The Wife, the Lady, and the Book of Dames

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When an English professor set out to create an animated opera based on “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” she decided to bring in some very un-Chaucerian characters. That’s when the real fun began.

By Samuel Hughes | Photography by Candace diCarlo

Say you’re going to write a libretto for an animated opera, one based on a very unlikely premise: an English professor’s sudden urge to create an animated opera. We will call her the Learned Dame. 

Her opera is called The Loathly Lady, and unlike yours it is a serious work of art, based on a tale that is meaty, timeless, and structurally tight as a lute string: Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” Even in its component parts (libretto, score, illustrations), The Loathly Lady dazzles; in a seven-minute pilot film, it—well, sings. An irreverent wit infuses the storyline, which features a cast ranging from Queen Guenevere and Merlin to Jane Austen’s Emma and Virginia Woolf to Eliza Doolittle and Sigmund Freud. The animated images are deliciously clever, and the music is a rich blend of 14th-century Ars Nova and more modern strains, using early instruments and a range of operatic octaves. 

The Loathly Lady is not a finished work of art, however. To become one, it needs a key element, one often found in fairy tales and myths.

Which brings us back to the Learned Dame’s Tale, as you’ve come to call your presumptuous little opera. It opens in the Locust Walk office of the Learned Dame, who looks suspiciously like Dr. Wendy Steiner, the Richard L. Fisher Professor of English. Exhausted from teaching Chaucer in an undergraduate survey course, she falls asleep in her Gothic lair in the Penn Humanities Forum, her blond hair spilling out in esthetic tendrils over her desk, and begins to dream a cast of literary characters.

First is the gap-toothed Wife of Bath, who ambles through the door on a mud-splattered horse crying: “What thyng it is that wommen moost desiren?”

The Learned Dame is agog; she shakes her head and responds in a breathy contralto:

A woman has many desires, an academic dame still more.

If I give voice to yours, good Wife, who next will come through my door?

The Wife of Bath grins wickedly, and the door again swings open. Through it stride a bevy of women straight out of the pages of literature and myth, all snapping their fingers to the saxophone strains of “Respect”—Guenevere, Emma, Sheherezade, Titania, Woolf, the Lady of Shalott, Eliza Doolittle.

Still snapping their fingers, they form a half-circle behind the Wife of Bath. A neon sign overhead reads:

The Wife of Bath
The Womanly Desires

The Learned Dame gasps delightedly.

My God! These women are entrancing!

They set my pen a-dancing!

Suddenly the music changes to something closer to the wolf music in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, and a spotlight illuminates a handsome young knight, wearing a chain-mail vest and an arrogant sneer.

Wife of Bath:

If you would adapt my tale, good Dame, then you must make it new,

And to that caddish, raping Knight I’d add some new men, too.

Learned Dame:

You’re right. I need a pair of sages

Whose wisdom represents the ages.

Enter Merlin, who shambles in like a medieval hipster; he is followed by Freud, stroking his beard and muttering, Was will das Weib? (A subtitle flashes: “What does woman want?”)

Learned Dame:

Yes! Merlin could hold the young cad’s feet right to the fire

And Sigmund spent his lifetime trying to understand desire.

Womanly Desires:

But did he figure women out? Did he really get it?

Learned Dame:

A lot about desire he learned. But women? Hah! Forget it!

Wife of Bath:

So what do we women want—if false words we disparage?

Womanly Desires:

That’s easy, Sister, as you know: It’s mastery in marriage!

With that, they break into a big Busby Berkeley-style dance number titled “Mastery in Marriage,” highlighted by the Wife of Bath donning an S & M dominatrix outfit and chasing Freud around the office with a whip.

Learned Dame:

I’ve got a plotline, characters, and pots of inspiration;

Now I must decide what’s the next step in this creation.

I’ll need a great composer who’s at home in different styles

Since ’tween the Wife of Bath and Freud the chasms stretch for miles.

To blur my characters’ subtleties would be an act of blindness—

To render them in portraits I will want the hand of Kindness.

