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An Evening With The Heteronormative To Homoextraordinary Genius Of Brenda Patterson

Imagine an opera but like in Barnard Hall.

Although he doesn’t often go to arts events, Internal Editor and Late Nite Extraordinaire Finn Klauber last night tried his hand out going to a “real” arts event. Although he had only been to Barnard four or five times in recent memory, he found his way to Sulzberger Parlour and the symphonic recital that was awaiting him in that lacquered and effeminate den.

Up until the minute I entered Sulzberger Parlour in Barnard Hall, I had no idea what exactly a “heteronormative to homoextraordinary recital” would actually consist of. The event description seem to just be a smattering of artistic buzzwords interspaced between the names and works of Romantic composers and poets—for all I knew, of course. Entering Sulz Parlour didn’t help to orient me in any way, unfortunately, as the patterned walls illustrated with decorous songbirds, the pseudo-realistic portraits of Barnard presidents, and the Gilded Age furniture all clashed with the modern femininity which Barnard so effortlessly projects.

As I silently pondered whether a broken grandfather clock being placed directly in the cold stare of portrait-Debora Spar were some sort of political statement, the star of the evening, Brenda Patterson, began her introduction. Patterson, an acclaimed mezzo-soprano opera singer and alumna of Juilliard and Barnard, was to perform three different cycles of music: an adaptation of Schumann’s “A Woman’s Love & Life,” with new lyrical poetry adapted from Emily Moore, a performance of a selection from Berlioz and Gautier’s Les Nuits d’Eté, and a new performance of a selection from American songwriter Ricky Ian Gordon.

Patterson, as was clear from the event name and description, held no qualms acknowledging this performance as an exploration of old Romantic themes from the perspective of a lesbian. Patterson explained before taking to the piano for her rendition of the Schumann/Moore synthesis that she chose Schumann for a very specific reason. Growing up, Patterson learned the song by heart from her pianist mother, but slowly grew uncomfortable with some of the more infamous selections of the text. She explained how she wanted to keep the music of Schumann, but with different texts, ending up with “mystical results.” Before beginning, Patterson admitted that she is not a trained pianist and that “there will be wrong notes”—though she immediately clarified that she’s “sung at the Met for 7 years but this is scarier.”

The reclamation of Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und – leben” best captured the spirit of Patterson’s Romantic adaptation. The emotion obviously coursing throughout the cycle was truly syncretized with Patterson’s “unprofessional” piano performance, as the sometimes off-pattern music better revealed the multifaceted nature of Patteron’s adaptation. The lyric loosely narrated a sort of Romantic journey through the life of an unnamed lesbian character. The poetics of Moore’s pieces enjoyed fairly impressive scansion as sung by Patterson, though the operatic style often eschewed the original intent of the unsung poetry. For instance, the fourth song of the cycle, “Coney Island Epithalamium,” disposed of the enjambment between emphasized lines so as to fit the metrical requirements of Schumann’s music. Yet, this absence of enjambment sucked away some of the levity of the poetry (and song), thus forcing what reads as light and playful to sound foreboding, grave, and ominous. Inversely, the playful and random joy encapsulated in the sixth song, “Twenty Weeks,” reads as almost trivial, entirely unappealing to those outside of the very narrow traditional audience of Moore’s poetry. When Moore’s words enjoy an operatic accompaniment, however, the random sense of joy is juxtaposed against the gravity of Patterson’s mezzo-soprano voice. In this way, Patterson actively constructed a new artistic creation out of the shells of two otherwise unrelated pieces.

After a short five to ten minute break, Patterson introduced the next cycle of song, Le Nuits d’Eté, along with her dedicated pianist Renate Rohlfing. While this Berlioz/Gautier is often interpreted as a typical Romantic cycle about “love that cannot find place in the world,” a genuinely lesbian streak runs through the cycle. As evidence, Patterson described how the first song, Villanelle, is “about hiking and birdwatching, so…kinda gay.” Gautier was also known for writing a series of lesbian poems in his own time, as reflected in the second song, Le Spectre de la Rose, according to Patterson. In the song, a rose elegizes itself after being taken and disposed of by an unnamed maiden. But why would a man metaphorically describe himself as a rose “still sprinkled with pearls / Of silvery tears from the watering-can”? In Patterson’s view, the song therefore carries distinct undertones of lesbian romance. The actual performance of the song cycle, while artistically and poetically moving, carried few unique elements of note. Patterson sang the entire cycle in French while the non-Francophone audience followed the English translation precariously, an impressive feat by any account.

The final cycle consisted of just two songs from American songwriter Ricky Ian Gordon, whose art followed the death of his partner due to complications from AIDS. The poetry, as opposed to the hopeless romanticism of Berlioz and Gautier, juxtaposed a different style of mortality and loss against the older Romantics. Instead of lamenting the loss of true love in lofty French verse, “What the Living Do,” the superior half of this cycle, instead spotlights the “small things” slowly cascading into an emotional torrent. Perhaps most importantly, Gordon’s “What the Living Do” displays the true mystery of Patterson’s entire performance. The inspirations for Patterson’s modern adaptation of verse and lyric are clearly diverse in nature, but at every step there remains some intonation of lost love, of past tragedy, or of forgotten romance. I cannot know exactly why Patterson feared last night’s performance—particularly as she succeeded at every possible step. But I would wager that last night Patterson built something extremely personal and painful into her performance, something we could only intuit from the rich and euphonic depth of her voice. Regardless, the homoextraordinary cycle proved to be, in all respects, truly extraordinary.

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