‘The Woman of Salt’ preview: from trauma to opera

Her family sundered by homophobia, a Eugene composer confronts a painful moment from her past by creating a new opera

by RACHAEL CARNES

It was at Anice Thigpen’s lowest emotional point that the protagonist in her new opera The Woman of Salt came to her.

“I was walking in the woods. And she took the wind out of the firs and made that the voice for the first song,” she says.

The Woman of Salt — Thigpen’s first opera — was born from deep trauma.

“I was there, in the childhoods of my children — flooded — and I turned around, and there, floating in space, is an oversized, feminine figure,” Thigpen says. “I recognized her as Lot’s wife. She telepathed to me, ‘Look back!’”

But before she could write the opera, which premieres June 23 at Springfield’s Wildish Theater, a part of Thigpen had to die.

‘It Didn’t Have to Be This Way’

When Thigpen looked back, here’s what she saw, and how she tells it.

She was in her late 20s and married with two young daughters when she came out to her family as gay. “We were living in rural Arkansas,” Thigpen says. “My oldest daughter, Erin Lee, was 5, and my youngest, Paige, was 2.”

Thigpen’s then-husband, 16 years her elder, at first took the news in stride. “Initially, he wasn’t so upset, nor surprised,” Thigpen says. “When he and I got married, I was already attracted to women, but I believed I could choose to be heterosexual.”

While her kids were little, Thigpen was a stay-at-home mom, a job she adored. She tried to be straight. “I made a go of it, but it wasn’t on my choice list,” she says.

Thigpen divorced her husband and, at first, the pair shared joint custody of their daughters.

Then things changed.

Anice Thigpen speaks to the audience at a preview performance of ‘Woman of Salt.’ Photo: Kelli Matthews.

In a suit brought against her after the initial divorce and custody hearings, the state of Arkansas awarded full custody of Thigpen’s girls to their father, based largely on Thigpen’s sexual orientation while questioning her emotional stability and referencing a distant attempt at self harm.

“He realized the power that my sexual orientation afforded him,” Thigpen says. “But I don’t want to villainize him.”

Thigpen flips through the score she’s written for The Woman of Salt and sips a bit of water. “They got a homophobic lawyer. The judge is a deacon in the Southern Baptist Church,” Thigpen says. “I got an original judgment and took it to the state Supreme Court, where I also got the shit kicked out of me.”

Thigpen half-smiles, shaking her head. Then she looks at me, almost as if I’m a foreigner. “How can I explain the Deep South?” she says. “My own parents were instrumental in leading the charge against me.”

Thigpen grows quiet, her eyes focused. “My parents were, and are, supporters of David Duke. My dad had a colleague who wrote his master’s thesis on the disproportionately small size of the Negro brain. They were — we were — steeped in racism, homophobia. It’s an illness and a blight — culturally, spiritually. I’m totally estranged from my parents and brothers.”

In the courtroom, Thigpen’s mother and father testified against her. Claiming that she was unfit, Thigpen’s parents encouraged the court to terminate their daughter’s rights to her own children.

“There is no immunity from that kind of assault,” Thigpen says. “No defense.”

In an instant, Thigpen’s role as primary caregiver was reduced to dust. “The court order limited my access to the girls and said I couldn’t take them out of state,” Thigpen says. “I was shunned, criminalized and impoverished.”

I Cannot Tell You Why’

Thigpen turned 60 this year. She grew up in a tiny town — Lecompte, Louisiana — where she learned to play the piano from Miss Martha Faye White, “who was classically trained and offered lessons out of her home,” Thigpen says. “I studied from the age of 8 or 9 right through high school. And I’ve never moved anywhere without my piano.”

Thigpen’s father taught English when she was growing up, and her mother stayed home. She has two siblings, an older brother and a younger one. She has no contact with any of them. “Family estrangement is probably much more prevalent than we are willing to talk about,” she says. “It’s like a collective secret.”

Laura Wayte and Anice Thigpen rehearsing ‘The Woman of Salt’ in Thigpen’s home. Photo: Todd Cooper.

Though wounded by her family’s betrayal, for the sake of her girls, Thigpen persisted. After the court tore her daughters from her, Thigpen moved to Austin, Texas, to pursue a doctorate. And every two to three weeks, for years, she made the 500-mile one-way drive from Austin to Little Rock and back to see her girls for a few precious hours.

“Every time I could, I got in my beat-up truck and drove to Arkansas,” she says. “I think this opera was being written on the drives home. My blood was a caustic sludge of rage.”

‘What Was and Will Ever Be’

In the midst of profound loss, Thigpen completed a Ph.D. in biochemistry. It’s a subject that fascinated her from the moment she’d cracked her first chem textbook in college. “If we know biochemistry, then we know the basis for all things physiological,” she says. “Birth, death, life, disease — everything.”

