As I am completely ignorant about opera, I had no idea what to expect of New Zealand team Gillian Whitehead and Fleur Adcock’s Hotspur, a forty-minute, one-woman opera given two performances at the Arcola’s Grimeborn opera festival. Their Hotspur is not Shakespeare’s– the opera isn’t an adaptation of Henry IV, Part One– but the connection is obviously why I was interested in attending. I can’t begin to talk about it in musical terms, but it’s fascinating to think about in terms of my interest in the dramaturgy of women’s roles in history.
Hotspur is split into five sections: introducing Elizabeth (Harry Percy’s actual wife’s name) and her relationship to her husband, interludes covering the before, during, and after of the Battle of Otterburn, and a summary of the Battle of Shrewsbury and Hotspur’s death there. Singing is interspersed with long sections of silence, erratic melodies punctuated by drums, while Elizabeth (accompanied, in this production, by dancer Isolte Avila, who performs Signdance, choreography that is simultaneously BSL translation) can only wait. Soprano Joanna Roughton-Arnold’s focused intensity in these sections makes them feel anything but passive, an absorbing way of narrativizing the waiting that makes up the core of her relationship with her warrior husband.
The first two sections are all Hotspur: who he is, what he’s like, the names of his castles, his battle against the Earl of Douglas. It seems at first that Elizabeth’s story can only be contained in the wordless silence and waiting: she tells her husband’s story, and the dance and music tell hers. But the third section– which seemed like the longest– shifts: her narrative slows, taking in descriptions of nature, of the castle, of the needle and thread as she and her ladies sit and sew. She returns to the beginning, to her marriage to Hotspur– but now from her own perspective, that of a child bride. It gradually becomes clear that this is taking place as battle rages out of sight. Only in this space, suspended between life and death, between wife and widow– “What should I be sewing for tomorrow?” she wonders; a garment, or a shroud?– only here can her own story exist in words.
This ability to take time, to describe the concrete details of the world around her endures after her husband’s death: the image of the battlefield, the gruesome desecration of his corpse. At the opera’s conclusion, she repeats the line that opened it: “There is no safety, there is no shelter.” Despite the instability of life as a continually assailed wife of a border warlord, she is no safer as an aristocratic widow. On either side of the wordless suspension of waiting, there is only danger.