Three virgins, an elusive unicorn and social media infusions in Kate Soper’s The Hunt

United StatesUnited States Kate Soper, The Hunt: Brett Umlauf, Christiana Cole (soprano and ukulele), Hirona Amamiya (soprano and violin). Miller Theater at Columbia University, New York, 14.10.2023. (DS)

Brett Umlauf (Fleur), Christiana Cole (Briar), Hirona Amamiya (Rue) © Rob Davidson

Director – Ashley Kelly Tata
Music director – Mila Henry
Sets – Aoshuang Zhang
Lighting – Masha Tsimring
Costumes – Terese Wadden
Projections – Camilla Tassi
Sound – Elliot Yokum

Fleur – Brett Umlauf
Briar – Christiana Cole
Rue – Hirona Amamiya
Stableboy – Ian Edlund
Castle staff – John Dyer, Trevor Schlam

Kate Soper gets an A. If those sound like the words of a teacher, they are meant to. In today’s humanities classes, one of the primary assignments a student receives is to write a story from the perspective of a supporting or silent character or historical figure. It is how we try to bring new perspectives into a dominantly white male-oriented story arc. My pupils will often ask me if it can be funny. Yes. Can it be set it in a different time or have modern characteristics? Yes. I tell them to keep the foundation of the story, explore through the lens of the character and feel free to refine or rewrite the story’s message.

Soper did all that and more in her brilliantly inventive chamber opera, The Hunt – a medieval story of three virgin maidens (told from their perspective, of course) who are held by a king to attract the elusive unicorn. Full of humor, tastefully incorporated social media contexts and carefully selected texts that included Pliny, Hildegard of Bingen and Christina Rossetti, her creative outpouring was comfortably unafraid.

The work’s strength lay in Soper’s music. It was wholly original, composed fluidly to straddle the medieval and contemporary without falling into the trap of imitation. With the simple instrumentation of ukelele and violin played on stage by the singers, the style read as a cleverly irreverent nod to the subversive, loose madrigal genre. All three sopranos, Umlauf, Cole and Amamiya, deserve accolades for the complex music and lyrics they pulled together in what was probably a short amount of rehearsal time. They demonstrated impressive endurance and an ability to maintain momentum through The Hunt’s dense narrative, full of changing meanings and injections of humor – and they pulled it off effortlessly.

Christiana Cole (Briar), Brett Umlauf (Fleur), Hirona Amamiya (Rue) © Rob Davidson

There were moments of solid inspiration, but a few would benefit from some revising. Soper created a sequential structure to the scenes that worked wonderfully. The three virgins would get into a discussion (sometimes portrayed as a social-media livestream), the king would send a text message, a lover would sneak in a riddle with their lunch and then an original song would follow. Soper’s riddles were enigmatic, and the viewer eagerly anticipated the next, hoping to figure out the answer. Soper could have used the comedic tool more but dropped it in the final quarter of the work.

At times, the story’s flow felt hindered, but Scene IV was a climactic triumph – it burst into a lyrically enchanting moment as the three trapped women began to metamorphosize into their true, expressive selves. One message I took away was that purity (which the court virgins are expected to maintain) breeds falsehood, and the production captured the contrasting moods between caged souls and the released ones. However, the following scene was weaker: a too-collegiate bacchanalia, induced by psychedelic drugs (the women ate the unicorn’s mystery pills).

The production was sparse but thoughtfully done and kept the story at the center. Clothed in cream-colored medieval dress and white sneakers, the actor-musicians played before a plywood wall with a small opening through which their lunch and messages were pushed. Later, the singers would remove their wigs, change into modern-rocker dress and fling off the trappings of formulaic womanhood. Lighting played a key role in setting the moods and transforming the plain stage from scene to scene. All the colossal social media projections were displayed seamlessly by designer Camilla Tassi.

The creative team was adept under the direction of Ashley Kelly Tata, whose vision of Soper’s work proved to be a masterly partnership in portraying the voices of women while giving them a vigorous platform on which to explore tirelessly important ideas, both new and revisited.

Daniele Sahr

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