Walken Schweigert‘s Ritual Healing for Queer/Trans Lives

An opera must have drama, and what could be more dramatic than a descent into the underworld? It’s one of the most powerful archetypal journeys, and the traveler’s quest and return always affect the world above as well as below. After years of study, travel, and work in Nicaragua and elsewhere, composer Walken Schweigert is back in St. Paul, Minnesota writing opera. Born in Minneapolis and raised in St. Paul, he is an actor, musician, performer, and composer, and he is the founder of an all queer/trans ensemble, Open Flame Theatre. He is currently writing The Garden, the second opera in a triptych that was originally loosely inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. For this work he received a 2017 JFund award, now ACF | create, a grant from American Composers Forum with funds provided by the Jerome Foundation. The Garden will be produced by Open Flame Theatre and Philadelphia Community Farm.

Descents to the underworld test the living, and not all are guaranteed to return to the world of the living. In ancient Greek mythology, Persephone became the queen of the underworld, and her time with Hades caused her mother, Demeter (the goddess of harvest and fertility) such grief that the land withered and nothing grew for the duration. While Persephone was able to temporarily leave her husband, ruler of hell, she had to return for half the year.

Another powerful myth is the great Sumerian poem, The Descent of Inanna, one of the few extant non-male epics, and an inadvertent gift to musicians as well as the world of the living in general. The poem became influential to Schweigert while he was developing his triptych. Inanna’s journey to the underworld happens to begin with the ear, with the act of listening:

From the Great Above she opened her ear to the Great Below

From the Great Above the goddess opened her ear to the Great Below

From the Great Above Inanna opened her ear to the Great Below

Schweigert’s work engages struggles and traumas faced by queer and trans people and places those stories into a symbolic and spiritual landscape. “The story is about a transgender witch or magician who goes into hell to barter with the devil for the soul of their lover who was killed in a hate crime for being trans, but the hell that the magician discovers is not the one that they thought they were heading into.” As in any classic hero’s journey, the protagonist plunges from the known world into the unknown world of uncertainty and danger.

Opera as a form can be dreamlike in its intensity, charged with meaning and mystery. The Garden will delve into the psyche of a trans protagonist fighting against the violence of a transphobic world, says Schweigert. “I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of this theory of dreaming that everyone in your dreams is like a different part of yourself. There’s this idea, I think it was Jung, that all of the myths about the underworld are allegories for talking about the subconscious. We’re playing with those ideas; the demons that Hayden, the magician, encounters in this world are just reflections of his own internalized transphobia. We’ve sort of stepped away from the Divine Comedy a little bit and have expanded that to incorporate a lot of different myths and legends and stories about the underworld. From where the show is at right now, and of course it’s still in development, we’re drawing most from the ancient Sumerian myth of Inanna’s Descent.”

The Descent of Inanna, c. 1900-1600 BCE, tells the story of the Queen of Heaven, who seeks access to visit her sister, the Queen of Hell, because her husband has died. Before she can reach her sister, she is forced through seven gates, and at each she must remove another royal garment. Access to other worlds is usually costly.

In this capitalist, industrialized, toxified world, Schweigert explains how The Garden fits into the overarching work he’s called the Rewilding Cycle. “The triptych is an exploration of three different worlds: the wastelands, the garden, and the wilderness. We adopted a sort of heaven-hell-purgatory idea to describe these three landscapes, but it’s based on the premise that what is at the root of the interlocking system of oppressions of white Western capitalist colonizer culture is an impulse to control, and that great suffering has come and will come from such attempts.”

Walken Schweigert--Photo by Connie Chang

Walken Schweigert–Photo by Connie Chang

Transgender and queer people in our society are among our most vulnerable because of the violence of patriarchy, which hoards power for cisgender males and those under their protection. Transgressive gender identities, like any outsider condition, are marginal by definition, but also provide persons with the vision to see things as they actually are, and to perceive clearly that which is presented as “natural” or “normal.” At this intersection of gender identity and mortality, Schweigert is exploring the most mysterious transgression, or crossing, from the world of the living to the world of the dead. “A thread of research that has been informing the whole Rewilding Cycle for me is about exploring the roles of psychopomps. A psychopomp is someone who leads souls from death into the afterlife, [which is sometimes indistinguishable from] the world of dreams or the world of our imagination. What I have found is that, on every continent throughout all of human history, people of non-normative gender and sexual identities have held the role of being psychopomps. I think there’s something very sacred about that role, and that has been informing my work for almost ten years now.”

Music can heal perhaps because, with its infinity of sounds, it can connect us to our own limitlessness. Schweigert says, “I think we are making The Garden for a queer and transgender audience. Our goal with that show is for it to be a ritual of reclamation. Hayden enters into this realm full of all of these things that he has been taught to fear and hate about himself. And instead, finds beauty and love of the things that he’s been taught to feel ashamed of. And so I think that for trans people, there is a reclamation of our bodies, of our souls, of our power, of our magic that has been a long time coming.”


This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.


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