Girls of Summer
ELIZABETH FUTRAL, star of Kaija Saariaho's Émilie at the Lincoln Center Festival, tells JENNIFER MELICK why the opera offers her "the most electrifying part I’ve ever done."
© Douglas Miller 2012
When you first hear Elizabeth Futral's laugh, you may be fooled by its tripping lightness into thinking she's not really the serious sort. But this summer she'll be portraying a seriously brainy heroine — the eighteenth-century mathematician and physicist Émilie de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet, better known in history books as the longtime mistress of Voltaire. For Kaija Saariaho's seventy-five-minute one-woman opera Émilie, with a libretto by longtime Saariaho collaborator Amin Maalouf, Futral will be reprising a role she first sang at Spoleto Festival USA in 2011.
"She is a fantastic woman, it seems to me, but she is also a great character to play," says Futral. "The whole Voltaire relationship was a very important part of her life, and for a long time I think that was what people remembered her for, unfortunately. Gradually people started recognizing her writings and her brain and her contributions to math and science and philosophy, too." Among other accomplishments, Émilie (1706–49) translated and wrote the commentary to Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica, published posthumously in 1759 — still the standard French-language version of that work.
Émilie is broken up into nine movements in the form of the title character's letters to Voltaire and to Jean François de Saint-Lambert, by whom she is pregnant. At forty-two, Émilie is filled with foreboding that she will die giving birth to her daughter. One of the movements ("Enfant"), directed to her unborn child, is a favorite scene for Futral. "The text is really poignant, because she's telling the child that you have to stand up for yourself, and you're a woman, and it's going to be difficult for you, but you've got to believe in what you believe, and don't let anyone tell you that you can't do something — all the struggles that she had had being a woman in her time. It's an interesting reflection on herself, but it's also this tender moment."
Lincoln Center Festival will use the same Marianne Weems production from the Spoleto performances, which Futral describes as "brilliant, with all these geometrically shaped screens hanging down, on which she projected still and moving images, sometimes mathematical equations Émilie was working on. Gradually, as I walked across the stage, there were live candles, and the flame was flickering on the screen as I walked past, giving the idea of a time when there was no electricity." At the end, Émilie heads for the abyss, and there is an "amazing wash of color and fire" as she sings about one of her "big theories about how fire acted and reacted," says Futral. "It looks like she is walking into a wall of fire."
Futral says the challenges of Émilie — being onstage alone for well over an hour in a wide-ranging, musically difficult and dramatic part — are "huge, just staying in the piece and staying focused." But, she says, "In the end it is the most fulfilling and electrifying part I've ever done."