The two sides of Clara Schumann

Dichotomy of 19th century wife and composer explored in Langley woman's original play Clara/Clara

She was both a wife and a respected composer.

Today, nobody would bat an eye at the combination, but in the mid 19th century, Clara Wieck-Schumann’s decision to lead this ‘double life’ made her rather unique.

Groomed from early childhood to be a concert pianist, Clara soon fell in love with Robert Schumann, very much against the wishes of her father — Schumann’s teacher.

Eventually the couple sued Clara’s father in order to marry. The union lasted 16 years, and ended only with his death.

Now, nearly 200 years later, their story comes to life with a defiant heroine portrayed by two internationally acclaimed singers in a show with a sense of the dramatic, as a young Langley composer and musician — who also just happens to be a woman — explores both sides of Robert Schumann’s wife and musical peer in Clara/Clara. 

The original play looks at the life of the 19th century German composer from a couple of angles. And in order to better examine the dichotomy of Clara’s life, Adrienne Paulson (a 2004 graduate of H.D. Stafford) decided to cast not one, but two performers in the role.

Soprano Emily Forsyth and mezzo soprano Debi Wong will share the role of Clara when they step onto the stage in Pyatt Hall, at the new VSO School of Music.

Pianist Damien Jinks, meanwhile, will represent the image of Robert Schumann — “always in the background,” joked Paulson, who is also directing the play, which combines “intense drama” and music, composed by both Paulson and Robert Schumann.

The 24-year-old UBC school of music graduate first began researching the subject a couple of years ago, after she was approached by a philosophy student following her performance of Robert Schumann’s song cycle: A Woman’s Life and Love.

Writing ostensibly from his wife’s point of view, Schumann praised the loyalty and devotion to service of his wife, portraying her merely as an extension of himself.

The man asked Paulson why she would choose to sing such anti-feminist lyrics.

The question was food for thought for the young woman.

“Did (Schumann) just want a wife, and tolerated the composer, or was he drawn to this brilliant person?

“I thought, ‘Why don’t I know?’”

Using the material that was available, Paulson built on the framework of the Schumanns’ life and marriage, and then fictionalized the details.

The structure of Clara/Clara evolved naturally out of that.

“I don’t think I planned to make two separate characters,” said Paulson. Although her research uncovered a character so complex, “we could easily have five or six Claras running around on stage,” she joked.

One Clara (Forsyth) performs songs written by the composer herself, while the other (Wong) will sing pieces composed on her behalf by her husband.

“It’s what she thought, and what he thought she thought,” Paulson laughed.

In casting the dual role, Paulson turned to fellow UBC music school alumna, Wong — a graduate of Langley Fine Arts School — who in turn, suggested the director look at Forthsyth.

“Debi recommended her for the other half of Clara,” Paulson said. “She came in and auditioned for me and she seemed like a good fit.

“She looks incredibly like Clara Schumann, and she’s an excellent musician.”

“I love Robert Schumann’s music, and this play gives me the chance to sing it,” said Wong.

Paulson calls her play,  the second offering from her company Song Drama Productions, “just a snapshot” into the couple’s relationship.

“It doesn’t give anybody any answers. It adds to the discourse about their lives.

“These two people were some of the breakthrough composers of their day, yet their lives must have been very stressful,” said Paulson.

Clara was the forerunner of today’s woman – balancing many responsibilities.”Clara/Clara runs Aug. 18-20, at 8 p.m. Tickets, $30, are available at Taxes and service charges included in the ticket price.

Pyatt Hall is located at 843 Seymour St. in Vancouver.