Playing Héloïse and Abélard: Two Actors Discuss Their Approach

Jeffrey Strauss and Helena Scholz-Carlson

For our next production, The Passion of Héloïse and Abélard, two costumed actors will join us on stage to enact the letters written by these two medieval lovers, while the Consort performs love songs from 14th century France.

The letters written between Abélard, a 12th century philosopher, and his student Héloïse, have inspired love stories throughout the generations. In this production, we’ll be performing excerpts from seven of the most famous letters that have survived, as well as from more than 100 other letters that were recently attributed to Héloïse and Abélard by Barbara Newman, a professor of religious studies at Northwestern University, in her new book, “Making Love in the 12th Century.”

In our production, the actors will first appear dressed as younger versions of their characters, when the two were lovers, and will later be dressed as a monk and nun, which they became after being forced to separate.

We are thrilled to share that Jeffrey Strauss, a singer and actor who has often appeared with period-instrument ensembles, including the Newberry Consort, will play Abélard, and Helena Scholz-Carlson, a student majoring in theater and visual art at Northwestern University, will play Héloïse.

Recently we caught up with both actors to talk to them about how they are preparing for these roles and what they are looking forward to about the production.

1. Why are you excited to be part of this production?  

JS: Ellen [Hargis] and David [Douglass] are two of the most passionate and accomplished scholars and performers specializing in music of the Middle Ages, Renaissance and baroque periods. I’ve known them for many years, and I jump at any chance to work with (and learn from) them. I also love theater and stage acting, and while I will sing a little in this program, my role is primarily as an actor rather than a musician. That is very appealing to me. (I also like wearing costumes, and Meriem Bahri is a genius at costume design.

HS: I think it will be really exciting to hear music from this time period along with text and historical context for how these two people were living. I’m really looking forward to being in rehearsals with Ellen and David, getting to hear their expertise and singing a little with Ellen. 

2. What surprised you about Héloïse and Abélard when you read their letters?  

JS: The surprising thing is the degree to which they combine unashamed carnal passion with academic — and religious — scholarship. It’s quite a challenge to convey both aspects of their correspondence. The songs that Ellen and Aaron Sheehan will sing are going to be crucial — music has a way of communicating the most intimate emotions, even without words. Here, the texts and the music will be a stunning and moving expression of Héloïse and Abélard’s intellectual and physical passion for each other, and a view into the character and mood of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance.

HS: I was surprised to read such frank references to their sexual relationship, and to hear about Héloïse’s writing and education, since this was so unusual for a woman at the time. I love those moments when you get to realize that the people whose lives we tend to think of as so different from our own were concerned with the same things as us. 

3. You will be portraying Abélard and Héloïse at two different life stages. Can you tell us how you are approaching the two stages differently?  

JS: I will have to contrast the texts written by the older Abélard, who looks back on events while telling a story rather than living it in the moment, with the Abélard who is in the midst of his relationship with Heloise. I am now of an age where I look back on my own experiences of “youth,” and I will bring some of that mindset to bear on this character and the best way to express his emotions.

HS: I think in the first stage there’s a lot of excitement and a lot of discovery — Héloïse is pretty young (probably about my age, fittingly) and experiencing this really passionate and consuming love for the first time, as well as learning and reading and writing a lot. In the second stage she’s lived a lot more, and experienced some pretty serious consequences and life changes, so I’ll definitely be thinking about how she would be thinking and reacting differently given that. One of the really striking things though is that she stays pretty consistent in what she expresses and what she wants — so I think it will be interesting to show those differences while expressing similar ideas. 

4. What do you think will be challenging about this production?  

JS: There is the important task of being understood when reading rather long texts. (I should note that the actual letters are much longer than the excerpts we are performing). It’s not easy, because the language may seem formal and even stilted to a speaker of American English. These texts are not a play, and certainly weren’t written to be “performed” in public. That makes this a particularly challenging assignment.

5. In what ways do you relate to your character?  

JS: As I mentioned, I’m now at a point in life where I, too, look back on various adventures of my youth, people I’ve been close to and passionate about, how things turned out and how they might have been different. I share the sense of wistfulness and longing that I feel is central to the letters and the song texts in this program.

HS: I’ve often been the youngest person in an academic or artistic conversation, so I relate to being sort of precocious and more knowledgeable than people might expect. I really admire Héloïse passion and eloquence as well, she seems to me like the kind of person who gets really interested in ideas and pursues them until she fully understands them — whether they be emotional or intellectual, which is something I relate to as well. 

6. What do you hope that audiences take away from this show?  

HS: I hope the audience gets more of an insight into the time period. It’s pretty rare to hear music played authentically along with text that gives you a sense of people’s emotional lives, and I think that both of these aspects will enhance each other. And I hope that they take away some questions or thoughts about what it’s been like to be a woman in different times and how societies deal with sexuality. 

JS: We always try to tell a story in a way that will have direct impact on the audience — whether pleasure, sadness, joy, hope, even discomfort. Like any good theater, we want to show the audience something of the human condition — which is to say, something of their own lives. We hold up a mirror to allow the audience to reflect on their experiences. This is not an academic exercise. Human nature has not changed since the days of Héloïse and Abélard. We want our audience to relate to them as people even as we tell their story in a musical language that, while old, speaks clearly to the present day.

 

 

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