Kansas City Opera Singer, Dancers Revive Century-Old Songs To Fight The Patriarchy
By LIBBY HANSSEN • OCT 18, 2018
Kansas City soprano Victoria Botero found music dating back to the 15th century in which women said things in song that they couldn't say in public..
A new combination of ancient song and contemporary dance draws beauty from the hidden history of women.
“Morena” is a Spanish word meaning “beautiful dark woman.” It is also the name of the latest project between Kansas City soprano and musicologist Victoria Botero, the Owen/Cox Dance Group, and a cadre of international musicians.
Botero compiled secular songs from Jewish, Muslim and Christian traditions, dating from the 9th to 20th centuries, most of them from strict societies in which women, Botero says, “had no agency.” “These were communities where women’s voices were silent in their houses of worship and in the public sphere,” she says. Within the musical sphere, though, “women are allowed to sing things they may not be able to talk about. They can sing about desire. They can sing about inﬁdelity.”
Botero ﬁrst presented the program, for voice and instruments, at the 1900 Building in 2016. Choreographer Jennifer Owen, co-founder of Owen/Cox, thought the material would lend itself to dance. “There are a lot of stories within the songs, so there’s a natural narrative,” Owen says. Her dancers won’t be telling those stories literally, though. “Because it’s not spoken, dance can be more suggestive, more interpretive,” she says. “My goal for each of the songs is to try and present a mood and a story.”
Originally, Botero was interested in the music of the Sephardic diaspora, which spread throughout the world after Jews were expelled from Spain in the 15th century. She learned of an oral tradition passed from mother to daughter, when women would sing together as they prepared feasts for weddings and funerals, away from men.
Botero found an analogous tradition in an early Christian society, and wondered if there was a similar tradition in the Muslim world.
What she found, in fact, pre-dates the Sephardic songs. In a caliphate in Cordoba, the outmost reach of the Ottoman Empire in the 9th century, women developed a special repertory called Ring Songs, or Muwashshah.
“A singer would take a poem in Arabic, but she would pick out one phrase and come back to it, what we now call the refrain,” says Botero.