Breaking Mad: Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor
People who go to see Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor spend the entire evening waiting for the famous Mad Scene, to hear the soprano’s incredible acrobatics, and to feel her intense emotional changes over the course of the lengthy showstopper. But the Mad Scene is more than a vocal showpiece: it’s a window into what it means to lose touch with reality and the ways women’s real-life challenges can go ignored or, even worse, pathologized as illness.
In the opera, Lucia has no control of her life; her brother betrays her and forces her to marry a man she doesn’t love. Alone and out of options, Lucia escapes in the only way she can: she murders her new husband and descends into madness. But how do we understand her crimes and hallucinations? And what can Lucia teach us about how we diagnose and treat mental health conditions today? Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests dive into the history of women and madness, as well as the story of a woman living with bipolar disorder today.
Soprano Natalie Dessay had a thriving career as a coloratura soprano before cashing in her opera chips and turning her talents to theater and jazz. When she sang the role of Lucia at the Met in 2011, she approached it a bit like a circus performer, adding physical challenges to match the vocal ones.
Dr. Mary Ann Smart is a professor of music at UC Berkeley. As a grad student, she wrote her dissertation on mad scenes in 19th century opera, and she has since authored multiple books, including Siren Songs: Representations of Gender and Sexuality in Opera. One of the things that she finds most poignant about Lucia’s Mad Scene is the fact that Donizetti spent the end of his life being treated for physical and mental illness.
Activist and writer Dr. Phyllis Chesler has written more than 20 books, including the seminal work, Women and Madness. Her work deals with freedom of speech and freedom of thought. Her recent books include Requiem for a Female Serial Killer, and her memoir An American Bride in Kabul. She believes writing is most definitely a form of madness.
Author and attorney Melody Moezzi wrote Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life in order to capture her experiences as an Iranian-American Muslim woman with bipolar disorder, and to help others with this condition feel less alone. She is an advocate for destigmatizing mental health conditions, and she believes that sometimes, what looks like madness can actually be a rational response to an irrational world.