousands and thousands of pictures of women in different stages of their hysterical attack. During his ‘leçons du mardi matin’, lessons on Tuesday morning, Charcot invited (male) students and colleagues, among whom Freud, in the auditorium of his institute, to behold the strange and fascinating gestures of female irrationality. Some of his patients even won great fame by performing their madness on a weekly basis. Blanche Wittman, ‘la reine de la hystérie’ (the queen of hysteria), even became a model for actresses like Sarah Bernhardt (and vice versa). The relationship between the doctor-director and the patient-performer was marked by ambiguity. The women in the hospital theatre were sharply aware that their wellbeing depended on the ‘quality’ of their performance. If they lost their star status, they risked being transferred to the ‘old’ wing of the hospital, where their quality of life would be shockingly worse.

The madness of the coloratura soprano

The opera diva, too, is a fascinating spectacle. She is an athlete, who has managed to transcend the physical limits of her vocal folds, by virtue of discipline and training. In order to reach the highest note, one must suffer.

When an opera diva sings the part of a mad woman we look at female suffering squared, as for example the role of Lucia in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. It should not surprise us that one of the symptoms of 19th century hysteria was described as ‘uncontrolled and excessive singing’.

The 19th century diva was a bird in a golden cage. Within the confinement of the stage she could amaze her audience with her vocal acrobatics, seemingly freed from physical limitations. Her singing became an affirmation both of her physical prowess and of the male dominance of the composer who forced her to push her limits. Outside the stage, however, she was as unfree and powerless as every other woman.

When a soprano is forced into madness by incidents in her private life, as happens in The Wandering Womb, she becomes yet another exponent – to the third degree, that is – of female suffering.

The Wandering Womb as multimedia experience

To ensure a full experience of this ‘female suffering to the third degree’, The Wandering Womb tells its story in three dimensions: word, music and image. In other words: it’s opera.

The aforementioned ambiguous relationship between (male) composer and (female) coloratura soprano is consciously exploited and underlies the compositional choices: the music is composed in such a way that it turns the physical near-impossibility to execute the score into a breath-taking spectacle: arpeggio-exercises, the limits of her vocal reach, demanding shifts in dynamics, breathlessness, it’s all part of the drama, both on the level of character and of performer. We witness a woman who exhausts herself physically in her efforts to reach the highest note, written by the composer a few semitones too high. The status of the aria becomes highly ambiguous: is the soprano a victim of her own virtuosity? Or does her art consist of a liberation out of the straightjacket of technique, an affirmation of her female powers, which she highlights by adding a cadenza, a virtuosos improvisation, to an already excruciatingly difficult musical passage?

A similar tension is exploited in the instrumental accompaniment, where the cello (played by a man) takes over the usual domain of the violin (played by a woman): the high notes, the main melodies, even the way of playing, which happens while standing up.

The choreography uses the pseudo-scientific classification of hysterical gestures as systematised by Charcot, as well as a similar system of theatrical gestures codified by François Delsarte (1811–1871).  His Applied Aesthetics claimed to be an inventory of poses with which every human emotion could be unambiguously communicated. It is the male dancer who is free to navigate within the space of the stage, as opposed to the very limited space allotted to the diva. She may shine with her torture-like vocal arabesques, it is the dancer who – again – ‘out-dances’ the singer into virtual invisibility.

Joris Blanckaert (composition) & Wannes Gyselinck (libretto)