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Interview of Caitlin Smith

“Opera feels like a very current art form to me”


Caitlin Smith sees herself as a composer who works mainly with words, and she uses them to depict sensitive stories of disability and inequality from a feminist point of view. With two operas coming up, the Canadian living in Vienna has a lot of work in the pipeline. Thanks to a residency at enoa, SMITH is in touch with opera institutions like LOD Muziektheater or Theatres de Villes and experiencing that there is a growing understanding that outsider perspectives are useful for opera.


Over the years Caitlin Smith has gained a lot of experience in studio production. She gained a deeper understanding of how people think about music, which helps her as a producer – a role she steps into once or twice a year. In an interview with Ruth Ranacher, she talks about picking apart Top 40 Country Music, the value of taking a deep breath before speaking assertively, and why she sees opera as the most progressive art form in performing arts.


Interview conducted by Ruth Ranacher




You were selected as an Artist in Residence at enoa – a worldwide network to empower opera. Could you describe your role in the program for those who don’t know enoa or the program funded by Creative Europe? The full title is: “Empowering Opera: Breaking Boundaries for Institutions and Artists”.


Caitlin Smith: This immersive residency program of enoa was designed to give people access who are usually excluded from mainstream opera institutions. We are eight residents from all over Europe, from many different disciplines. This program is brand new, so it’s a learning process for both sides – the residents and the institutions, too. We’ve had a lot of really great discussions that opened with an online residency via Zoom. From that point on, we’ve all been designing our individual residencies as needed.



What can you take from the very traditional form of opera, like e.g. the narrative structure, for the development of your material? And how do you adapt your storytelling?


Caitlin Smith: I approach the history of opera entirely as an outsider. I feel no obligation to that history. Everything I know about opera I’ve learned by listening to and looking at scores, and asking the people who make it. I feel no need to tell stories the way they have been told. I’m more interested in depicting information that can be part of a useful conversation. So if I use historical structures in my storytelling, I only do that because it seems to be the most efficient way to convey the information to the audience. My goal is to use opera as a medium in order to raise conversations or convey difficult or complex subjects in a way that informs the audience through music.



You mentioned that you have experienced opera as an outsider so far. Would you say one reason for that is that you are a woman?


Caitlin Smith: Mmm, yes.



That topic might bring us to a current piece you are developing in collaboration with the writer and dramaturg Carolyn Amann. “NOW THAT WE ARE PERSONS WE SHALL MAKE ART” is a chamber opera that explores how women make their own art and it is deconstructing the myth of the male genius. How do women make their own art?


Caitlin Smith: The way our characters answer this question in this piece is by creating time and space in which they can sit and think and talk – to find that calm space from which creativity can truly emerge. The reasons why they are not able to make art goes back to a lack of safety and belonging. Giving them space on stage allows them to have access to creativity. In the storyline of the piece, we are looking at the different things that interrupt our characters’ creativity. In the opening scene, our narrator, a young painter who is trying to find space in which to make art, is accosted by a young gentleman who is also an aspiring painter. We’re looking at how his desire to make art is naturally accepted. We see his desire as one of the physical, and sometimes also violent forces, that can overcome the boundaries of a woman’s creative space.

In another scene, set in the Picture Gallery at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, in front of the painting “Susanna and the Elders” by Tintoretto, we look at what it means for a woman to sit in a gallery surrounded by the depictions of the male gaze. This scene is a re-interpretation of the traditional story of “Susanna and the Elders” because our female characters are telling the story to themselves, the way they see it, rather than how Tintoretto understood it. I read a lot of papers by art historians to understand the way they interpret the painting. The more I read, the heavier their voices became in my head. For the opera, we prerecorded actors reading monologues that use the same language as these academic papers. We are contrasting that with how our female characters are analyzing the painting themselves. So our re-analysis is not only of the painting and the way art historians look at Tintoretto’s work, but also of the story of “Susanna and the Elders” itself.



