The Yellow Wallpaper

Opera in One Act after "The Yellow Wall-Paper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Dan Welcher

Performing Ensemble: Opera without Chorus
Text: Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Duration: 01:15:00
Publisher: Elkan-Vogel, Inc.
Print Status: Rental

Quick Overview

The Yellow Wallpaper is a one-act opera based on Charlotte Perkins Gilman's landmark short story by the same name that was first published in the New England Magazine in 1891. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the author, said in an interview years later that she had written from personal experience: her husband was concerned about her nervousness (she had several breakdowns over a period of several years) and determined, with a doctor-friend, on a course of action. Charlotte was to be kept away from writing, which was her passion, "for the rest of her life" in order to "cure" her of her nervous excitement. She was kept in a domestic situation "with no more than two hours intellectual life a day." The result, she said, was that she "came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over it." She wrote the story as personal catharsis, and the result (once it was published) was that women and their physicians began to see the harm in these forced "rest cures."

The story is told in a series of first-person diary entries, spanning three months. It thus becomes the secret journal of a woman who, failing to relish the joys of marriage and motherhood, is sentenced to a country rest cure to remedy her "nervous condition" - which might actually have been simple postpartum depression. Though she longs to write, her husband (who, in the story, is also a physician) forbids it, prescribing instead complete passivity. Locked in her bedroom, the heroine creates a reality of her own beyond the hypnotic pattern of the faded yellow wallpaper - a pattern that has come to symbolize her imprisonment. Told with a psychological and dramatic precision well beyond most stories of the period, The Yellow Wallpaper stands out not only for the imaginative authenticity with which it depicts one woman's descent into insanity but also for the power of its testimony to the importance of freedom and self-empowerment for women. The story was quickly reprinted as a book, then found its way into several anthologies over a twenty year period. Forgotten for decades, it re-emerged in the 1970s as an early milestone in the long march for female equality, and is now read and taught all over the world.

Dan Welcher: "I find in this story, and particularly in the method in which it is told, a perfect vehicle for a dramatic singer. Like Schoenberg's monodrama Erwartung ("Waiting"), it allows the observer to watch a single character's self-analysis unfold. I envision a single set: a bare three walled bedroom (on which the wallpaper and other objects and visions can be projected) with a heavy iron bed (nailed to the floor) and a writing desk and chair. As the protagonist becomes more and more aware of the "woman behind the wallpaper," we see and then hear this hidden woman, a mirror for the imprisoned soul of the protagonist. With a chamber ensemble behind her, the protagonist is able to chart an inexorable rise in intensity from her initial joys in the new environment, through her awareness that she is in fact a prisoner, to her ultimate descent into madness.

"By concentrating solely on The Woman (she has no name in the story, but is referred to in quotations from her husband as "my dear," "my darling," "little girl," and "silly goose"), I hope to preserve Perkins' white-hot focus. We hear this story only from The Woman (this is, after all, her diary) and we see things as she sees them. I see The Yellow Wallpaper as a piece that can survive either in a small opera house or on a concert stage. The total forces needed for performance are: a mezzo-soprano or dramatic soprano (the protagonist), a second singer (soprano) who portrays the hidden woman "behind the wallpaper" in echo-phrases and nonverbal syllables, and a chamber orchestra of 15-25 players, including a synthesizer (which is put to much use in the hallucination music and the extra-musical sounds needed for special effects). Because the forces required to present it are quite small, the most minimal set, with or without the special lighting and projections, can serve this drama well. In a concert setting, even the set can be dispensed with: a great dramatic singer can make the audience "see" the room and the wallpaper, even if they are not shown. Charlotte Perkins Gilman said this about her famous story: "It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it."

Additional Information

Cast Voices Mezzo Sop., Sop. (offstage)
Composition Date 2009
Orchestration Fl./Picc. Ob./E.H. Cl. Bsn. Hn. Tpt. Per. Pno./Synth. Hp. Str.

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