Daughters, Mothers, Warriors

wno_16-17_daughteroftheregiment_620xlongFrom the playbill for The Daughter of the Regiment

by Kelley Rourke, WNO Dramaturg

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Much of the humor and suspense of Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment concerns the title character’s lack of “feminine” influence. Can a young girl brought up on the battlefield ever take her place in polite society?

For some legendary women warriors, the call to military service crowded out any other desire. Joan of Arc took a vow of chastity as a teenager and successfully petitioned against an arranged marriage. When she was captured and tried, the charges against her ranged from heresy to dressing like a man. Joan is perhaps the most notorious—but far from the only—cross-dressing patriot. In our country, Deborah Sampson served for three years in the Revolutionary War under the name “Robert Shirtliffe,” and once cut a musket ball out of her own thigh to avoid having her deceit discovered by a doctor.

The specific situation of Donizetti’s Marie—adoption by an entire regiment of “fathers”—was unique, but her general position was not. Female vivandières, also known as cantinières, were attached to the French army for more than three centuries.  Although they served near the front lines, their role was initially a supporting one—preparing meals, boosting morale, and the like. In the Napoleonic wars, their numbers and roles were expanded to include nursing and sometimes fighting in campaigns.

daughter_lisette_480x270Marie is hardly the only unconventional woman we meet in The Daughter of the Regiment. Although the Marquise of Berkenfield puts up a proper front, we learn that she, too, was once stirred by the rataplan of the military drum, and that Marie is the fruit of a long-ago affair with a captain of the army.

And what of the formidable Duchess of Krakenthorp? As written by Donizetti’s librettists, Jean-François Alfred Bayard and J.H. Vernoy de Saint-Georges, her role is small and rather one-dimensional. We learn only that she has the power to dispose of the Duke of Krakenthorp, her nephew, and that the vivandière Marie is found wanting. In the years since the opera’s premiere, a tradition has developed around the role, which has been assigned to everyone from retired sopranos to sitcom stars. Typically, the Duchess du jour is given an expanded scene that makes a nod to her own personality and talents. Our production will open with a Duchess who has played a pivotal role in dismantling gender-related stereotypes in this country: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. While she will cede the stage to the actress Cindy Gold after the opening night performance, our version of the scene, inspired by her notorious wit and wisdom, will remain intact.

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“Inherent differences” between men and women, we have come to appreciate, remain cause for celebration, but not for denigration of the members of either sex or for artificial constraints on an individual’s opportunity.

—Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, requiring the admission of women to the Virginia Military Institute