You wrote a genre-conforming Country Music song, produced online with session musicians in Nashville. For the opera you pull it into tiny parts and integrate them into the score. Was this just “work as usual” for the, I guess, male musicians? Did they know what your plan was?


Caitlin Smith: I told them what the plan was and they were totally on board with it. I prepared the recording session the way I prepare any other commercial recording session. So it was very much business as usual for them. But the end product now is a radio-ready country song we are pulling apart into tiny pieces. We are improvising on the different themes in order for our female characters to re-interpret this song, which is written from the perspective of the young gentleman who comes in and takes up all the space in the gallery.



When you wrote the song, how serious were you? Was it like cooking from a recipe?


Caitlin Smith: Very serious. That’s my training. I wrote a lot of commercial music in various forms over the years. So it was very easy for me to write a song that, on a surface level sounds very much like mainstream Country. But when you dig into the lyrics, it becomes clear that it is a parody or maybe not so serious. It’s this sound that instantly tells the ear that it’s Top 40 Country Music. As an observer, I find the gendered nature of Country Music fascinating. The macho culture is part of the branding. Using the sound of Country is an effective way to examine the vulnerability of our male character behind his macho facade. We can signal that through the sound.



Another work, “The State of Her”, is also part of the enoa Opera Creation Journey, a new opera development program taking place in 2022. Let´s have some insights in that piece, please.


Caitlin Smith: We are in a very early stage of developing this piece. I am working with Sinéad O’Kelly, an Irish Mezzo-Soprano and Franciska Ery, a Hungarian director to develop this short opera for Mezzo and orchestra. We met online as part of the London Royal Opera House’s Engender Networking program. During this “speed dating session” they dropped me into a little Zoom-room with Franciska and we had a nice discussion. The idea is to create a short piece for soprano and orchestra that can be performed as part of a triptych with Händel’s “La Lucretia” and Poulenc’s “La voix humaine”. We are aiming to create an evening where the same character appears in all three pieces – Händel, Poulenc and the new piece we are now creating together.


So you have to create something that fits in…


Caitlin Smith: Yes, but also stands alone. The story is the same through the ages. There are a lot of similarities between La Lucretia and Poulenc’s character. They are both women who are experiencing the immediate aftermath of sexual violence. What we’ve noticed is that Poulenc’s character has a lot more agency than La Lucretia had. In the early 20th century Poulenc’s character was not able to talk explicitly about sexual violence as a topic, but she wasn’t reduced to the same kind of helpless figure as Händel has depicted. She processes the trauma in a much more introverted way. Having been a victim of sexual assault is not the life-ending point for her, but it was for La Lucretia. In our piece, we want to show the continuation of that evolution. Women who are now facing the same situation have more agency, but are still dealing with the same basic problems.



And maybe they have a lack of words?


Caitlin Smith: Exactly. For the creation of the libretto we raise questions like: How much agency does our character have to explicitly talk about what happened to her vs. how much has to be blurred or under the surface. To whom will she tell her story and will they actually listen?


You chose the form of an inner monologue – so it’s not yet clear where your character goes to with her pain.


Caitlin Smith: Yes. We’re hoping to look at the rituals around filing police reports of sexual assault, at the words that are “allowed” in this very bureaucratic situation.



Inequality probably plays a role as well.


Caitlin Smith: The power dynamics in reporting sexual assault are so uncomfortable. So we contrast what our character says in that situation with her inner monologue and what she needs to express for herself. Musically there is a lot we can do with that inner monologue. I’m trying the same effect with “Now that we are persons”. Both are very traumatic topics and for many people in the audience, not just an abstract question. It is an experience they have had. To avoid re-traumatizing our audience, we want to fully acknowledge the physical impact of depicting these stories on stage. That’s our goal with both operas. We do that by timing and pacing the information that is brought forward; by giving physical pauses – actual breathers. Like, when dealing with something difficult to take a deep breath and acknowledge together, “whoooaa, that was painful!”. As we are dealing with these difficult topics, I want to make sure that our audience is still able to engage and be part of that conversation. Personally, I am so tired of seeing operas that are tragedies and coming away feeling like I haven’t learned anything new. I’m physically exhausted, worn down, seeing that it hasn’t moved the conversation forward for society in any way.



