By Elizabeth Gracen:
Welcome to Part 2 of my interview with Katie Harman, creator of the Virtuosa Society.
Read the first part of the interview and find out more about the origins of the project and its many offerings.
After talking to Katie about the origins of the Virtuosa Society and the passion and will-power it has taken to launch the project, we turned our attention to the newly launched Virtuosa Society Podcast.
Elizabeth Gracen: I recently listened to “The Women’s Court,” the first episode of your newly launched Virtuosa Society Podcast. It is an incredibly entertaining look behind the scenes of La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina (“The Liberation of Roger from the Island of Alcina”), written by the fiery and talented Francesca Caccini, chief composer for the Medici family in the 1620s. What a story! Can you give us a teaser about this groundbreaking opera and the women who brought its production to life?
Katie Harman: I have been thrilled with the launch of the Virtuosa Society Podcast. This has been something that I have been wanting to do for so long, and the time was right to be able to share them. The impetus behind the podcast, as I mentioned before, was to be able to link the stories of female creatives past with these ideas of collaboration born from shared struggle that we as modern creatives also experience and can understand and relate to. I feature the story of a collaboration between women, but I also feature an interview with a female creative with a story that hearkens to an aspect of the stories that are featured.
Episode One is about the story of the Medici Women's Court and three specific women who were behind a famous evening of theater in Florence, Italy.
This story is about the complete departure from the political narrative norm that had been told up to that point in a very patriarchal, dynastic society. Here we have two matriarchs—Christine de Lorraine, and her daughter-in-law, Maria Magdalena of Austria—both members of the powerful Medici family. They collaborated with the court musician for the Medici, Francesca Caccini, who was unparalleled in her ability to compose, sing, teach, and create.
Together, these three women created a one-night performance of what is widely considered political theater, but it was theater, nonetheless. It was a spectacle that neither the court nor the world had ever seen. Francesca Caccini composed what is now known as one of the first operas ever to be composed—The Liberation of Roger from the Island of Alcina. What was so special is that the story that they chose to tell was about two sorcerer women trying to capture Roger and liberate him from Alcina Island. By the end of the opera, the main objective is not actually about this man—he is not the central figure. It is about the display of power between these two women. That was a very powerful signal to the society there in the center of authority and power in Italy. I loved talking about this story. It is inspiring and remarkable . . . and there is so much more to tell!
EG: Can you tell us more about the podcast series and what we can expect?
Episode Two is about surrealist abstract painter Sonia Delaunay, who was also a fashion designer, and her collaboration with arguably Hollywood's most famous silent film actress: Gloria Swanson.
When Gloria was in Paris, she and Sonia collaborated on a coat that is now considered a very important piece of modern art. These two women were truly parallel powerhouses. Throughout the episode, I break down a theory about where the term “collaboration” comes from, which actually hints at Sonia's story and everything that she created.
The third episode features the famous story of Marian Anderson’s concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday in 1939.
I had a great privilege of interviewing Ginette DePreist, who was the wife of Marian's nephew, James DePreist, a famous, well-regarded and beloved conductor. We talk at length about how Marian did not consider that to be the pinnacle moment of her life. It was an important moment in history that happened early in her career, but there was so much else that she did in her life. It is fascinating to talk about that historical moment as being born of a collaboration that no one talks about. Marian Anderson deliberately closed her program with a piece written by another fellow Virtuosa, Florence Price, who she had met through the National Association of Negro Musicians, which was a music society for gifted Black musicians. That Marian Anderson and Florence Price were setting a very specific set of texts and of music for the listening public during this historic time—it's just so moving. The episode dives into the various collaborations that Marian had throughout her career—with Albert Einstein being one of them! She had a friendship with Einstein and with Steffi Rupp, who was her longtime vocal coach and who had to escaped the fascism and antisemitism that was growing in Europe in the 1930s.
There are so many exciting episodes to come. Throughout the course of this podcast, I’ll move through various aspects of the creative industry with different types of stories. You’ll hear about the original women composers behind Nintendo games as well as some of the first women in computer coding. There will be stories about sculpture, a mask maker in World War II, documentary filmmaking, indigenous bead circles, the making of the American flag, the original artist behind the most widely know artistry of tarot cards, American history and the many famous sisterhoods that you never knew existed—collaborations between sisters in literature, music, and many other stories that have been hidden in time.
EG: As with most creative projects, the ideas morph and manifest in ways that the creator sometimes doesn’t see coming. What unexpected discoveries have you made as you unearth these stories of female creativity and the suppression that was foisted upon them? How have these important stories of female collaboration informed your life, and what do you hope they inspire in today’s women?
KH: The stories that I'm unearthing for the Virtuosa Society Podcast are informing my life in even deeper ways than I expected. I was originally drawn to telling these stories when I first dove into the story of Francesca Caccini, and more specifically into the lives of the women that were featured in Dr. Anna Beer's book Songs and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music. Upon hearing the deeper revelations of what it meant to be a woman in the societies that each of these women lived in—and their creative output and how they moved around the obstacles in their lives—it was not only deeply inspiring to me in my own journey but just inspiring in terms of how the retelling of their stories can impact the way in which women collaborate in the future.
That is what I hope that women and listeners of my podcast take away from the stories—that they can formulate new ideas and new ways to join with fellow female creatives to offer something new to the world.
Not just new but innovative, important, imperative work. I hope that this encourages them to join together in uplifting that work and encourages all of us to continue creating.
EG: As a singer, performer, writer, and creative powerhouse, you’ve had quite an exciting journey to where you are now. Your creative strings are woven in a way that give yourself room to explore, to grow, and to discover new ways of expressing yourself. You’ve also found an extremely effective way to give back to others with the lessons you are learning. Where do you see yourself in 5 years? What will Katie Harman be creating, and what can we look forward to?
KH: Well, five years ago, I could have never predicted where I would be now. So it's hard to say where I'm going to be five years from now; but my own creative journey has been wildly different, wildly unique. I am so grateful for the journey that I have taken.
In looking back at my nonlinear journey and meeting so many women along the way who echo many of the same struggles that I have had as a female creative—the roadblocks and obstacles. I see similar journeys that seem to be happening to only women and not to men in the creative fields—especially in classical music, musical theater, and the recording industry.
In hearing their stories, it's really inspired me to not hold back in sharing my journey and sharing the journey of others, digging deeper into the nuances of those experiences to normalize the unusual journeys. It is comforting to know that we as women are all kind of in the same boat. I guess we're in different boats on the same sea in this weird, creative life that we've chosen. That is what I hope will propel the next five years, is this deeper understanding, deeper appreciation, for my journey; but there's also this fueling of curiosity that I have to find more stories of hidden female creatives.
I have to tell their stories in such a way that gives rise to innovation and creative endeavors that change the world for the better.
Practically speaking, within the next five years, I will be an empty nester, which is so hard
to say. My son is off to college this upcoming year, and my daughter will graduate in 2027. I am looking now at my second life and middle age and all that comes along with the joy and the challenge of turning over a new leaf as a middle-aged woman. So that is both extremely exciting and challenging. It's also a little scary, but I like scary things. I like challenges. It's not daunting. It's invigorating.
EG: Good luck with all of these superb endeavors, Katie! We wish you luck and look forward to seeing you flourish and thrive.