History Repeating Itself: Updating the setting of The Rape of Lucretia

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Stage Director Anna Theodosakis during The Rape of Lucretia rehearsals

One of the first questions I ask myself when approaching a new opera is what drew the composer or librettist to writing on this subject matter? What was the appeal? Did they connect with it on a personal level? Was it thematically relevant to the society or time they were living in? Perhaps it was simply a commission but I find that frequently with a bit of detective work you can hone in on what made the idea of this opera exciting to the composer.

When I began researching The Rape of Lucretia I read up on the original tale, and its adaptations throughout history, but I also turned my attention to Benjamin Britten and what was going on around him before and during 1946 when he completed the opera. When I began learning more about post-war Europe I found an incredible connection between the political landscape of 1946 Italy and Lucretia’s original setting of Ancient Rome under the Etruscans. In the 1946 Referendum the people of Italy voted out the Monarchy making Italy a Republic. Leading up to the referendum, King Victor Emmanuel III turned over most of his power to the Crown Prince Umberto II believing Italians would find his son more favourable. I connected the referendum with the Romans of our story who wanted to push the Etruscans out of government in Ancient Rome. I was also interested in the father-son link between Emmanuel III and Umberto II with King Tarquinius Superbus and his son Prince Tarquinius Sextus, who acts as the aggressor in this opera.

History lesson aside, this discovery provided a nice base for me to begin developing my production. Firstly, the idea of 1940s dresses and soldier uniforms appealed to me more than traditional togas. It creates a classy and flattering aesthetic that I hope the audience will enjoy. The setting of a political campaign allowed me to solidify the roles of certain characters and highlight the opera’s political undertone.

By setting the opera in the time of the composer I hope it will provide some context as to why Britten chose the subject of Lucretia. Themes of victimization, government corruption, and society’s obsession with the purity of women were happening all around Britten. By indicating that a tragedy happening in Ancient Rome was still relevant in the mid-20th century I want our audience to realize that, sadly, tragedies like this one are still happening today. Our society often exploits the survivors of sexual assault. Their stories are manipulated or their voices are silenced. It’s important to produce art that sparks conversation about consent and the stigma surrounding rape, to help stop history from repeating itself.

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