Katie Luther: A One-Woman Monodrama by Glenn Winters
October 31, 2017 marked the 500th anniversary celebration of the Reformation of the Protestant Church, and throughout the world, the name of Martin Luther resounded. It was on October 31, 1517, that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses (articles of disputation concerning the nature of repentance, the penalty of purgatory, and the power and efficacy of indulgences) to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenburg, Germany.
This initial impulse of the Reformation was aimed at reforming the church within the established structure. However, Luther’s revolutionary ideals had impact far beyond the community of the faithful, transforming the whole of society and culture. Luther’s insistence on salvation sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide – by scripture alone, by grace alone, by faith alone – encouraged individual autonomy and the ability to reason and interpret for oneself. Through education and Gutenberg’s printing press, literacy increased and the first social media campaign made words, images and ideals more accessible to a broader cross-section of people, including his future wife, Katharina von Bora. Inspired by the writings of the Protestant reformers and their concept of theological and personal freedom, she rebelled against the strict monastic life she began at age six.
On Good Friday, 1523, Katharina joined a small group of nuns in escaping Marienthron, the Cistercian convent of Nimbschen where she had taken her vows eight years earlier. With Martin Luther’s assistance, the nuns were smuggled out of the convent by Leonhard Köppe, a merchant from Torgau, in a wagon carrying barrels of herring. They arrived in Wittenberg and were taken in by wealthy citizens who assisted in their new life by arranging marriages for the young nuns.
Katharina was eventually settled with Luther’s friend, the artist Lucas Cranach the Elder and his family. It seems she had her heart set on marrying Luther, refusing the marriage proposal of Wittenberg professor Kaspar Glatz. Katharina’s determination was rewarded when Luther proposed and the couple married on June 13, 1525.
While Luther’s motivations for the union are not known, his later references to her as “My rib” (a declaration of intimate spiritual connection referring to the Biblical story of Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib), and “My Lord and Master Katie” reveal a unique partnership, especially for the time. The respect and esteem in which he held Katharina is further demonstrated by the unusual stipulations in his will. Upon a husband’s death, law dictated that a guardian be appointed to be responsible for the property and care of the widow and any children. However, Luther named Katharina as his sole beneficiary and as guardian of their children. She had certainly proven herself more than capable running their large estate, the ‘Black Monastery’, with its successful farm, brewery and fish-breeding business.
Unfortunately for Katie and her six children, the will was overturned. The resulting poverty, accompanied by war and plague forced the family to flee Wittenberg in 1552. Sadly, on route to Torgau, their carriage overturned, causing grave injury, and consequently soon after, Katie’s premature death.
KATIE LUTHER: THE OPERA
Glenn Winters’ opera Katie Luther, sets these three major phases of Katie’s life – young nun, married wife and mother, dying widow – in a compelling, 60-minute monodrama.
In the words of soprano Lori Lewis, who originated the role of Katie Luther,
In “Katie Luther: The Opera” you will meet the woman behind the man who reshaped the course of history forever. This is the true story of the Reformation from a seldom-seen perspective. Through Katie's eyes we see Martin Luther the family man, the husband and father… Marrying Christianity, the history of the Lutheranism, and the Arts, this is a personal tale told from inside the story.
Scene 1 opens with eighteen-year-old Katharina von Bora in her room at Marienthronen Convent, near Wittenberg, Germany. It is the evening of Easter Vigil, 1523. She is portrayed as a young woman of ardent faith, who nonetheless longs for a life of freedom beyond the confines of the cloistered life:
When did this sanctuary become my prison? When did I first begin to dream of forbidden things? Of life in the outside world? Of escaping–this trap? God forgive me, God forgive me! I want… I want some meaning to my life! I want to breathe, to travel, to love! I want the love of a wonderful man! I want a child of my own! My heart aches to cradle a child in my arms! Enough of penance, enough of bondage, enough of these four walls! I can’t breathe!
She discloses the plans to escape as well as her admiration for Luther, while also affirming a deep devotion to God. The conflicting emotions allow for a broad expressive range in the voice that is supported by the piano accompaniment.