In 1995, she met the woman who would become her spouse, Andrea Halliday, who had a little boy, Toby. “I was in a start-up company in Dallas, and Andrea was on the neurosurgical faculty at U.T. Southwestern. But a lesbian interracial family — in Texas?” Thigpen says. She recounts a frightening moment in a parking lot. She and Halliday — and little Toby, who’s African-American — were just heading to their car when they were confronted by a large aggressive man who clearly had a problem with their sexual orientation and the color of their little boy’s skin. “He’s talking to us, standing like this — big — and I’m saying, ‘Get in the car! Get in the car!’”

After choosing the community for its open-minded culture, the family moved to Eugene in 2005. “There’s no way I could have written the opera in Texas or Arkansas, because I didn’t feel safe,” Thigpen says. “Eugene, Oregon, is the promised land.”

The performance of ‘The Woman of Salt’ includes live music from a chamber orchestra. Photo: Kelli Matthews.

Thigpen assembles photos of her daughters as children and as adults, a portrait of handsome grown-up Toby, and snapshots of Halliday on the coffee table. She shows recent photo books of vacations with her two grandchildren, a boy and a girl.

“My girls and I are super close. We’ve never not been super close,” Thigpen says. “When they were younger, my daughters referred to me as their fairy godmother. Erin Lee called me her Yoda,” Thigpen says. “Since I couldn’t be with them day in and day out, when I was with them, I showed up.”

Thigpen leans in. “Losing my kids made me a better mother,” she says. “I was so aware of time, and how little there was of it.”

‘It Hides in the Silence of Mist and Fog’

As a young mother without access to her kids, Thigpen did whatever she could to keep her relationship with her girls alive. “My girls had to grow up — and be okay — so my fairy godmother could die,” she says. “Trauma is unique, as a psychic wound. It is the distant past, the proximal past, it’s happening and it’s about to happen. Trauma is un-contained by time.”

Thigpen had done the best she could to mother her children from a distance, but the pain of losing her parental rights to them never went away. Then one day, out of the blue, Thigpen received a legal-sized envelope from her ex-husband. “He was trying to clean up estate issues, property — there were some leftover questions,” Thigpen says. “I was reading this document and it put me right back there. In it.”

Thigpen remembers taking that walk in the woods — five years ago — to clear her head. “My dam broke,” she says. “A lot of our close friends knew I had children but not about the trauma around losing my motherly rights. We, as humans, spend an enormous amount of energy defending ourselves against — and containing — our wounds.”

But Thigpen didn’t have a choice. This was a story that was finding its way out.

‘To Be Reborn as Music’  

The journey toward creating The Woman of Salt took Thigpen through a deep depression. Still, as she navigated the well of hurt that had settled in her decades before, Thigpen says she was continually comforted by what she calls “infinite creative energy.”

“When there is a death — that’s when things flood up. And that emotional flood is the germinal seed of creativity,” she says. “In my case, music has — literally — been transformative.”

The story for The Woman of Salt comes from the Torah, in chapter 19 of Genesis. Before God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, he allows Lot and his family to leave and be spared, but their successful escape depends on not looking back. Lot’s wife, named AhDoo in this opera, looks back and consequently becomes a “pillar of salt.”

“This work focuses on her contemplating her given choices, rejecting them and creating her own path,” Thigpen says.

University of Oregon music professor Larry Wayte.

In the midst of heartache about the past, Thigpen began weekly composition lessons five years ago with her friend and neighbor Larry Wayte, a professor in the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance.

At first, Thigpen says, she wanted to explore the way music is scored — but in the midst of emotional turmoil, it wasn’t easy.
She shows me a printout of the correspondence between her and Wayte. Some days, she just couldn’t get to the lessons — she was just too sad. Wayte patiently cajoled, “Hope you feel better soon, Anice.”

But Thigpen’s experience crafting music soon took on a surprising dimension. In January 2013 Thigpen wrote to Wayte, “I think I have the beginning of an opera.”

As she came out of the cloud of depression and anger, Thigpen looked to Wayte as a writer looks to an editor. For nearly four years, Wayte and Thigpen worked their way to the opera’s completion.

“In the beginning, there was technical work in simply translating Anice’s musical ideas into music notation, something Anice had very little experience with,” Wayte says. “But as the opera came closer to completion, I might make comments that some section needed to be longer, or shorter, for maximum dramatic effect.”

Wayte offered his perspective on what was working and what needed to be honed further. “But the musical inspiration and core dramatic ideas you hear and see in this piece are all from Anice,” Wayte says.

Until he began working with Thigpen, Wayte had never helped anyone write an opera. “Nor have I ever written an opera myself,” he says. “I’ve written vocal works, but not an opera, and there’s a big difference,” he says. “That was a new experience — keeping track of not just the small-scale musical moments and how they work individually, but also how all those moments interact to tell a cohesive, long-form dramatic story. Fortunately, Anice had that story internalized and so I let her vision on that guide my reactions to the individual musical moments.”

For Wayte, it’s surprising that this opera exists at all. “From the moment Anice first had the idea of it, up until she decided four years later that it should be produced, there were hundreds of opportunities for the project to get sidetracked, back-burnered, or to just wither away in the face of other daily obligations,” he says. “The fact that it will be performed on stage this month is a testament to perseverance.”

