Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato returns to Princeton University on Wednesday, February 18, with the Brentano String Quartet for a program that includes works by Charpentier, Debussy, and Richard Strauss.
Yet it is the Princeton premiere of a work written especially for her by American composer Jake Heggie that promises to be a highlight.
Heggie — known especially for his work with art songs and opera — created a 35-minute song cycle “Camille Claudel: Into the Fire.” The work is an artist-specific piece rife with art, history, and sexual politics.
The work’s subject, Claudel, was born in a small French village in 1864 with an urge to model mud and clay. She asserted herself by moving to Paris and becoming a student at the Academy Colarossi. In 1882 her instructor, sculptor Alfred Boucher, arranged for her to work with famed sculptor Auguste Rodin, casting the two in roles from which they are forever linked.
As Heggie writes in his program notes, Claudel “was a creative genius at a time when a woman was rarely taken seriously on her own, and usually only in connection with a man. For Claudel, that was Rodin: her mentor, teacher, and lover. Their stormy romance, warring egos, clashing genius, her bold life choices, his broken promises, and the mental illness that would lead to her 30-year confinement in a remote asylum — these are all part of her tragic story. But only part. For there are her sculptures: sublime, beautiful, inspired, aching — dancing and singing to us through time.”
Heggie says the work connected with his other works. “I am consistently drawn to stories about transformative quests for identity. Claudel’s story is of a woman struggling to be known on her own, and on her own terms, for the genius that she was given. It touches on elements of feminism, on the art world, on judgments of the public versus the internal life of the artist, and on mental illness.”
Heggie provides additional details about the sense and spirit of the work. “Camille was a genius and knew she was. She was a hard worker, and feisty and passionate. Rodin fell for her, and she probably fell for him for a few reasons. She inspired Rodin’s work, and he inspired hers. But as her work grew, so did her paranoia. There really isn’t a happy ending for Camille, except that she is [posthumously] getting her due as a great artist.”
Noting that he learned about the sculptor through a 1988 feature film, “Camille Claudel,” Heggie was touched by various themes, including the internal life of the artist and mental illness. The latter touched Heggie’s life: his father was bipolar and committed suicide.
“I began composing when I was 11, right after my dad died. I was always interested in storytelling. I keep a list of stories, personalities, and subjects I think would be fascinating to pursue at some point, and the movie has always stuck in my head as one I wanted to follow through on. I’d still like to see it as a fully staged opera at some point. I’ve learned a lot about how I would do that, from writing this set of songs.”
Heggie, 53, studied piano at the University of California-Los Angeles. He is now based in San Francisco, where he lives with his husband.
When Heggie viewed Claudel’s life on film he says, “I knew it was something that I wanted to do, through either song or an opera at some time. I thought it had real potential for a stage work centering on Rodin’s overpowering personality and artistic genius, and then [on] Camille, this strong, independent, and yet intensely vulnerable woman wanting to be recognized and identified on her own for what she had to give.”
Heggie — whose other works include the opera “Moby-Dick” and “Dead Men Walking” — collaborated with librettist Gene Scheer and chose what he says was one of the most dramatic days of Claudel’s life: when her family had her committed to the asylum and then never went to see her.
“The family had committed her, and only they could release her. There was some loophole that allowed the family to claim that she posed a threat to herself and to those around her. The people at the hospital insisted that she was well enough to leave. What she needed was society with people, not isolation. Her brother, Paul Claudel, a world-famous poet and playwright who was also a diplomatic ambassador from France to several countries, was worried about the controversy she might cause. Because she had become a paranoid schizophrenic, he was very keen on having her locked up,” he says.
That paranoia included her fear about her work. “She actually destroyed a lot of her work. She was afraid it would be copied, stolen — out of her control. We have about 90 pieces left, between sculpture, painting, drawings, and plasters,” notes Heggie.
Her paranoia unfortunately was also directed to her former lover. “Rodin had always championed her work, because he recognized her genius. Before he died, he insisted that one room of the Rodin Museum, in the house where he worked and died, be dedicated to her work. He always tried to support her work, even though Camille, who was paranoid, thought it was just the opposite; she thought he was trying to destroy her work,” says Heggie.
For the song cycle Heggie has Claudel have conversations with five different sculptures of hers that remained behind. “(Scheer) managed to find the actual stories about when those sculptures happened in her life and tied them into a poetic thread of songs about love, loss, dance, and death. They provide a window into her sense of loss. We also learn what inspired the sculptures and where they ‘took’ her. We try to make it an active memory of discussion, essentially with herself but also with the sculptures. There’s one sculpture, ‘La petite Chatelaine,’ that she made right after she aborted Rodin’s baby, probably at his behest. That ended their relationship, and her work changed, too. But Gene has found a way to tie in the sculpture with that event, with Camille asking the bust of the child, ‘Do you know who I am?’”
Elsewhere Heggie talks about writing it for DiDonato — whom he calls ‘one of the finest singers of our time’ — and says, “I’ve written for her quite a lot now. I never was a fan of the bel canto period, but suddenly I’ve become a huge fan because I realized that melismas (a phrase of notes that express one syllable) and coloratura (ornamental trills and runs) are meditations on a particular word or mood and what it means dramatically. They’re dazzling because they mean something. I really enjoy exploring them, and it’s finding its way into my music more and more. And Joyce is their perfect champion.”
The Kansas-born Joyce DiDonato performs internationally, recently appearing as “Cendrillon” at the Liceu Barcelona, Sesto in “La Clemenza di Tito” at the Lyric Opera Chicago, and the title role of Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” at the Royal Opera House. She frequently appears at Carnegie Hall, New York, and the Barbican Center, London, and was called by the New Yorker “perhaps the most potent female singer of her generation.” Over the next two months she can be seen in the title role of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Rossini’s “The Donna del Lago.”
The concert also marks the return to the Brentano String Quartet. The group ended its 15-year residency at Princeton University this past fall and is now at Yale University, providing concerts, coaching graduate students, and interacting with the community.
Brentano String Quartet & Joyce DiDonato, Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall, Princeton University. Wednesday, February 18, 7:30 p.m. $10 to $45. To purchase single tickets, call the Frist Campus Center box office at 609-258-9220, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.