written by Tim Hansen

In the 19th century, the Age of Enlightenment, there was a great leap forward in science and medicine; many of the standard practices that make up today’s medical professional’s tool kit originating in the days of Beethoven and Brahms. But scientific progress is not a highway, it’s a jumbled mess of wrong turns, back-pedaling and dead ends, and the age that brought us anesthetic, vaccines and aspirin also brought us phrenology, spiritual mediums and an epidemic of quackery inflicted upon upper class women across the Western World – hysteria.

The idea was that women were fragile creatures that needed to be diligently protected from the frailties of their own bodies, and the source of many of the tribulations that could affect a woman was her uterus. The errant organ was blamed as the source for anything from insomnia to faintness to actually desiring sex, under the catch-all condition of ‘hysteria’. And boy howdy did that term get chucked around: amongst certain sections of the medical intelligentsia, there was quite the hysteria for diagnosing hysteria.

Hysteria and the tacit gender politics behind this pseudo-illness is at the core of JFund awardee Clara Latham’s chamber opera Talking Cure. Latham’s background is eclectic: she is a composer and singer with serious academic expertise in the voice, gender and sexuality, and, importantly, the history of psychoanalysis, and Talking Cure represents a genuine intersection between these interests.

“I wrote my dissertation about the development of psychoanalysis, and the transformation from hypnosis to the “talking cure” as a method for treating hysteria,” says Latham. “That was a very involved intellectual historical project, and it didn’t leave enough time for composition, though all the while I was thinking about these ideas while composing works for voice and ensemble, and in my other “vernacular” projects.”

Talking Cure examines the story of a young woman named Bertha Pappenheim, who lived in Vienna in the late 1800’s and was diagnosed with hysteria, suffering from paralysis, hallucinations, unusual pains and severely disturbed speech. Accepted treatments of the time were “lurid” in Latham’s words: “treatments for hysteria, such as cauterization of the womb, were regularly practiced,” she says. However in Pappenheim’s case, her doctor, Josef Breuer, a respected G.P. and contemporary of Sigmund Freud, tried something both revolutionary and deceptively simple: talk.

Specifically, Pappenheim found that discussing her problems with Breuer alleviated her symptoms, and is widely regarded as the birth of what is called the ‘talking cure’, which is still used today to treat everything from post-traumatic stress disorder to major depression to addiction. However, Latham says, “more than a century later, we don’t fully understand how talk therapy works. There’s a blanket assumption that the value of the treatment lies in the exchange of ideas between doctor and patient, or perhaps on some notions of the presence and influence of the doctor on the patient.”

Latham believes however that researchers have overlooked one of the most basic aspects of talk therapy, namely the affect of one person’s voice on another person, separate from the semantics of what is actually being said. Latham intends to explore this hypothesis in her music, whilst also telling the story from the perspectives of Bauer and Pappenheim.

Latham’s compositional practice is decidedly collaborative, and her instrumentation for this chamber opera is a little unusual. There’s voice of course, with vocalists, Alice Teyssier and Michael Weyandt, but Latham has been working with improvisational duo Peter Evans on trumpet and Sam Pluta on electronics since 2014.

“I was really inspired by the improvisational practice of Peter and Sam,” explain Latham. “I didn’t want “trumpet and laptop” per se, but I wanted the sounds that these musicians in particular were creating. So I made a catalog of the sounds that I liked from their recordings, and I worked with them to create notations that we could all read so that they would recreate specifically the sounds that I wanted.”

Talking Cure will premiere in Summer 2017.