Breaking Musical Barriers

A singer and a pianist seek to change classical performance in the era of #MeToo

Eugene Soprano Emma Lynn realized something wasn’t right in the realm of classical music. She noticed that songs traditionally sung by men are received differently — even negatively — when performed by women. Romantic qualities in a male performer are seen as possessive and annoying behaviors in a woman.

“The fact that we are not already enraged about this is a symptom of its normalization,” Lynn says.

At the crossroads of feminism and classical music comes Lynn’s reimagined version of one of Franz Schubert’s most important works. By changing the narrative in Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin, Lynn has created her opus for the #MeToo movement.

She’ll perform the song cycle Sunday, May 20, in Junction City.

Die Schöne Müllerin is a 20-song narrative cycle — a set of songs used to tell a story throughout its performance — sung in German. In the story, the narrator is in love with the Miller’s daughter, Müllerin, who ultimately rejects his love for another man.

A lively and passionate young woman who got her master’s degree in music at the UO in 2017, Lynn says that although a woman is the central character of the cycle, her role is minimal compared to the traditionally played male narrator.

“That has always been a little bit of a thorn in my side as the feminist that I am,” she says. Lynn was inspired to engage and question tradition, even though she met with some resistance for wanting to change the cycle.

Lynn first considered performing the cycle last fall, when the Harvey Weinstein scandal came to light. She says #MeToo sparked interesting conversations in the world of music because classical music is a predominately white and male tradition.

She realized performing classical works that rely on sexist tropes leads to the continued silencing and ignoring of women.

Lynn will sing the part of the narrator, and is intentionally changing the traditionally male role to female. This means two of the three characters involved in the narrative cycle are women.

“If we are only hearing stories where women are silent or passive, that has a direct effect on how we perceive other people in our society,” Lynn says.

When Lynn first proposed the idea to other people in the classical music realm, though, she received some pushback.

“I was met with some resistance of, ‘Well, this cycle is written for a man. Why don’t you sing something that’s written for a woman?’” Lynn says.

The singer wants to inspire other artists to change how these musical works have been portrayed in the past, hoping it will open up the possibility for other pieces like Die Schöne Müllerin to be seen from different perspectives.

“We have to take active control in changing the narrative so it celebrates and uplifts women’s voices,” Lynn says.

Lynn’s accompanist, Andrew Pham, takes on a full theatrical role in the performance. The piano music represents its own character in the cycle as the brook. The piano part is written so the music portrays the brook’s reactions such as chuckling or anxiety, often conversing with the narrator.

Pham has been collaborating on the song cycle with Lynn since its initial stages. At first, he was hesitant to change the role from male to female.

“I thought, ‘Well, I’m not sure.’ That was the point; it made me think a lot about it. I think if it opens up conversations, it will be really great,” Pham says.

Pham and Lynn agree they want a balance between pushing boundaries on historically sexist traditions while also honoring their appreciation for the music in its historical context.

“We both really like the music. It all comes from a place of deep love and respect for the music,” Lynn says.

Emma Lynn and Andrew Pham perform Die Schöne Müllerin 3 pm Sunday, May 20, at Junction City United Methodist Church. No reservation is necessary, but donations will be welcomed at the door.

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