Then, we’ll have to make them move—to dance and frown and swoon;

Josh Mosley’s animation skills will fly them to the moon.

The Learned Dame begins to write furiously, as a calendar on the wall flips through the months.

Learned Dame:

Our pilot’s done; I know it’s good, but still, I’m not quite sated;

What will it take to get my opera up and animated?


The same thing men have fought about since misty days of old:

The root of evil, dream-enabler, precious metal—gold.

Learned Dame (suddenly unable to sing):

Gold? But this is art! 


For some art you need money—moolah, cabbage, the Big Green:

And you’ll need an awful lot to get your film up on the screen.

At that, the Learned Dame wakes up, and her characters vanish in puffs of smoke. She shakes her head and glances at her digital clock, which reads 10:00, and just then there is a knock at the door. A grey-bearded scrivener enters the room and opens his laptop.

“Take it from the top, please,” he says.

About eight years ago, I taught a course,” Steiner says, and there begins the real tale.

It was one of those Major Works of Western Literature survey courses, and it included The Canterbury Tales. Steiner’s field is 20th-century literature and art, and she hadn’t read “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” since graduate school. But the story grabbed her and wouldn’t let go.

“I was astonished,” she says. “It could have been written yesterday, except that it’s in Middle English.”

The premise is indeed timeless: A knight rapes a maiden, and is condemned to death—unless he can find the answer to the question: What do women want most? After many twists, turns, and digressions—and with a big assist from an old, “loothly” lady—the knight arrives at the answer: What women want is sovereignty, or mastery, in marriage. But to repay her for her assistance, the loathly lady demands that he marry her. When the horrified knight tries to wriggle out, she tells him he has a choice: He can take her as his ugly but faithful wife, or he can have a young and beautiful wife—who is not likely to be faithful. Having finally learned something from his trials, he tells the loathly lady that she can make the choice for him—which pleases her so much that she becomes young, beautiful, and faithful, and they live happily ever after.

“It’s one of those brilliant, steel-trap plot structures,” says Steiner. “But it’s also so perceptive about issues that have to do with women that it wouldn’t leave me.”

As she thought about it, she kept imagining what the story would be like if the knight had had the chance to talk to Virginia Woolf, or Jane Austen’s Emma, or Titania from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or any number of other great female characters.

“Then I remembered what Freud had said late in life: ‘I’ve been studying women all my life, and I still don’t know a thing about them,’” Steiner says. “So I thought the knight could run into Freud, too.”

She began to write—feverishly, in her spare time. Within a few months, her idea had evolved from a “ridiculous preoccupation” into a “very gratifying, pleasurable experience with words,” she says. “It became a combination of personal psychotherapy and crossword puzzle.”

While she did not employ the Middle English of Chaucer, she believes that the flavor of her libretto is still “very Chaucerian.” Not quite as earthy as your average Canterbury Tale, maybe, but certainly bursting with Chaucerian style and humor—not to mention the old poet’s wisdom regarding the sexes.

“I think it’s a dynamite plot,” says Steiner, “but at the same time, phrases of his like mastery in marriage—how do you actually translate that into modern terms?” The trick was knowing when to be faithful, so to speak, and when to be … not.

The solution to a larger question came to her like a “series of jokes,” she recalls. “For example, when I was thinking of who the knight could run into, I was certain he should run into Virginia Woolf, and what did Woolf write? A Room of One’s Own. And as soon as I thought that, it occurred to me that Eliza Doolittle had said, ‘I want a room somewhere,’ and for some reason I had to go to the ‘Lady of Shalott’—Tennyson’s poem—and I thought, ‘Well, she could want a room with a view, because she’s not allowed to look out the window.’ A lot of verbal accidents created it.”

But for all the updates and verbal acrostics that went into the libretto, the tale she was adapting also had a powerful resonance for Steiner.

