Kate Soper’s Provocative ‘The Hunt’ Tells a Modern Tale Through a Medieval Lens

Soper’s one-act chamber opera is intimately concerned with the ways women construct themselves with and against patriarchy in the internet age.

The Hunt begins with an audition. The job posting: “King seeks spotless maiden for the hunt of the unicorn, whose conquest will bring riches to our kingdom, expansion of our realm and everlasting power over all our enemies.” Three maidens, clothed in flowing white with wavy tresses of hair trailing over their shoulders, present their cases for why they each would be perfect for the gig. One is a former librarian, well-read on unicorn lore, one is a botanist (not to be confused with a witch, which, of course, is often confusing) and one is a social-media queen, her flowing locks the exact shade of influencer-ash-blonde. Together they sing a song, extolling the unicorn.

Brett Umlauf (Fleur), Christiana Cole (Briar), Hirona Amamiya (Rue) in ‘The Hunt’. Robv Davidson Media

The three virgins, Fleur (Brett Umlauf), Briar (Christiana Cole) and Rue (Hirona Amamiya) wait on the edge of a forest near a castle. Their virgin purity is supposed to lure the Unicorn, and once it appears, the virgins will drug it and hand it over for dismemberment to the court. Daily updates, filmed on an iPhone complete with a portable ring light, alerts the court to what’s happening. Comments from the King come in, which the virgins read together, but otherwise they mostly sit around singing unicorn songs to lure their prey and waiting for lunch to be delivered—along with the occasional riddle from a silent stableboy, who has taken a special liking to Rue. As the days pass and the unicorn fails to appear, the virgins begin to get nervous, their recorded updates more strained. Their virginity is quickly called into question, and the King’s messages become increasingly ominous. There’s a threat of a “tolerably painless”—well, “survivably painless”—surgery to restore their purity hanging over their heads, and their meals have been reduced. In a last-ditch effort, the virgins take the drugs intended for the unicorn and have a transcendent experience.

 

The theme of social-media-meets-medieval is the source of the mordant humor and subtle social commentary at the heart of this sly and satisfying new chamber opera from Kate Soper, whose work has been at contemporary opera’s vanguard for the past decade. For some, it may also be the opera’s sticking point. While I found the balance between real-world critique of internet culture and suggestive medieval fantasy just right, it may leave others cold. If you are amenable to Soper’s premise, The Hunt is an enjoyable and intelligent opera, suggestively tying questions about women, representation and patriarchy together with a welcome light touch.

Commissioned by Columbia University’s Miller Theater, The Hunt is the third new chamber opera in a series that also created Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up and Hannah Lash’s Desire. For this piece, Soper was inspired by the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries at Cluny, along with the similar tapestries at the Cloisters and the various legends regarding virgins and unicorns that abound in medieval art and literature. But this is far from a straightforward interpretation.

Woven into Soper’s libretto are works from various eras—seventh-century theologian Isadore of Seville rubs shoulders with Christina Rosetti and modernist poet H.D. is put in conversation with twelfth-century troubadour Thibault of Champagne. That said, many of the words are Soper’s own. Riddles abound, some taken from the tenth-century Exeter Book, some bespoke, and their suggestiveness, which relies on the power to mislead a reader into a dirty thought before subverting her expectation, injects an undercurrent of eroticism that feels both immediate and foreign; this type of oblique sexuality suffused medieval literature.

Hirona Amamiya (Rue), Ian Edlund (Stable Boy). Robv Davidson Media

From Aoshuang Zhang’s striking and spare sets and the sleek projection and live-cam work from Camilla Tassi to Ashley Tata’s simple but effective direction, The Hunt is a good-looking show, without feeling overdone.  It references its medieval setting but is open-ended enough that it doesn’t put too much pressure on Soper’s premise.

