By Alison Pogorelc
In the past year, there has been increased attention surrounding this neglected 1780 chamber opera by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Bologne’s extraordinary life, artistic success and influence have recently captured the interest of many, as he was a pioneering Black composer, contemporary with Haydn and Mozart.
On the surface, his charming chamber opera, L’Amant Anonyme, explores themes of love and romance typical in the High Enlightenment period and sexual awakening that occured during the late 18th century. At that time, there was an increasing rejection of grand baroque spectacles and a newfound interest in themes relating to a more personal human nature.
Such is the case for this opera, as well as its source material, the play by Stéphanie Félicité de Genlis. Similar to our composer, Madame de Genlis has fallen into a kind of anonymity, though her accomplishments as a writer and educationalist are just as exceptional — especially for a woman of that period.
As I began my work on L’Amant Anonyme, I was first struck by the charming moments of absurdity juxtaposed with intense emotionality represented by the strum und drang musical style. At its core, this piece is an exploration into the fear of the unknown; what it means to leave the comfort of familiarity and trust in new (and sometimes anonymous) possibilities.
I quickly began to draw parallels to the cinematic style of the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague), a film movement in the 1950s and '60s which gave birth to a new filmmaking approach, rejecting the traditional techniques of larger film studios. The films of the French New Wave are highly self-aware, often deemphasizing plot to focus on universal themes, such as human existence and love.
Many New Wave directors embraced naturalism and spontaneity, which along with their low-budgets and improvisational style creates a “homemade” or “anti-technique” quality.
Our production channels the philosophical and stylistic ideas of this cinematic movement, both aesthetically and dramatically pushing the boundaries of what might be deemed “traditional” for a piece of this period. Taking inspiration from the films of Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Demy, Agnes Varda, and other directors of the movement, we bridge naturalism with surreal extremes to highlight the intense emotional journey of our protagonist Léontine as she struggles to move on from her past and embrace the unknown.
It seems only fitting that this piece, conceived by two mavericks in their day, be approached in a style which challenges dramatic expectations. We hope that our interpretation of this piece highlights the durability of their work and encourages our audience to explore other anonymous artists whom history has forgotten.