“I completely identified with everything in here,” she says with a laugh. “Being an academic, for a woman, is a very special sort of thing, though I suppose any career for a woman is a special thing. As a literature professor, you’re constantly dealing with very thoughtful pieces of writing that consider the human condition, and many of them, especially feminist texts, consider the condition of women. So you’re always talking about this and mulling it over and thinking, ‘What do people do?’

“But in my own life, I have two children whom I’ve raised, and I’ve had a career, and I’ve always written. Usually it’s been academic writing, but more and more recently it’s been outside that. So there are different compartments of one’s life. And if you start thinking about what you want as a woman in life, I mean, what don’t you want?”

As she mulled those sometimes-competing desires, an idea occurred to her: “assign a different desire to each character, and have that character engage with the Knight, who is my professional naysayer.” For example, “Titania wants most to have a child, so I could put in her mouth all my thoughts about wanting to have children and why it’s such a wonderful thing, and on the other hand I could have Oberon explain why men are not always too happy when women have children, and so on.” After all, she says, “why should women have everything they want and a man not have anything he wants?”

A devotee of both opera and Stephen Sondheim-style musical theater, Steiner wrote her tale as an operatic libretto. But she also knew her limitations—and those of her medium.

After all, the usual sequence for an opera or musical is for a composer to write the music first—then the librettist gets to work, and finally a designer.

“Imagine writing this and having words come into your head without any sense of what a composer would think of this, or who a composer would be or how to get to it,” she says. “I had music in my head, but it was extremely primitive.”

It also dawned on Steiner that even with the right composer and the perfect score, there was a distinct possibility that the most she could hope for was for her opera to be performed once or twice—then never be seen or heard again. But if she could make it as a film—an animated film in particular—“you could really have a performance forever,” she thought. And “nothing could be more like animation than opera,” which is “full of supernatural creatures and magic and all sorts of things that happen in animation.”

Steiner sent the libretto to her friend John Kindness, a “wonderful artist” (now living in London) who had exhibited at the ICA. He wrote back saying that he would love to do the artwork.

“What I really liked in the libretto was that blend of cleverness and silliness, and the period language peppered with modern wisecracks,” says Kindness in an e-mail interview. “But in practical terms, with regard to the idea of a full-length animated opera—I knew she wasn’t rich, so I guessed she must have gone crazy.”

Not only did Kindness produce some delectable images of the various characters and some backgrounds; he also created storyboards to suggest how the images and scenes might flow. But it wasn’t always easy.

“I’m not an illustrator,” says Kindness, “and I had a lot of difficulty finding the right look for the main characters.” (Inspiration works in strange ways, though; he came up with the image of the Loathly Lady by painting a face on a piece of ginger root and letting it shrivel up.) It wasn’t so much the vast difference in characters and eras that he “ran aground on” as the sameness. “I kept having the same argument with Wendy (which I always lost) that there were too many Queens,” he recalls. “Making distinctions between an Elf Queen, a Fairy Queen, and a human Queen was just a little too subtle for a male artist.” He was more comfortable with the “pastiches of medieval art we decided to use to reinforce the main action.”

As they discussed the women that Steiner was portraying, she and Kindness concluded that they should be collected, metaphorically speaking, in a book. Among Chaucer’s works is ‘The Legend of Good Women,’ which led Steiner and Kindness to come up with “The Book of Fair Dames.” Since the title was too long for the illustration he had in mind, says Steiner, “John took the Fair out and just did Book of Dames. And it’s wonderful, too, the way the past and the present talk to each other but don’t talk to each other, because dames means something else these days.”

Around that time, Steiner was taking recorder lessons with an opera-savvy musician named John DeLucia. When she showed him the libretto, he not only loved it but made a key suggestion: that each character should be sung in the style of his or her own era—a timeline that encompasses about six centuries of Western music.

“The composer would have to be able to work in a lot of different sort of pastiche modes,” says Steiner, who put an ad in the American Music Center listings—and was promptly “deluged” with files and CDs from composers. She chose Paul Richards, an associate professor in music composition at the University of Florida.

