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Looking Back at Life

The director of With Blood With Ink at Fort Worth Opera talks about the work and her career onstage, including Broadway.

published Thursday, April 17, 2014

Photo: Courtesy
Dona D. Vaughn, the director of With Blood, With Ink at Fort Worth Opera

Fort Worth — What does the title With Blood, With Ink conjure in your operatic imagination? Some freedom fighter/author like Andréa Chenier? Maybe the doomed playwright Rodolfo in La Bohème? Probably not the life of a Baroque-era feminist nun, but that is the basis for the new opera that opens on Sunday, April 20, as part of the exciting Fort Worth Opera Festival.

The opera, by composer Daniel Crozier and librettist Peter M. Krask, tells the story of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. She was born in 1651 in San Miguel Nepantla, Tepetlixpa, Mexico. Even though she dazzled the Spanish Court with her intelligence, she entered into the life of a nun so that she could have time for study and literary pursuits.

She quickly became famous for her poetry, amazing intellect and keen insights. She was also what we would now call a feminist, which didn’t sit well with the Inquisition and Roman Catholic Church. She was forced to sign, in blood, a “confession” about how wrong she was about the role of women and everything else she believed. She died two years later, maintaining a deafening silence the whole time.

Photo: Ellen Appel
Sandra Lopez and Vanessa Becerra star in With Blood, With Ink at Fort Worth Opera

In bringing this dramatic story to life at the FWO, the stage direction was wisely entrusted to Dona D. Vaughn, who is the Artistic Director of Opera Programs at Manhattan School of Music and also serves as Artistic Director of the summer festival PORTopera in Portland, Maine. She studied acting with Lee Strasberg and Uta Hagen, and dance with Martha Graham. Talk about a distinguished list of names!

Her résumé has many other jaw-dropping entries such as 10 years as a stage director/acting coach for The Metropolitan Opera. Further, she was in the original Broadway productions of Company (“I’m the first voice you hear on the cast album,” she says), Jesus Christ Superstar and Seesaw.

“The first time I became aware of With Blood, With Ink was when it was done in New York City as part of the New York City’s VOX program for new operas,” she says. “I thought it was fascinating, couldn’t get it out of my mind, but never imagined that I would become involved with it.”

But involved she is.

“First, I read the text, independent of the music,” she explains. “Even though I am also a singer, I come from pure theater background, so for me, it is all about the text and the relationships.”

That text begins with Sor Juana on her deathbed. She has contracted the plague while caring for others. 

They say that we see our whole life flash in front of our eyes when we die and that flashback, or flash-through, is what we see in With Blood, With Ink.

As aside: Richard Strauss wrote an amazing tone poem describing that exact event, called Death and Transfiguration. “It’s just like I wrote it” he is reported to have said when it was his time to go.

“In the six scenes of the opera, she relives the important events of her life,” says Vaughn. “She sees them as real, as they happened, right before her eyes. This is accomplished by the use of actors that portray her at various times in her life: as a child and as a young woman.”

Either this is a dream of the dying or a real vision of times past, but in either case, Sor Juana is unable to cross the barrier and warn her younger self or even advise. But at the end of the opera, she is at peace with herself.

“We are performing this in the small McDavid Hall so the audience will be an observer, like Sor Juana herself, in the room where this is all taking place,” says Vaughn. “We were lucky in that we had the theater for rehearsals so we are really comfortable with how it will play out. We even had the furniture, or some like it, to work with. We were also lucky to get Sandra Lopez to sing the part.”

Lopez has played the part of a nun before, but the delusional Suor Angelica has little in common with the Mexican nun devoted to service and the church. Her other roles all fall within that same repertoire: Tosca, Madame Butterfly and other Italian verismo opera roles. What this means is that Lopez is a powerhouse of a spinto soprano and to experience her, in the small theater and in such a dramatic role, should be quite an occurrence.

“Don’t think, ‘Oh, here we go with another opera about nuns,’” Vaughn says with a laugh. “With Blood, With Ink will be a shattering experience.”


» You can read our story about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and this opera, as well as a play about her being performed by Teatro Dallas, here.

» With Blood, With Ink runs in rotating repertory with the other productions in the 2014 Fort Worth Opera Festival: Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, Mozart's Così fan tutte and the regional premiere of Silent Night by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell. Frontiers, the showcase of snippets from new works, returns for a second year. Here's the complete schedule for the Fort Worth Opera Festival:

Friday, April 25           7:30 p.m.        McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Saturday, April 26       2:00 p.m.         McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Saturday, April 26       7:30 p.m.         Bass Hall                     Così fan tutte
Sunday, April 27         2:00 p.m.         Bass Hall                     The Pearl Fishers
Sunday, April 27         7:30 p.m.         McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Tuesday, April 29        7:30 p.m.         McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Friday, May 2              7:30 p.m.         Bass Hall                     The Pearl Fishers
Saturday, May 3         2:00 p.m.         McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Saturday, May 3         7:30 p.m.         Bass Hall                     Così fan tutte
Sunday, May 4           2:00 p.m.         Bass Hall                     Silent Night
Sunday, May 4           7:30 p.m.         McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Tuesday, May 6          7:30 p.m.         McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Wednesday, May 7     7:30 p.m          McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Thursday, May 8         6:00 p.m          McDavid Studio          Frontiers Showcase #1
Friday, May 9              6:00 p.m.         McDavid Studio          Frontiers Showcase #2
Friday, May 9             7:30 p.m.        McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Saturday, May 10       2:00 p.m.         McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Saturday, May 10       7:30 p.m.         Bass Hall                    Silent Night
Sunday, May 11         2:00 p.m.         Bass Hall                     Così fan tutte Thanks For Reading

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Looking Back at Life
The director of With Blood With Ink at Fort Worth Opera talks about the work and her career onstage, including Broadway.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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