February 27, 2023
* Notes *
Kitka Women's Vocal Ensemble gave the world premiere of Karmina Šilec's opera BABA: The Life and Death of Stana (Act I pictured, photograph by Peter Ruocco) last weekend at Z Space in San Francisco. The opera is based on the lives of women who live as men after taking vows of chastity and celibacy in the Balkans, known as "sworn virgins" or virdžina in Serbo-Croatian and burrnesha in Albanian.
This tech-heavy production involved many projections and recorded sounds, but also live accordion and the human voices of the ensemble. There was much speaking and dancing as well, and it was a very full theatrical experience. I must say, I really didn't know exactly what was going on, but I couldn't look away and I certainly was not bored. I always get drawn into the complex rhythms of Balkan music and the interesting sliding notes and harmonizations.
The piece is rather abstract, there isn't really a narrative, but we hear a lot about Stana Cerović, one of the last known "sworn virgins" of Montenegro. The opera begins with Kelly Atkins enunciating many sentences about Cerović at different points of his biography, alternating pronouns and jumping around in time. An example would be something like "Stana is 45 and says he is happy." We do get to hear some startling singing, the various vocal techniques from these talented performers could be both ethereal and disturbing.
There were snippets of stories, Act I has a disquieting depiction of a woman giving birth to triplets outside in the cold as to not wake the rest of the household. One of the babies, a girl, is snatched away by a dog. When told about this, the husband of the woman is heartless, misogyny on full display, unconcerned by the loss. There's also a whole scene that involves Stana training to be a man with Erin Lashnits Herman undressing, binding her breasts, and putting on a suit. She later dresses Maclovia Quintana as a bride and they end the act by playing a game of calling out body parts and doing choreography based on this.
The second half (pictured, photograph by Peter Ruocco) was shorter, and had ten white skirts standing up by themselves on the stage that were projected on and anchored the choreography. Again, much of the focus was on Stana, but were heard a bit about other "sworn virgins," or at least, explore some imagined stories about them. At the end we hear one last song from Herzegovina, "Otkad, seke nismo zapjevale," the only one not in English as sentences flash on a screen above.
For the most part it seemed that the audience was very engaged in the piece, nearly every seat looked taken. There was not much whispering and the only electronic noise I heard was from a person on the aisle of the right section taking pictures of the skirts in Act II as the music was happening.
They did open the house rather close to curtain, and since there was not assigned seating, only general and premium sections, there was a lot of confusion on which seats were free or not. It was a bit of a mad rush, but everyone did get seated and things only went over the billed 2 hours and 15 minutes by another 15 minutes.