“I was instantly intrigued with the concept, the way she presented it, and even more so when I got the libretto,” says Richards. “It was funny, fascinating, and very musical. She obviously understands how to write for the singing voice, instead of just writing a play. It has various rhyme schemes and interesting meters, and enough repeats in the text that people can understand what’s going on even when it’s being sung.”

The wildly different characters, eras, and musical styles was “exactly the kind of challenge I like to look for,” he adds. “The whole point has to do with communication or miscommunication, to a certain degree. I saw the mélange of styles as being kind of reflective of that aspect of it.”

Steiner has been delighted with her choice. “I really could have done no better,” she says. “He’s a really brilliant professor, and he loved the project and really got into it. His medieval stuff sounds quite medieval, and it’s very challenging to play and sing, and his other ones are funny, as you can imagine.”

Among the vocalists was Susan Hellauer, a member of Anonymous 4, the renowned medieval quartet. What intrigued her about The Loathly Lady was “the prospect of mixing the medieval vocal style and instruments with a modern score,” she says. “It’s my favorite kind of music,” since it “isn’t strictly categorizable as either opera or musical comedy. I like things that don’t fall easily into any one slot.”

While the music is not as easily accessible as, say, a Disney score, Richards suggests that the reason the team has worked so well together is that “we all have an eye or an ear for public taste.”

“No one has ever made progress in the arts without taking risks,” he adds in a follow-up e-mail. “The exciting thing about this project, risky and different though it may be, is that it has instant surface-level appeal: The drawings are beautiful, the libretto is funny and deals with themes that everyone can relate to, and it is my hope that the music I’ve created is at once both comprehensible and fresh.” He believes there will be an “air of familiarity, along with a sense of something exotic, particularly in the use of ancient and rarely heard instruments.”

When it came time to choose an animator, somebody mentioned Dr. Joshua Mosley, associate professor of fine arts, animation, and digital media at Penn.

“I wanted to be involved because of Wendy’s writing and John’s illustrations,” says Mosley. “It was a great combination. I also thought this could be an interesting collaboration if I could include animation students in a project that was both professional and creative.”

To help with the animation, he also brought in Erinn Hagerty C’04, a former student who now teaches in the School of Design. She in turn brought in a couple of interns, Mark Rubbo C’08 and Dana Wulfekotte C’05.

One of the things Mosley liked about the libretto and the score was that, despite being fixed in a thematic genre, they “both had a quirky contemporary character, seemingly assembled from many sources, that seemed to lend itself to the idea of mixed-media animation.”

Before hearing the music, he adds, “we worked on developing the way that characters would move, what they would look like, and how they would fit into their environment. When the rough music arrived, without the lyrics, we could generally work on editing the four parts, and we could discuss the overall content and form of the animation. Once we had lyrics in sync, we could really start working on editing and animation. Since my work on the project was primarily focused on rough editing and facilitating the production, the music, especially the vocal tracks, was essential to outlining the project.”

Hagerty’s duties included converting the illustrations into various graphic styles to “convey different narrative spaces,” as she puts it. “For example, there are three definitive visual changes that occur during the pilot, a change from a tapestry-like canvas into a 2-D space with 3-D texturing into illuminated manuscript. Each change needed to be distinctive to cue the viewer into the passing of space and time.” She also had to determine which method of animation would work best, given the looming deadline and “the movement Wendy required while also staying true to John’s original illustrations.”

From an animation perspective, “lip-syncing opera is definitely a difficult prospect that Joshua, Wendy, and I went back and forth on,” Hagerty says. “We wanted to limit the mouth movements in order to assimilate the lip-sync with the minimal approach we used for action throughout the entire piece.” Given the complexities of opera and the subtleties of movement, she notes, “it’s a hard balance.”

Since they had no funding for a full-length opera, Steiner decided to make a pilot, which she hoped would capture the flavor of the entire opera.

“I chopped up bits of the libretto and put them together into what I could imagine as a trailer or pilot for the animated film,” she says. “That’s almost seven minutes, which you would think would be a simple matter.”

