Vassar alumna Adene Wilson (Class of ’69) founded Modfest with her husband Richard Wilson in 2003, with the goal of linking up various artistic strains running through the Vassar campus. Often what’s going on in one creative orbit is unknown to others. So the idea was and is to link creative minds, works-in-progress and end results to the general public and to each other.
The first fully staged production of Vassar faculty member Richard Wilson’s comic opera Æthelred the Unready will be a featured event of the festival. The work, which will be performed twice on campus and once in New York City at Symphony Space, looks back in time for its subject fodder. Wilson, professor of Music at Vassar, notes in the libretto he wrote that Æthelred “does draw on history, presenting three characters who actually existed: Æthelred the Second (965-1016) who was King of England for 38 of those years; Emma, his wife, who was the sister of Richard II, duke of Normandy; and William of Malmesbury (1096-1143), whose greatest work was Gesta Regime Anglorum (The Deeds of the English Kings).”
His rocky succession undermined the legitimacy of Æthelred’s reign, and it took more than a year for him to be accepted as king. This uncertainty may account for his shaky rule: Ineffective in war, chaos surrounded him.
In the year 994, Æthelred began paying off Danish raiding parties rather than fighting them. These payoffs, known as Danegeld, continued sporadically until 1012. As expected, the money didn’t keep the raiders away, but only brought more. The English came to see that paying tribute was self-defeating: It weakened them while strengthening their enemies – effectively subsidizing their own demise.
A Viking invasion in 1014 – led by Sweyn Forkbeard, who had come to conquer, not plunder – forced Æthelred to flee to Normandy. Sweyn died, leaving his son Canute to be pronounced king of England by his father’s troops. The English nobility, however, took a different view, and recalled Æthelred as king. The restored king led an army that forced Canute and his troops to flee to Denmark.
His son, Edmund Ironside, could have seized the throne in 1016, but Canute returned from Scandinavia to fight for his regal rights. Æthelred died in the midst of the crisis, and Edmund was briefly able to hold half the kingdom from Canute. However, Edmund died shortly after, leaving Canute ruler.
The opera will feature Vassar’s entire vocal faculty: Robert Osborne as Æthelred; Rachel Rosales as his nagging wife Emma; Mary Nessinger as Clio, the Muse of History; James Ruff as her boyfriend, William of Malmesbury; and Christine Howlett as La Musica – the spirit of music and Clio’s assistant. Also in the cast are Nathan Carlisle as the publicist and Curtis Streetman as the hypnotist.
Again, Modfest will present a program that honors past recipients of the W. K. Rose Fellowship in the creative arts. Forty-eight Vassar graduates have received this fellowship, established upon the death of professor William K. Rose in 1969 as a bequest from his estate. This year’s program, taking place on January 26 at 4 p.m. in the Villard Room of the Main Building, features one of Ireland’s leading composers, alumna Jane O’Leary (Class of ’68), one of the first Rose fellowship recipients. The program will include a première of a piano work by O’Leary, featuring guest pianist Isabelle O’Connell along with a Vassar Music faculty member, cellist Sophie Shao. In addition, two alumnae/i writers will join O’Leary.
Music by composers associated with Vassar College will be performed by the Cygnus Ensemble, an excellent sextet featuring flute, oboe, violin, cello and two guitars (one player doubling on mandolin, banjo and theorbo) on January 28 at 8 p.m. in the Skinner Hall of Music. The ensemble will perform chamber works by Ernst Krenek, Robert Middleton, Annea Lockwood, Harold Meltzer, Richard Wilson and Jonathan Chenette. In addition, there will be a performance of a new work of electronic music by faculty member Peter McCulloch.
Both performances of Æthelred the Unready at Vassar College – on January 22 at 8 p.m. and January 23 at 3 p.m. – will be held in the Martel Theater of the Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film. Reservations are requested; however, these performances are free and open to the public. Tickets will be available at the College Center’s Information Desk in the Main Building beginning January 3 or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The January 25 performance at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Symphony Space in New York City will begin at 8 p.m., with admission charged. Tickets are $30 general admission and $20 for Symphony Space members, seniors, students and children. See the website www.symphonyspace.org. For the full slate of Modfest events, visit www.vassar.edu/modfest.