|Monodrama by Kaija Saariaho|
|Based on||life and writings of Émilie du Châtelet|
1 March 2010
Émilie is an opera – specifically a 9-scene, 75-minute monodrama for soprano – by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952) to a libretto by Amin Maalouf. It was written in 2008. Based on the life and writings of Marquise Émilie du Châtelet (1706-1749), the work premiered at the Opéra de Lyon, France, on 1 March 2010, with Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, its dedicatee. It recounts the achievements of the mathematician, physicist, and mistress of Voltaire: the first woman to establish an international scientific reputation, with pioneering work in the study of fire.
The opera Émilíe is based on the actual biography of Émilie du Châtelet, who was a contemporary intellectual to, as well as the mistress of, Voltaire. She also took another lover later who fathered her child. The childbirth led to her death. In the plot of the opera, her character's arias are linked to the birth of the child and of her significant scholarship. The soprano soloist is seen in character pregnant and penning new ideas as the opera begins. The subject of the work depicted in the opera was an actual French translation of technical writing in Eléments de la philosophie de Newton (1738). Though her French translation of what is also known simply as Principia by Isaac Newton was published posthumously in 1759, it remains a definitive text. Châtelet died 10 years prior to its publication. Composer Saariaho uses creative license to dramatically and sonically set the two births for solo soprano in a historical monodrama.
The context of women characters and roles in operas from the 17th century to the present rarely address their role as scientists or scholars, not to mention childbirth, making this composition and performance an intervention that expands the genre as studied in new or feminist musicology. Émilie is one of three "female-centered operas" by Saariaho exhibiting a sonic world that feminist musicologist Susan McClary opines as "a 'sensual version of modernism,' one in which 'smoldering intensities' of desire find voice."
Since Châtelet was actually tutored in mathematics by leading European scholars and her exceptional skills were thought to influence Voltaire's work, the scenery in the 2008 Opera de Lyon production of the opera featured images of mathematical equations as significant aspects of the set and scenery for the monodrama.
Reviews dubbed it a "blue-stocking monodrama about the tension between intellect and nature." Billed as the third opera by Saariaho, Emilie is more accurately a sister-piece to the oratorio La Passion de Simone (2006). The actual score is accessible online.
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