What came first: the woman or the witch? It’s a close-run thing, says Freya Waley-Cohen, composer of Spell Book, the first instalment of a uniquely magical double-bill: “In early Jewish folklore and some Babylonian texts, Lilith was the first woman, not Eve. When Lilith refused to be subservient to Adam, she left the Garden of Eden, and God said: ‘You can either come back and submit to us, or you can be a demon forever.’ So, she chose to be a demon forever”. Lilith’s choice provided her with freedom, but it also ensured her immortalisation in Western culture as the first archetypal she-demon, held up as a cautionary tale to disobedient women everywhere – until now, perhaps.
Song for Lilith is the opening number in Waley-Cohen’s song-cycle, Spell Book. Commissioned by a combination of ensembles over two years, the cycle sets poetry from WITCH; a collection of anarchic, feminist poems by British author Rebecca Tamás, published in 2019. The full collection comprises twenty-one self-professed ‘hexes’, each one a “small, bright, filthy song” that “clings to your body like sweat”. So, not your typical libretto.
From its opening bars, Waley-Cohen embraces Tamás’s gleeful, subversive style, reframing the narrative around the infamous she-demon: “Lilith you look so nice with that snake”, intones the singer, “your hair curled the way a serpent might”. The poem goes on to suggest that by exiling herself from Eden, Lilith was able to go and create her own world of magic – “a whole universe of your own making / entirely pleasure” – a sensual world to which Waley-Cohen’s vocalist longs to return. “Take us back with you,” she implores, before launching into five further spells (for Sex, Logic, Women’s Books, Joy and Reality), all variously profane, earthy and mysterious. “In the poems,” says Waley-Cohen, “there’s this idea that Lilith’s world is out there, still existing. Perhaps,” she adds, smiling, “Caccini’s opera is in Lilith’s world, too”.
La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina, composed by Francesca Caccini in 1625, will unfold in the same space as Freya’s song cycle. The decision to programme the Caccini after the Waley-Cohen is a deliberate one, as Music Director Yshani Perinpanayagam explains: “We’re thinking very much in terms of the whole evening, and how one piece will colour and shade the other, or leave some kind of resonance in the space for the next. In the Caccini, there’s a danger that the two witch-women in the story – Melissa and Alcina – are only seen as ‘good witch’ and ‘bad witch’. I’m looking at ways of highlighting these tropes, so that the audience can see Caccini’s witches through eyes that have been widened or opened by the song-cycle”.
La liberazione is a work of its time, but despite being nearly four centuries old, Caccini’s opera is progressive in so many ways. Reputedly the first opera ever composed by a woman, it was commissioned by Maria Maddalena, the wife of Cosimo II de’ Medici in Florence, and is based on the epic Italian poem, Orlando Furioso (the same source as Handel’s opera, Alcina). It tells the tale of the enchantress Alcina, who has seduced the otherwise dutiful husband Ruggiero away from his wife. He seems largely content to be under Alcina’s spell, living on her enchanted island until the virtuous sorceress, Melissa, intervenes. The ensuing showdown has dramatic consequences for both Alcina and Ruggiero, who, as Perinpanayagam points out, “is absolutely a pawn in the battle of witch versus witch. It is awesome that Francesca Caccini has given both of these women such power”.
Much of the characterisation of the two witches will emerge through rehearsal with the singers and the Director Jenny Ogilvie – but some of it will also derive from Perinpanayagam’s new orchestration. Faced with the typically sparse manuscript of a rarely-performed Baroque opera, she has the added challenge of scoring it anew for a contemporary ensemble of strings, woodwind and piano (the same forces that are used in Freya’s song-cycle) – with the addition of a harpsichord.
While an ensemble of modern instruments invites innovation, Perinpanayagam feels a strong sense of duty to honour the past: “I’m trying to balance finding my own freedom as an arranger with my responsibility to get Caccini’s voice across”. But any historically-informed performance is an act of imaginative reconstruction, and it’s in that spirit that Yshani is starting to find her own way into the music: partly through drawing on her own experience as an improviser and performer; partly from listening to the few recordings that exist (“Seeing how free other arrangers have been with the score has been really liberating”); and partly from knowing the ensemble: “It would seem almost criminal not to explore the range of what each player do. Especially,” she adds with a grin, “when we’re in magic land”.
“Magic land” is a place that has long inspired Freya’s imagination. “I was quite quiet as a child, and so I always identified with this sense of other-worldliness,” she says, recalling how various adults approached her parents and suggested she was a changeling (that she had been swapped with a fairy child). She even has an ancestral connection with the Salem Witch trials on her mother’s side, with multiple family members, both male and female, recorded as having been killed – and involved as accusers – in those events of 1692-93 (a mere sixty-seven years after Caccini’s opera was composed).
But it was Tamás’s poetry, rather than that historical connection, which struck a chord with Freya: “I instantly identified with Rebecca’s way of wanting to look at the world through a witch’s eye. I’ve always been interested in the space between what we know and what we feel and believe; between rationality and something else. It’s obviously the place magic might sit, but it also represents the playground between poetry and music in their own way”.
Two visions of witchcraft, four centuries apart, summoned on stage this summer. With Yshani bridging a musical divide spanning four centuries, and Freya conjuring spell-songs for the modern day, it is clear that even in an age of reason, Lilith’s realm of magic and witchcraft is here to stay.
Sophie Rashbrook is a writer, librettist and opera dramaturg based in London. Her libretti include the song-cycle Six Songs of Melmoth, an Oxford Lieder Festival commission by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, and the song Nature is Returning by Joshua Borin, which has been performed on BBC Radio 3, the Wigmore Hall, and the Concertgebouw. She holds degrees in Russian and opera-making from Cambridge and Guildhall, and currently edits the opera programmes at the Royal Opera House.