‘Being Human, Wonderfully Human’

“The musical styles in the opera are eclectic and reflect my process and sense of having been a conduit for this music,” Thigpen says. “Early on, I especially felt I was working as a scribe rather than a composer. If this were a textile, it could be a crazy quilt. The various characters and their primitive energies created their patches. I sewed them together.”

Wayte adds: “Some of it is very approachable and tuneful, and some of it is quite dissonant and jarring.”

Laura Decher Wayte stars in ‘The Woman of Salt.’ Photo: Kelli Matthews.

Haunting melodies course through “Who Among Us” as voices and cello debate whether to look back. And in “Dilemma,” sung by Larry Wayte’s wife, soprano Laura Decher Wayte, we hear Lot’s wife and begin to see into a world where she makes what choices she can within punishing limitations.

Laura Wayte’s singing influenced Thigpen to try her hand at writing an opera in the first place. Thigpen saw the soprano perform as Madam Mao in Eugene Opera’s 2012 production of Nixon in China.

“Experiencing that opera suggested to me for the first time that perhaps I should think about studying music composition,” Thigpen says. “I have looked at many creative fields in science, music and literature and usually see densely packed spaces with very little to no room for innovation or expansion. The creative pie has been sliced to pieces and is now divided into the finest of threads. After hearing John Adams’s Nixon in China, I saw a galaxy of empty space crying out to be filled by English-speaking opera.”

Flash forward five years, and Thigpen has written The Woman of Salt around Wayte’s voice.

“I work in a field that can seem old and irrelevant to our time. But I keep at it,” Laura Wayte says. “And to find that my singing of music — both old and new — has inspired this creative endeavor is overwhelming.”

The Woman of Salt also features Thigpen’s daughter, Paige Carpenter, playing one of the opera’s Creatures from Another Realm. “My mom describes us as cosmic philosophers — transcendent beings,” Carpenter says. “What makes the role difficult is that the two of us are really one being that can sing with two voices. Whatever we do, we must do together because we are in a constant duet.”

With a projected run time of 90 minutes, the music is complex, relevant and charged — these aren’t mere narcissistic ramblings. This isn’t someone’s amateur night. At 60, and in composing her first opera ever, Thigpen has discovered a taproot of genuine musical power.

‘What is This Music That Only I Can Hear?’

When she began writing The Woman of Salt five years ago, Thigpen was in a dark place. Triggered to examine an intensely painful span of time in her life, she knew she had to bring those feelings in closer — or she might leave this life altogether.

Thigpen paces the room, recalling her spouse, Halliday, being sick with worry.

“She’s walking here, back and forth, late at night,” Thigpen says. “And she’s holding her head and she’s saying, ‘It didn’t have to be this way. It didn’t have to be this way.’ And I thought, ‘Yes! That’s what the chorus will say.’”

Though Thigpen had cared for her girls in the best way that she could, the trauma had always simmered just below the surface, Halliday says. “It didn’t have to be that way,” she says. “He didn’t have to deprive them of their mother.”

Halliday recalls the time, five years ago, when her partner of 20-plus years suddenly broke from reality, falling headlong into rage and depression. Halliday’s fears mounted. “Was I making the right decision, leaving her alone during the day?” Halliday asks. “And would she come out of it?”

Thigpen insisted she’d be okay. In addition to studying and creating music, Thigpen began working with a licensed therapist. She told Halliday: “Just let me be in my sanctuary”: the wind in the trees, the light on the distant mountains, her piano. “The music felt like it was crying out from a place of tremendous pain,” Halliday says.

Notes in the air and, eventually, on the page. A score, a cast, direction — an audience. And in that process, Halliday says she’s seen her loved one heal. “So many people are in spots like this,” she says. “But if they can tap into their creativity — which is available to all of us — art is a way to help them through.”

This is a mother’s story, and like so many mothers’ stories — stretching back to the nameless Lot’s wife — it was nearly buried by time and circumstance. “The characters have showed up,” Thigpen says. “And here’s the contract in my mind — it’s my job to tell this story, and to give her a name.”

The Woman of Salt premieres 7 pm Friday, June 23, at the Wildish Community Theater, 630 Main Street, Springfield. Tickets are available at wildishtheater.com. The production is directed by Sara E. Widzer and conducted by Michael Sakir, with scenic design by Grant Preisser and costumes by Jonna Hayden. The cast includes Laura Wayte, Brooke Cagno, Shannon McCaleb, Bill Hulings, Emma Lynn, Raphaelle Medina, Evan Mitchell and Paige Carpenter, as well as a chorus. The chamber orchestra includes Kathryn Brunhaver, Daniel Yim, Chrystal Chu and Nathalie Fortin.

The subject headers in this story are lyrics from The Woman of Salt. A version of this story originally appeared in Eugene Weekly, where Rachael Carnes covers dance, theater, performance art and other stories. As the founder of a local non profit, Sparkplug Dance, she teaches movement to kids in our community who juggle any number of risk factors.

Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

Comments are closed.