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A room of one’s own for many women - Outi Tarkiainen dramatises Virginia Woolf’s classic essay in her new opera

by Kimmo Korhonen

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” is the key sentence in the essay A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1882–1941). Published in 1929, it is a discussion of why women have remained so overwhelmingly in the shadow of men as writers and more generally in society at large. The world premiere of Outi Tarkiainen’s new opera in Hagen, Germany on 14 May 2022 asks the same question – but how does this translate from essay to opera?

When Outi Tarkiainen (b. 1985) came across Virginia Woolf’s famous essay while living in Berlin in 2014, she had been contemplating writing an opera for several years.

“Woolf’s essay latched on to this dream, though initially I had no idea how I could write an opera about it,” says Tarkiainen.

The concept acquired a more tangible shape when Theater Hagen in Germany contacted her with an opera proposal in autumn 2019.

“I expect that they’d heard my orchestral work Midnight Sun Variations, which had been premiered at the Proms in London in August 2019. So I went to Hagen to talk about the opera. The theatre director and dramaturge Francis Hüsers had a suggestion for a topic, but when I brought up Woolf’s essay, he agreed. He also did not hesitate at all in agreeing to write the libretto when I suggested it after our discussion.”

A Room of One’s Own (2021), to be premiered at Theater Hagen in May, represents a new departure in Tarkiainen’s robustly progressing international career. Orchestral works form the core of her output, combining richly poetic tonal colour with multi-faceted textures and a profound inner power. On the other hand, she has also written several vocal works, so the transition to opera seemed a natural one.

Many of Tarkiainen’s orchestral works have their roots in landscape and mythology. She often reflects on the northern dimension, meaning her spiritual home in her native Finnish Lapland, but experiences of womanhood, such as the birth of her children, also underlie the creative process. Thus, A Room of One’s Own is seamlessly linked to the core themes of Tarkiainen’s musical output. 

Tarkiainen2 Room Of Ones Own C Jorg Landsberg
At the table: Maria Markina, Marie-Pierre Roy, Evelyn Krahe, Anton Kuzenok, Dorothea Brandt; standing: Theater Hagen Choir.
Photo: Jörg Landsberg

From essay to drama

Writing an opera based on an essay seems a surprising concept. How does one dramatise an essay? How does one create characters? How does one build a dramatic arc?

The argumentation in Woolf’s essay flows largely in a free stream of consciousness but is always rooted in observations on the status of a woman. There are, however, several characters featured in the essay, both real and fictional, and the three different Marys referred to in the text are key characters in Tarkiainen’s opera. Shakespeare’s fictional sister Judith is also an important figure whose story represents an imagined version of what would have happened to a talented woman attempting to embark on a literary career at the turn of the 17th century.

Setting a libretto in English, A Room of One’s Own is in three acts and lasts about one hour, performed without a break.

“I feel there is a dramatic arc in the opera,” says Tarkiainen. “Act I sets the enigmatic mood. The women chat happily, but the mood grows gradually more serious.

“Act II is about history, with Judith Shakespeare as the central character. I feel that the way in which women outline logic and large forms is different from the masculine way. The culmination here is consciously masculine, perhaps excessively so.”

Act III, meanwhile, is described by Tarkiainen as more lucid and exhorting to action. It also corresponds to the hopeful and encouraging final flourish of Woolf’s essay.

Women with diverse personalities

What is essential for the drama in the opera is that the women characters each have a personality and characteristic music. They are in close interaction: the three Marys are always on stage together.

“Mary Carmichael, described as an author, has her own, more sensuous world of colour and the greatest melodic leaps. She is a low mezzo, or really a contralto. She is also gay. Woolf herself was bisexual, after all.

“Mary Beton is a lyrical soprano with a more melodic idiom and the grandest arias. Mary Seton is a sort of intermediary, a typical mezzo, perhaps a ‘boring ordinary woman’, but it’s people behind the scenes like her that make the world go round.

“Judith Shakespeare is a soprano, more dramatic and edgier than the rest, harbouring repressed genius.”

Although A Room of One’s Own is very clearly a ‘women’s opera’, it does have male characters as well. Tarkiainen notes that they are seen through the women’s rose-tinted spectacles.

“For the young man (tenor), everything is easy. He succeeds in everything. The professor (baritone) represents power, even though he does not realise the magnitude of the power he has.”

The chorus has a dramatic function of its own. Tarkiainen describes them as representing sometimes a collective subconscious and sometimes an ancestral mother, sometimes Judith’s father or mother.

Concise though it is, the opera is scored for large orchestra. This was only natural for Tarkiainen, since the orchestra is her principal instrument, but there are also lightly scored chamber-music moments in the opera.

Netti Outi Auto Sigel Eschkol
Outi Tarkiainen
Photo: Sigel Eschol
“I have a room of my own, with a lock on the door. It has been quite crucial for my composing.”
Outi Tarkiainen

The importance of a room of one’s own

One of the inputs for the opera was a 17th-century Scottish ballad whose melody is quoted in the Prologue and the Epilogue, albeit harmonised in Tarkiainen’s own idiom. The narrator in the ballad is a lady-in-waiting, also named Mary, to the Queen of Scotland. She bore the King an illegitimate child and killed it, and was executed for her crime. As Tarkiainen says, “Mary’s fate keeps being repeated through the centuries; only its appearance changes.”

Although Woolf’s essay contemplates a woman’s lot from a perspective that is almost one hundred years old now, many of its observations ring true even today. The mechanisms of gender inequality have changed to some extent but still exist.

“I often find myself asking how a ‘woman composer’ differs from a ‘composer’, and I don’t even like to use the term ‘woman composer’,” says Tarkiainen. “When there’s talk about orchestra repertoire and how there should be a quota for woman composers, the counter-argument is that this would allow women to be featured just because they are women. Yet in earlier times men were always prominent just because they were men.”

Tarkiainen has also personally identified with the basic premise in Woolf’s essay:

“I was reminded that I have a room of my own, with a lock on the door. It has been quite crucial for my composing.”

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo by Jörg Landsberg: Dorothea Brandt, Maria Maria Markina, Evelyn Krahe at the rehearsals of A Room of One's Own.