Scene 2 depicts Katharina a few years after her marriage. Luther’s most well-known hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” forms a superbly integrated textual and musical counterpoint to Katharina’s anxieties and self-doubt. The earthly and the divine are interwoven in turns humorous and profound.
The final scene occurs in a small room at a Lodge near Torgau in December,1552. Suffering from immense physical pain and exhaustion, Katie sings poignantly of her love for her children, the struggle of poverty, her despair over Luther’s death, and the powerful legacy of his teaching. Psalm 31 returns as a touchpoint and foundation for this testimony of a strong woman on a personal and spiritual journey of reformation: "In Thee, O Lord, do I seek refuge: let me never be put to shame: in Thy righteousness deliver me! Yea, Thou art my rock and my fortress,” With a final reference to EIN FESTE’ BURG, the exigencies of life are laid to rest.
This through-composed opera which successfully employs melodic and harmonic reference to subject and emotional content, offers a satisfying comprehensive and logical structure. The vocal writing demonstrates a thorough understanding of the voice and bel canto technique, and there is ample opportunity for a broad range of vocal color.
Winters’ writing is highly expressive, making use of common twentieth-century compositional techniques of extended harmonies, quartal chord construction and bi-tonal combinations within tonal centers. The piano accompaniment does require advanced ability. The immediacy and and accessibility in Winter’s score will provide both new audiences as well as opera connoisseurs with much to savor and appreciate.
ABOUT THE COMPOSER
Glenn Winters is a multi-faceted musician who has received acclaim as solo and collaborative pianist, operatic baritone, author, lecturer, blogger, librettist and composer. He has been the Community Outreach Music Director for Virginia Opera since 2004. He also teaches opera classes for several colleges and universities and hosts broadcasts on two public radio stations.
His book The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and Other Primates was published in 2013 by Kendall Hunt Publishing. His blog "Operation Opera" was awarded third place in a national competition of arts blogs sponsored by Carnegie Hall's 2012 "Spring for Music" festival. Essays posted on the blog have been singled out by the National Association of Teachers of Singing and Operagasm.com as notable essays of the year. Dr. Winters' operas have been performed throughout the United States.
In addition to Katie Luther, he has composed numerous operas upon commission by the Virginia Opera’s Department of Education, including Deep River: Marian Anderson's Journey (2015), The Princess and the Pea (2014), The Empress and the Nightingale (2014), and Tales From the Brothers Grimm (2007) which has been staged by opera companies in Oklahoma (Cimarron Opera Company) and North Caroline (Piedmont Opera Company).
PERFORMANCE HISTORY of Katie Luther: The Opera
Oct. 23, 2013 World premiere at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO - Janet Hopkins, mezzo-soprano
Oct. 25, 2013 University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM- Melissa Carter and Lori Lewis, sopranos
Oct. 27, 2013 St. Marks Lutheran Church, Baltimore, MD- Elizabeth Madeiros Hogue, soprano
Oct. 26, 2014 Reformation Lutheran Church, Newport News, VA- Elizabeth Madeiros Hogue, soprano
Oct. 2015 Bethany Lutheran College, Mankoto, MN- Jennifer Haugen, soprano
July 2015 European premiere at the COSA15 Festival, Copenhagen, Denmark- Randi Røssaak, soprano
Composer Glenn Winters: https://www.glennwinterscompositions.com
Glenn Winter’s discusses the opera: http://dropera.blogspot.com/2013/07/who-was-katie-luther-and-why-write.html
Radio Interview with the Composer: https://kfuo.org/2013/10/09/his-time-katie-luther-the-opera/
About our Contributor:
Dr. Michelle Louer serves as the Director of Music and Fine Arts at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, where she conducts the 70-voice Sanctuary Choir, the 16-voice all professional ensemble Beecher Singers, and the Festival Orchestra and Brass Ensemble. Dr. Louer earned a Doctorate of Music in Choral Conducting from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. She graduated summa cum laude from Yale University with a Master of Divinity and a Master of Music in Choral Conducting under Marguerite Brooks. Dr. Louer has formerly served on the faculty of Butler University, the University of Evansville, and Oklahoma City University.
 You may visit this link to hear an excerpt from Winter’s Katie Luther: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkJnw3SNAoU