Émilie du Châtelet had a premonition she would die. But in 18th-century France, it wouldn’t take much for a pregnant 42-year-old to imagine she wouldn’t survive childbirth, an ordeal fraught with danger for even young women.
No ordinary French aristocrat, Émilie was less interested in the latest court intrigue than the most recent scientific theorem and spent her pregnancy working intensely to finish a translation of Newton’s great work Principia. Her long-time lover, the French writer and thinker Voltaire, described her state of mind that last summer: “She believed that death was striking … All she thought about was how to use the little time she had left, to deprive death of taking what she felt as the best part of herself.”
By all accounts, the best part of Émilie was her mind, even though she was considered quite beautiful, too. As a child growing up in the early 1700s, she exhibited a sharp, inquisitive nature, one that her father recognized, feeding her the knowledge she hungered for. She studied Latin, learned to read Italian, and benefited from the visits of famous thinkers of the day. According to David Bodanis in his biography Passionate Minds, her mother fought this education all along the way, believing Émilie should be learning needlepoint not Newton. At the time, females were considered to bea different species from males altogether. Men were superior in all senses: physical, mental, spiritual.
In addition to her indulgent father, Émilie had the good fortune of coming of age in an exciting time: the Enlightenment. In the 1600s, the roots of this profound change in conventional thinking had already begun taking root with the writings of René Descartes (“I think therefore I am”) and Isaac Newton, whose work challenged the very notion of the earth’s place and, therefore, man’s place in the universe. The tyrannical hold that religion had over every thought, belief, and social structure was slowly but surely beginning to crumble.
With Voltaire, Émilie explored all kinds of exciting ideas, challenging not only social norms (she and Voltaire kept house in the country for nearly a decade, with her husband’s approval) but the very notion that women could be intellectual. Today, Émilie du Châtelet’s biographers have effectively made a case for her position as an influential thinker of the Enlightment herself, but for a very long time she remained a mere footnote.
From Émilie and Voltaire and their prolific writings, you can draw straight lines to the ideas that spurred the American and French revolutions later that century. You can also draw a line in modern scientific theories from Émilie right to Einstein. In Passionate Minds, Bodanis chronicles their wild affair along with their lively intellectual pursuits at her husband’s remote chateau, which they renovated (and furnished with comfortable sofas — another revolutionary idea of the time) and turned into a veritable research institute. The two discussed fresh ideas, wrote competing pieces on the nature of light (hers won a higher award), and made a lot of love. They were passionate from head to tail, taking part in a very contemporary kind of relationship in which they were not only intellectual equals (although Voltaire suspected her mind was brighter than his) but ardent friends, who challenged and supported each other.
But back to that pregnant summer of 1749, when Émilie had a premonition she would die. The child was not Voltaire’s. Their on-again, off-again affair had been off for a while, as he was focused on writing a new play and trying to get back into the royal court’s good graces, and she had carried on a brief flirtation with a much younger man and found herself pregnant at 42, a risky age even today to be having babies. Her young lover, Jean-Francois Saint-Lambert, had cowardly turned his back on her as her belly swelled with his child.
Convinced of her impending death, her last task was no small project. A bit heartsick, she decided Newton’s greatest work Principia needed to be translated, but she wouldn’t just be translating the language from Latin to French. She would be translating the calculations from medieval geometry to modern calculus, which Newton himself had created. As Bodanis explains it, Newton’s texts were written with multiple levels of meaning, and Émilie was convinced people were missing the deeper theories of why planets orbited following certain rules and why apples fell to the ground at particular speeds. She was looking for a way to explain how gravity stretched up. And, ultimately, she was looking to unlock the concept of energy that was hidden in Newton’s work. She knew it was something important, something that she had to illuminate. But she knew that time was not on her side.
That frantic state of mind is the basis for the opera Émilie, being produced in this year’s Spoleto Festival USA. Composed by the Finnish Kaija Saariaho and written by librettist Amin Maalouf, Émilie conjures up the forebodings, thoughts of death, and reminiscences of a brilliant woman who knows her life will be cut short.
Conductor John Kennedy says Saariaho’s musical vocabulary is well-suited to tell the story of a scientist. “[It’s] almost impressionistic in a postmodern kind of way,” he says. “There are people who have compared her work to a post-tonal Debussy. There’s this sensuous wash of sound filled with changes in texture and color in the orchestration, and that’s well exploited in telling this story of this scientist as she reflects on the nature of color and optics.”
He also thinks it’s appropriate for this opera to be composed by a contemporary female. “History tends to be told as the story of men and their follies. Even in classical music it tends to be a male narrative,” he says. “That Saariaho had written this story to music was a great opportunity for us as a festival. The piece does have universalities that still resonate in the contemporary world.”
Not only will Spoleto mark the American premiere of Émilie, for which Saariaho will be on hand, it will also be the Spoleto debut of noted coloratura soprano Elizabeth Futral, who is the only performer in this 75-minute piece. Like Proserpina last year, this is a relatively short but intense monodrama, requiring Futral to sing for a solid stretch of time.
“The music was composed for Karita Mattila, one of the great singers of our time, with real lyricism and sensitivity for the voice that captures the spirit of the character quite well,” says Kennedy. “The libretto and vocal lines deliver her reflections in a way that is sometimes impetuous and filled with sparks of ideas. At other times, it reflects her capacity for love and the amorous nature she has.”
Kennedy says having Futral sing this role is yet another tremendous opportunity. “It’s a piece that not only wants a voice of great beauty but also a singer who has the dramatic power for such a role. It’s just a thrill that she decided to take it on.”
Émilie premiered in Europe last year to generally negative reviews, a fact that did not deter Spoleto’s executive director Nigel Redden, who has assembled a new team to craft a whole new production. One main criticism of the European opera was its lack of drama, which Spoleto is addressing head-on, bringing in multimedia master Marianne Weems of New York’s the Builders Association. “We create spectacles,” she says.
To dramatize the inner life of Émilie, Weems has built a dynamic video set with white geometric scrims dominating the space above the black stage in the Memminger Auditorium. Those triangular shapes will be projected with what Weems says is a “prismatic portrait of her mind.”
“The images come with emotional text,” she adds. “The singer is spilling this out, so it’s an associative, poetic use of media.”
It’s a contemporary interpretation of what Weems believes is a very contemporary character. One discourse Émilie wrote on the subject of happiness pondered the idea that women don’t need men to be happy and that women should be free to pursue pleasures without regret. “She was all about being happy without guilt or shame,” says Weems, “I found her approach to life refreshing.”
The sad truth of Émilie’s story is that her premonitions were right. She did die, seven days after giving birth to a daughter, who also did not survive. But her work, as she had hoped, has allowed her to live on. In her essay on happiness, she wrote: “It’s rare to admit it, but we all secretly like the idea of being talked about after our death. In fact, it’s a belief we need.”
It may have taken a couple of centuries for her brilliance to be acknowledged as more than a footnote in Voltaire’s biography, but Émilie lives on in modern science, which was greatly influenced by the work she did back when the foundations were just being formed. And now she lives on in opera too.
Stay cool. Support City Paper.
City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.