The score also combines medieval and modern. Scored for three sopranos who accompany themselves on violin and ukulele, The Hunt moves gracefully between moments of hypnotic, seductive folk lyricism worthy of a true twelfth-century troubadour, snippets of chirpy musical-theater stylings (particularly for Umlauf’s Fleur, whose forced cheer grows increasingly brittle as the days pass), and firmly contemporary soundscapes, particularly in the “interludes” that break up the days with texts from H.D. There are also extended vocal techniques and incursions of fixed media electronics, blaring alarms and digital hums that underline how surveilled these women are at all moments. Soper’s musical language here is exceptionally rich and intelligent; it’s grounded in an embodied knowledge of the voice and its expressive powers and in Soper’s contemporary idiom, but it’s also accessible.

Umlauf, Cole and Amamiya as the Virgins were well-cast individually and as an ensemble. Umlauf’s Fleur, the influencer of the three, moved easily between bel canto and musical theater stylings, with an even, supple sound that foretold the eventual warmth and staunchness that lay beneath her brittle, preening character. Cole’s voice evolved from a cool, fluttery sound to rounded softness as their character, the sweet and nervous former librarian Briar, begins to tap into the flow of desire that had lurked around the edges of the story. Their central troubadour song where they reveled in Soper’s unabashedly sexy lyricism was a high point of the show, as was the moment when they stripped off their long wig to reveal a shock of platinum-blonde cropped hair. Amamiya, who has a lissome and graceful tone that conceals a deep well of richness, delivered some of the most achingly lovely singing of the night, particularly in her final solo that described the heat of desire. Her Rue remained pleasantly mysterious—the good kind of witch.

The Hunt’s premise loosely recalls Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Both texts show characters waiting for someone who seems increasingly likely not to be coming. Both texts end in a place of ambiguity. In practice, Soper’s opera is intimately concerned with the ways women construct themselves with and against patriarchy in the internet age, using her medieval setting as a fantastical mirror to refract modern questions.

And, lest I imply that you’re in for a somber consideration of internet culture in the vein of an after-school special, rest assured: it’s also very funny. It wrests humor out of influencer culture and highlights the absurdity of patriarchy, which one occasionally must laugh at to avoid feeling sick from it.

Christiana Cole (Briar), Brett Umlauf (Fleur). Robv Davidson Media

The Hunt captures the uneasy mix of the pastoral and the pan-optical that often characterizes certain online spaces, particularly the envy-inducing “cottage core” and the much more insidious “trad-wife” trends that one finds on TikTok.  Here escapes from modernity are inescapably filtered through modern technologies and enabled by global capitalism: the scenes are meticulously posed and edited; the flowy prairie dresses are linked for purchase in the creators’ bio. In these spaces, women’s artistic production, tastes and identities cannot be fully separated from the powers of patriarchy and capitalism that construct and then co-opt them for their own benefit. Even singing is suspect: maidens are supposed to sing, after all. And pose. And gaze longingly into the distance. Women, often from an early age, become accustomed to offering themselves up for commodification and co-option by patriarchal forces. The Virgins in The Hunt opt into this system—either because they see it as a tool for personal advancement, or because they feel they have nowhere else to go and nothing else to offer—but once in, they soon realize they may not be able to get out.

What kinds of escape are possible, then, once one has opted in?

One escape is through authentic desire—none of the virgins end the show that way. Another is through vocality, at least that’s what Soper suggests in a central scene. Bored and scared, the virgins take the drug intended for the unicorn, and in a sequence that is as humorous as it is radical, begin a series of trills and buzzes for their own amusement (the maidens are a little high; what else is there to do after ninety-nine days?). Snorts and gawps and grunts follow, culminating in a carnival of vocal play that exceeds and then re-contextualizes the singing we’ve heard before.

The result is something supernatural, a brush with a power that the Virgins quickly realize must be protected from co-option. In the end, the (no-longer) Virgins mount a resistance to ensure they won’t be part of the destruction, flipping the tables on the male forces that want to use their bodies for nefarious purposes. They end in triumph, singing and shouting that “the unicorn won’t be taken alive.” This uneasy triumph is not an escape, however, nor is it complete. They are just as trapped as before. The forces of patriarchal power will eventually figure out their ploy and punish them, and all they can do is wait and prepare. The unicorn won’t be taken alive, but perhaps, neither will they.

Kate Soper’s Provocative ‘The Hunt’ Tells a Modern Tale Through a Medieval Lens