Opera is drama, murder and manslaughter, and love…


Caitlin Smith: … and that’s life too. It is important that opera depicts everything we experience in real life, but at the same time is not lacking in purpose.



You’ve mentioned that you want to perform The State of Her in a club. Does moving the scenery to a club prove that opera can be very contemporary? What else is needed?


Caitlin Smith: The question of whether opera can be made relevant to our contemporary society, or if it’s just an antiquated art form, only pertains to people who want to make “museum pieces”. Opera feels like a very current art form to me. The more opera creators I get to know, the more I think that opera is the most progressive art form in performing arts right now – because it has to incorporate so many disciplines in order to create a whole piece. It is, by definition, a very modern and dynamic art form. It seems everybody is performing site-specific works and working with innovative technology. But the basic premise of using words, music and movement to examine contemporary life, is a very natural one.



In the arts, diversity is on everyone’s lips, but difficult to implement. If you compare the Austrian or the German-speaking scene with the international one, do you have the feeling that more is being done there to achieve a higher level of diversity?


Caitlin Smith: I’m not sure if I am the right person to talk about the scene in general. Because I have been living with chronic illness for so long, I haven´t engaged with the scene in quite the same way as many others. All I have are these little points of contact from the past several years, in between episodes of illness. From that very limited perspective, the scene of opera creators which I have become connected with – through enoa, the Engender network or the work you did at Austrian Music Export when taking us to the Operadagen Rotterdam, and getting to know people in Vienna as well – there seems to be a real understanding that outsider perspectives are very useful in opera. That the opera, as a medium, can easily adapt to different understandings of what it can be.


You mentioned you are working as a studio producer, having knowledge in commercial music too?


Caitlin Smith: Over the years I have earned money from various tasks – from studio producing, to ghost writing, to arranging commercial music, and preparing sheet music for orchestras. I had a lot of contact with pop and commercial music. That training has prepared me for quickly adapting to the different ways people understand music when they sit down and compose a song. I’ve watched people working in various genres going through the creative process, so I got a deeper understanding of how people think about music. As a producer that helps because I am able to help the performer make their own creative process more clear. Here in Vienna I’ve been producing mostly for women making their first solo CDs. I do one or two sessions a year.



Among them are Anna Anderluh, Julia Lacherstorfer, and Verena Zeiner. All albums that had an impact, if you look at reviews.


Caitlin Smith: They were all women who are extremely talented and were already very experienced before these recordings, and they knew that they had something to say. They were looking for space in which to say it. It’s exactly the same topic we’re dealing with in “NOW THAT WE ARE PERSONS”: giving yourself the permission to be creative, finding people who know how to make space for you. I see my role as a producer to be the first person to receive these new songs, helping to transmit them to the rest of the world. It has been a real honour to work with these women at this crucial point in their own careers. There were also people that have done that for me in my career when I was looking to make music. I’m really enjoying doing that for others.


I took a few notes during our interview. One says “Taking a deep breath” which is also mentioned in the title of one of your songs I found on SoundCloud. I´m curious to get to know a bit more, so let’s take this as a final question.


Caitlin Smith: Yes, “Joan Jett kicks off her boots, finishes her beer, and takes a deep breath”. The work was commissioned by strings&noise. I used the melody and rhythm of Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” but replaced the distorted guitars with sound clip that I had collected from radio-interviews where women speak assertively of their own work. Like writers and artists saying “What I think…” or “My opinion is…”. I wanted to work with the breath specifically because before women can speak assertively about their work, they need to take a deep breath. We need to create that space with our breath. Sophia Goidinger-Koch, the violinist of strings&noise, is curating a concert where that piece will be presented along with video projection.



Thank you very much for the interview!

Ruth Ranacher



Caitlin Smith (Website)