Think again. They had to find musicians who could play the 13 different early instruments (which “go out of tune in two seconds”) and arrange for them to rehearse and record. They had to find opera singers who could handle the different roles, some of which were a tad unorthodox. They decided that Merlin should be a counter-tenor, for example, partly because he’s a bit of a cut-up in the libretto and partly because they envisioned him singing at times with Freud, a Wagnerian tenor. “So there’s Merlin, sort of dancing all over the place with sound,” notes Steiner, “and there’s Freud, sounding like Siegfried.”

The role of Queen Guenevere was a challenge for Susan Hellauer, though one she enjoyed. “It was hard to get her emotions right,” Hellauer says. “She’s very angry with the transgressing knight and gives him his punishment. But she’s good at heart, and I had to work hard not to make her sound like an evil old witch.”

When it came time to record the music, they brought the musicians and singers to Right Track Recording in Manhattan, a top-drawer studio with very talented—and very young—recording engineers. “The funniest part was watching the recording engineers’ faces,” says Richards. During a break he overheard one talking on his cell phone. “Dude,” the engineer was saying, “you won’t believe what I’m doing now.”

Hellauer remembers Richards and DeLucia (then the music director) as being “a little nervous, because the three parts were at times quite dissonant with each other. They were sweating bullets, thinking that these un-medieval sounds would make it difficult for me to overdub myself on these tracks.” In fact, she was used to that sort of thing, since “composers like Peter Maxwell-Davies also drove us delightfully crazy with dissonance, and, for that matter, so have several anonymous medieval composers. We’re so blended in Anonymous 4 that it’s often just like singing along with yourself.” And the instrumentalists? “They were absolutely smoking hot as hell.”

Starting in mid-June, the team worked feverishly to complete the basic animation in time for a screening at the ICA on July 19.

“The tight deadline may have been the hardest part,” says Hagerty, whose official role as lead animator morphed into something closer to project director and assistant director. (Since she, Rubbo, and Wulfekotte were also holding down other jobs, the result was more than a few all-nighters.)

“There were shots that I would have loved to have spent more time on, expanding upon the animation, and elements that I’m sure Wendy and John would have liked to have had in the opera that time would just not allow,” notes Hagerty, but the key thing was “for the various visual styles to be actualized, so that one might see the potential of what more time could achieve.”

“A project like this can take years to develop and produce,” points out Mosley. “I think Erinn did a terrific job with both the animation and in managing the team of animators.”

Then, after a bit of tinkering, they showed it at the New Chaucer Society meeting, a conference of international Chaucerians, along with the Poets House of New York and the New York Medieval Society.

The positive reaction of these learned Chaucerians and interested others was particularly gratifying for Steiner. “They laughed,” she says. “It’s wonderful to make people laugh.”

After all, she says: “It’s not a piece of scholarship. So to be able to go over in that way, it felt so good! It’s been a pleasure—and it’s been very hard, because the people involved all have their own agendas, and as is always the case when you’re dealing with a number of people, it’s extremely complex. I felt as if I were the chair of the English department again and managing a lot of people, and not always well.”

Thanks in part to an anonymous Maecenas, Steiner has been able to pay her team (including the musicians, vocalists, and studio personnel) for their work. But turning The Loathly Lady into a full-length feature film is a much taller order.

“Sometimes I think I should put an ad somewhere, because that’s how I got the composer in the first place,” says Steiner. “‘Wanted: Production company with lots of money, director interested in branching out.’” She and Richards are also “exploring the possibility of a stage production,” but that’s still pretty much in the light-bulb stage.

“Everything about this is for the first time,” Steiner points out. “I’ve certainly never written a libretto before; it’s just been one completely new thing after another. But what’s amazing about this project is that at every stage, it’s been, ‘How in the world do you do this?’ And then as soon as I asked somebody, ‘Can you do this?’ or ‘Would you do this?’ it’s always been: ‘Yes.’ So I have a feeling there’s a way to do this. I just haven’t figured it out yet.”

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