The Woman of Salt
Overview: The Woman of Salt by Anice Thigpen
Operas arise from a variety of sources. Some are based on history, others on literary works, and still others on flights of fancy. Anice Thigpen’s one-act chamber opera The Woman of Salt (2017) has a different sort of inspiration: a shattering personal trauma. The seeds of this unique work were planted years ago, when Thigpen lost custody of her two daughters after coming out as gay. In this opera, she shares her grief, her anger, and her healing.
The Woman of Salt closely parallels the Biblical story of Lot’s wife, who turned into a pillar of salt when she disobeyed a divine command by looking back at the destruction of Sodom. In the opera, Lot’s wife is named “AhDoo.” Powerfully and richly portrayed in the premiere performance by soprano Laura Wayte, AhDoo is the opera’s counterpart of Thigpen herself.
AhDoo is the center of a struggle—a tug of war—between opposing forces that make irreconcilable demands on her. One side tells her to leave her grown daughters behind and forget them; the other side urges her to look back and remember. She calls on God for help; receiving no answer, she declares, “This is not my justice, and you are not my god.” Defying her husband and the angels, she looks back and turns to salt. In the uplifting finale, which takes place long after AhDoo’s transformation, her salt is cherished for its spiritual properties.
In addition to the leading soprano role (AhDoo), there are roles for two more sopranos (a Daughter and a Creature From Another Realm); two mezzo-sopranos (a Daughter and a Creature From Another Realm); two bass-baritones (Lot and a Thug Angel); and a tenor (Salt Salesman, doubling as a Thug Angel). There is also a small chorus (SATB). A small chamber orchestra is used to good effect, producing a variety of tonal colors that create atmosphere and underscore emotional content.
There is some remarkable music in this opera. For example, AhDoo’s aria “What Is This Music?” achieves an affecting radiance through relatively simple musical means, focusing attention always on the graceful, eloquent soprano line. Other pieces are more complex, such as the fortissimo pages in “Dissention” that set all the vocal forces clashing against one another, over driving percussion and string continuo. And a rather humorous tempo battle breaks out in “Defiance,” when AhDoo’s rather grim andante accusations against Lot, in 4/4, alternate with an almost clownish little allegretto waltz in which Lot offers pompously pious self-justifications. All this new music was performed cleanly and lucidly in the premiere performance, under the baton of Conductor Michael Sakir.
The libretto contains some real poetry: “Who among us will look back? Who will keep our past? Who among us can account? Cherish all that’s been before?” And this opera may actually contain a reference to its own creation, when AhDoo sings: “I sense this music dances with a story that needs to be heard. It howls from the crests of waves and moans in the wind’s troughs. It hides in the silence of mist and fog and shaggy clouds, and lurks behind the sun where it calls to the rising moon. It’s an angry din, hungry for pitch and tone. It wails and yearns for melody and tune.” As a stand-in for composer Thigpen, is AhDoo describing the throes of creating the opera in which she is the main character? A delicious question one seldom gets to ask.
The Woman of Salt has relatively little action and is rather oratorio-like in structure. Nevertheless, it has strong dramatic content; and with well-designed costumes, thoughtful blocking, and expressive acting, it comes across very well as a fully staged opera, even with a minimal set. This work deserves more performances in professional venues.
Ashley Hastings, Professor Emeritus, Shenandoah University, and
Life-long lover of opera and amateur pianist