Augusta's guide to confronting the other woman
In Scene IV of the opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe, Augusta Tabor meets the other woman. When the sections of this duet are broken down, a psychological strategy emerges - something which Augusta uses to deal with the situation. If we understand her strategy, we understand how to play the scene with truth. So here's a look at how Augusta's melodic and tonal structures provide top tips for confronting the other woman.
It's the darn'dst thing. Every time I rehearse Scene IV in The Ballad of Baby Doe, I find myself walking towards the rehearsal room humming Jolene. This behaviour pattern is something that has caused my colleagues to raise a quizzical eyebrow and got me wondering...why does Scene IV bring out the Dolly in me? After all, the woman I'm playing is not a modern iconic country western singer with a bejewelled décolletage, rather a straight laced 19th century miner's wife with a neckline befitting a nun. Surprisingly, the answer is a simple one. I do what any young woman does who's got a bit of a crush on Hercule Poirot; apply the little grey cells and get all psychological.
It turns out, after a bit of thought, that Augusta and Dolly have quite a bit in common. Surprised? Yes me too. Admittedly they're not bosom buddies (really no pun intended - oh ok, just a little one) but there are some strong similarities between these two iconic American women. They are queens in their industry. They are deeply religious - serving their Pentecostal and Unitarian churches respectively and both of their husbands have fallen for the charms of a seductress. In Dolly's case, any attempted seductions failed to weaken the marriage. Instead they inspired Dolly to write, Jolene, the semi-auto-biographical song that became a worldwide hit. It also became a Karaoke classic and to this day continues to be wailed through Vodka inspired tears in Karaoke bars on a Saturday night. For Augusta Tabor, the seductress was called Baby Doe. She did end their marriage and later went on to inspire the opera I am currently working on, The Ballad of Baby Doe.
So my humming of Jolene is instinctive. I'm about to do a scene about betrayal and the confrontation of a seductress, I therefore start to prepare myself by humming a popular tune about....erm...well...yep, you've got it. But my colleagues think this a weak explanation for random acts of humming. After all, how can a Karaoke classic possibly prepare me for the operatic rant of Scene IV. They have a point. Or do they...
Jolene and Act IV tell the same story; a wife confronting the 'other woman'. In Jolene, the wife pleads with the seductress to not steal her man: 'your beauty is beyond compare.....and I cannot compete with you Jolene.' This reveals much about the wife's self-esteem as she chooses not to confront Jolene as an equal. This begs the question, has the wife seen beauty win before? Perhaps this conditioning derives from society, family or the actions of an ex-boyfriend leaving her for somebody she thought was prettier than herself. But wherever it comes from, it has affected her to the extent that she gives her power over to Jolene and lets her decide her fate: 'I had to have this talk with you, my happiness depends on you and whatever you decide to do, Jolene.'
When we compare this approach to Augusta's in Scene IV we see a whole different confrontation style. The roots of Augusta's confrontation style begins in Scene III. In this scene Augusta does have a private moment where she feels defeated by Baby Doe's youth and beauty. However, this self-pity doesn't last long and it ends up being the catalyst that mobilises her for the battle scene of Scene IV. Unlike the wife in Jolene, Augusta's life experience has taught Augusta that beauty doesn't always win. Augusta knows all too well that it was her strength and determination that helped her survive the wilderness. Her faith and Unitarian values have also taught her that a life built on equality, truth and hard work is worth much more than some well applied rouge and lipstick to a pretty face. This is the bedrock of Augusta's self-esteem that causes her to stand and fight for her reputation, her marriage, her future.
What this comparison achieves is a fresh insight into why Augusta confronts in the way she does. From an acting perspective, it has made tangible:
1. what Augusta is fighting for (the why)
2. the content for the inner monologue (the what and when)
3. how Augusta confronts (the how)
We need all these elements to create a three dimensional scene but it is the framing of the 'how' that brings a new insight. The 'how' is essentially the guide to Augusta's actions; it gives us at once a compass for the scene, and the shape of the emotional landscape. The 'how' connects Augusta's life experience with her current intentions. The 'how' helps us understand how Augusta operates in this set of circumstances and why she makes the choices she makes.
