One of the most common questions I have been asked about Dear Marie Stopes is, “Why is Marie Stopes sung by a man?” It’s a good question. And there are two main answers.
The first is very practical.
The libretto is constructed from many different fragments of letters Marie Stopes received from the public in response to her landmark sex manual, Married Love. The majority of these are from women but there are plenty of examples from men too. So, with a cast of 3 singers, I needed a good mix of female and male voices to play many different “characters”, as well as someone to sing the character of Marie Stopes.
As we hear from so many women in the libretto, I needed at least two female singers to do it justice. I chose Alexa Mason (soprano) and Jess Dandy (contralto) for the huge range of expressive power they have between them to voice a broad spectrum of female correspondents. But when Marie Stopes appears, halfway through the piece, I needed her voice to be a new and distinctive presence to differentiate her from her anxious correspondents.
Having a third female singer for the character of Marie Stopes would be the obvious option. But that would mean not having a male presence on stage, which felt very important given the subject matter of sexual relationships between men and women and gender stereotypes. So, a countertenor - in this case the brilliant Feargal Mostyn-Williams - was the perfect solution.
Having a countertenor allowed me to have a male voice (spoken word) on stage to deliver some of the letters written by men, as well as a very distinctive voice in a female register for when Marie Stopes appears that stands out from the other female voices in the piece.
The second reason for choosing a male to sing Marie Stopes is a more artistic decision. A significant amount of Marie Stopes’ book Married Love, and the tens of thousands of letters written in response to it, deals with the similarities, differences and relationships between men and women; gender stereotypes in sexual relationships and beyond; attitudes and beliefs about male sexuality versus female sexuality; women’s right to bodily freedom versus men’s sense of entitlement over the female body. In short: a complex and fascinating web of interrelating ideas about gender, sex and stereotypes.
While it might have been more ‘realistic’ to have all the female voices in the libretto sang by women, having a male presence sing a female role in the context of this piece suddenly lifts the lid on all these ideas, opening up new layers of interpretation.
For example, in one scene Marie Stopes sternly forbids her young female correspondent (who has tragically contracted gonorrhoea - practically incurable at the time) to have “physical connections”, not to marry, and to give her fiancé up to another woman. We hear a woman corresponding to another woman at a time of need, but we see a man forbidding a woman to have sex or to marry. In the case of venereal disease in the 1920s, this might have been good advice, I’m not sure. But the power of this exchange when it’s between a man and woman, especially in the wider context of the opera’s themes, invites the audience to think about the underlying themes of the piece in a way that a more "true-to-life" depiction may not have allowed.
This is the same reason why I chose a contralto for the piece. After all, not only do we have a man singing a female role with a female range, we have a female - Jess Dandy - voicing letters from men using the lowest part of her range. Her first line, in fact, is from a very worried man concerned about his premature ejaculation. While having a countertenor sing the very visible role of Marie Stopes may be more striking and memorable in the moment, the idea of allowing the music and voice types to begin exploring gender stereotypes was an integral part of this piece from its inception.
Nowhere is this more powerful than when we hear Jess singing in her lowest range, and Fergal singing at his highest. With such powerful and multi-layered source material, it felt very important to me that the music, in some way, supported and referenced some its most important themes. I hope that using different voice types to raise questions about gender stereotypes goes some way to achieving this.