Martha speaks: Martha McDonald, Part 3

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this interview with performance artist Martha McDonald.

Tell me about the Bartram’s Garden piece (performed last Saturday, one day only, at BG on the banks of the Schuylkill River.

Martha McDonald
McDonald performing Lament last Saturday at Bartram’s Garden.

This is really different for me. It’s going to be outside. It’s a collaboration with Katie Holten, an Irish artist (she was Ireland’s representative at the Venice Biennale). Her piece is at Bartram’s Garden (as part of ICA’s Soft Sites exhibit). She was looking for a singer to sing a lament at the river’s edge at sunset.

Robert Chaney (registrar at ICA)passed my name on to her. She googled me and we decided to do a collaboration. I’m going to awaken peoples’ senses to the 18th century botanical garden. It’s an intimate walking tour of the gardens, the meadow and the wooded glen where I’ll sing. Katie’s made little sculptures, seeds. I’ll be activating them —planting them.

It’s about exploring plants that have gone extinct. I said to Katie what are we lamenting?


We spent a day at BG…there’s a Franklinia tree (more like a shrub) Bartram rescued it from extinction. He took seeds from one tree in the wild and planted them in his garden. At this point it’s extinct in the wild. Any franklinia tree in the world comes from bartram’s garden.

The tree is like birds or a panther in captivity. It’s sad but also cool because we get to see them.

Martha McDonald
talking about the Franklinia tree, extinct in the wild and preserved by the intercession of Bartram.

There’s a story about peonies and royalty in China and how under Mao the peonies were almost made extinct (because of that royal connection).

There’s my personal story with my trying to transplant a plant from my grandfather’s garden into my own and my sense of loss.

I want to have people experience the fleeting nature of the garden. I’m a catalyst to experience the garden. I don’t want to upstage the gardens…

What’s the costume?

I’ll keep it simple. I’m making it.

What’s the lament?

It’s a Henry Purcell lament. It’s called The Plaint. (from the Fairie Queen) I will be unaccompanied.

I find it easy to access sorrow. Maybe that’s the maudlin Irish sentimentality. The hole in my heart that I access. I bring all the personal losses that I’ve had over the years.

Other people are touched by other things.

bartrams looking towards the river
Bartrams is bucolic and a little wild. You’d never guess there’s oil refinery tanks nearby. And as a flickr buddy of mine, Mike, pointed out, there’s another kind of beauty right next door–the decaying US Gypsum Company site. See Mike’s flickr set for great pictures of the beautiful rotting mess

Tell me about Gregory, your trip to Berlin and the castrati project you’re working on.

Gregory Nelson (he designs McDonald’s costumes) is based in Berlin now.

The castrati project?

I’m creating hybrids. A rock show performed by a castrato

Martha McDonald
Here she is explaining it all to us about the yellow wood tree and about how tulip mania got started in Holland. A hallmark of McDonald’s works is the encyclopedic digressions she gives in a folksy sort of way that’s both endearing and elucidating.

They were rock stars of the 18th century. I’ll be singing baroque music backed up by a rock band. There may be early music people who will be upset. I’m not using period instruments.

I will use rock instruments to create a hybrid of baroque and glam rock. I may be singing glam rock….it’ll be staged like an arena rock show—with videos. Like Behind the Music.

Lots of folks attended the performance in spite of the 90+ weather.

…We meet the castrati at the height of the craze…6000 boys were castrated each year on the Italian peninsula. Castrati sang all the roles…people wanted it. Composers wrote for it.

The castrati were stuck in puberty. With soft bones all their lives. But their ribs expanded for their big lungs. But they had small larynx—larynx of a little boy. They all were very tall.

Also they were freaks, so they were not acknowledged on the street.

It’s up my alley because I love all the outcasts–the mermaid, etc.

I’m drawn to those characters.

Obviously I can’t sing like castrati. I’m looking at videos of Freddie Mercury and others. They’re all like castratis.

Composers wrote “suitcase arias” for them. Because the castrati wanted to sing their favorite aria in whatever opera they performed in…they’d require that it be inserted into a piece.

I studied with Drew Minter, a famous countertenor, at the Amherst early music festival. I will study with him again to get the baroque gestures. They did special gestures to showcase the costumes.

Basically it’s a concert. It’s staged like a concert. The monologues will be delivered in between the songs.

Martha McDonald
At the performance’s end, McDonald got into some Wellingtons and jumped into a canoe and paddled away. It was an ambiguous, anti-climactic ending and we all wished we could have jumped in a boat as well.

Some of the ideas I’ve done before. I sing a duet with myself….

I want to look at the grey area of gender in opera. I’ll start as a woman and go to man and end as a creature. I will do Work in Progress showings. I need to do them– in 2007.

Gregory and I started working on costume ideas.

I have a huge interest in fashion…

I’m listening to a band…the Sparks

from the 1970s. They had an opera singer who became a member of the band.

Back to Bartrams

I’ve been wanting to do an outside performance for a while. I met Jonathan Berger, performance artist (with Circus Amok) who showed a great installation at Vox Populi a while back) at the MacDowell Colony.

We did a performance outside in the snow. There was a full moon. We called it Drive In. People drove their cars up and turned their headlights on us. There was a cloth and we buried it in the snow and it got wrapped around me.

Outside is perfect. I like to take people on a tour and connect with them.

Also I want to get away from opera’s “park and bark”. Using natural actions. When you have simple action and you’re singing baroque they have an effect on each other.

And on a final note…

Twice sold pork hocks
Here’s my 2x-sold pork hocks….don’t ask why. Who knows. I wanted them.

William Pope L
‘s Black Factory was at Bartram’s the same day. The troupe performed a little guerilla theatre with locals participating. The BF truck was full of merch including twice-sold products, and money from those 2x-sold items was being donated to Philabundance. I bought a jar of pork hocks. The young performer manning the truck who sold me the merch told me when I asked where he was from, that he was from Azerbaijan…not the answer I expected. He’s studying at Bates College in Lewiston, ME, where he said Pope L. is professor of theatre and rhetoric.