Augusta's choices and actions in Scene IV are brilliantly manipulative. When you write them down in order of sequence, they form a handy step by step guide. An exercise that actors often do to explore a character's back history is to write a 'day in the life' diary entry. I've taken inspiration from this acting exercise and created Augusta Tabor's guide to confronting the other woman. This guide is fictional, based only on the strategy that Augusta uses in Scene IV. I wouldn't recommend it as a point of reference for confronting a perpetrator. Rather, it is a mirror on how Augusta Tabor deals with the situation.
Augusta Tabor's Guide To Confronting The Other Woman
Step 1. Be the best
Augusta's first step is realised in her opening phrases of wide intervals that represent her high status born out of having the moral high ground. Her bristling anger and indignation is just about controlled within these angular intervals.
Step 2. Tell the truth
In the score, Augusta recounts the facts of the affair with a spitting scalic melody that tries to help her keep her emotions in control: 'By telling you frankly I know all about you, about you and Horace.'
When recounting this, her emotions rise to the surface and she cadences with wider intervals. She recovers from this surge of emotion in the orchestral bar that follows before moving onto the next step.
Step 3. Warn
Augusta demonstrates this step in a spiky melody, akin to a distorted arpeggio: 'I've come here to warn you that there will be trouble, serious trouble, if there's not an end to it.' To indicate how much trouble Baby Doe will be in, 'serious trouble' peacocks with ascending arpeggios, driving the melody to cadence in a major key. In that one beautifully executed move, Augusta secures her high status.
Step 4. Patronise, patronise, patronise
After Baby Doe sings her arioso about the virtues of Horace and how she couldn't help but fall in love with him, Augusta is livid. She retaliates with patronisation and vicious judgement.
First, Augusta makes sure that Baby Doe realises her relationship with Horace is not valid or on an equal footing to hers. She does so with angular motifs that patronise in a squawk-like manner. They are then transformed into a melodic structure based on peacock motifs: 'you don't know him, the man is a child!'
Now that Baby Doe has been told just how insignificant she is, Augusta checks-in to make sure that Baby Doe will end the affair.
1. She steals Baby Doe's status by taking away her voice through an assumption: 'and so you're leaving Mrs Doe. You won't be seeing him anymore?'
2. she patronises her with a strong legato scalic melody: 'and I'm glad you've got some sense'. This also refers to Horace's other women that weren't sensible, thus reminding Baby Doe that she's not special.Augusta realises this last step with aplomb in the form of her vitriolic goodbye. After Augusta says a polite yet strained goodbye, Baby Doe replies with a goodbye on the same note as Augusta's. Does Augusta expect Baby Doe to reply? I expect not given the pause before Augusta's reply. When Augusta does reply with her second and final goodbye it is a note higher than Baby Doe's. This not only secures Augusta with the last word, she reminds Baby Doe that she is not her equal for she, Augusta Tabor, is the better woman.
Step 5. Have the last word
Step 5. Have the last word
So, there's more to a hum than meets the eye. Inspiration and insight for an opera scene can be found in a Karaoke classic. But there's one more insight to be had by taking Scene IV and Jolene into a wider storytelling context.
Jolene and Baby Doe, like Anne Boleyn, are cultural figureheads whose stories explore the obsession of beauty. Although Baby Doe said she would end the affair, she doesn't. The affair continues and Augusta and Horace end up divorcing so Baby Doe and Horace can marry. In the real lives of Augusta Tabor and Baby Doe, the women never meet:
'She is blonde, I understand, and paints. But I have never seen her.'
Augusta Tabor, Denver Republican, October 31, 1883
But what is historically true in this operatic scene is Augusta's mis-judgement that Baby Doe was nothing special and whose silence could be easily bought:
'For years Augusta hoped that Baby Doe would tire of Horace and, crestfallen, he would come back to his first wife....But Augusta was wrong. She had misunderstood her rival. When the Silver Panic of 1893 reduced the former millionaire to poverty, his pretty blonde wife stuck like glue.'
Augusta Tabor: Her Side of the Scandal, Bancroft, 1972 edition
How terrible for Augusta to realise that it was her own silence that ended up being bought in a bitter divorce settlement. So does Augusta get it wrong and is the wife right in Jolene...does beauty win? I'll leave you to decide that. But one thing's for sure, there are no winners in betrayal; everyone loses something.
Augusta Tabor: Her Side of the Scandal; Caroline Bancroft; Johnson Pub; 1972
The Silver Queen; Jane Coleman; Leisure Books; 2009
Jolene, Dolly Parton, 1972
Two Women Fencing; 1885; George Eastman House (blog post image) For more information click here