The superior voice of Cécile McLorin Salvant has something to say about women, their paths, and the occasional dire straits along the way. That is what I got from “Ogresse.” It’s a one-person cantata that is a 90-minute continuous, no-breaks tale that Salvant performed recently at the Kennedy Center.
“Ogresse” was co-commissioned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Through a provocative description, the production has been succinctly described as “She falls in love. She eats the guy. She dies.” That’s a deep visual.
Earlier this year, during its development, I questioned Salvant about this creative journey for “Ogresse.” It was originally framed as a “multimedia, animated interpretation project of the true story of Sara Baartman, a 19th-century South African woman taken to Europe, put on display, and now stands as a symbol of colonialist, racist and sexist exploitation.” That’s not what audiences saw at the Kennedy Center. There was another “womanist” tale that Salvant presented. For me, Salvant has always reached beyond what we thought a woman’s jazz voice is.
On stage, Salvant was dressed in a gold/bronze caftan, wearing a crown of leaves. Her fingers and long nails looked that like talons. It appeared she was a goddess. When singing the lyric “I’m big; I’m happy,” I felt I heard a “take me as I am” attitude to how she or any woman might be viewed. The man-thing dealt with the struggle of the departure, then he comes back. There are so many layers to Salvant’s composition and lyrics. Some were funny, and some my mind received as, “Oh, she went there!” I loved it because it was a tale with chapters that many women have lived.
Salvant was accompanied by a 13-piece orchestra that included a few non-traditional orchestra instruments that were effective in punctuating words and emotions. The use of the banjo, tuba, and congas marimba meshed with the string Mivos Quartet accented confusion at specific points. The fable blended folk, baroque, jazz, and country genres in this fable story. Darcy James Argue, the arranger and conductor, has traveled with Salvant on this trek.
Like so many, I became familiar with Salvant’s jazz stylings when she won the 2010 Thelonious Monk Competition. I saw her embody so many classic female jazz voices. Whenever she journeyed to the D.C. area, I ensured I was in the audience. She has won three consecutive Grammy awards. In 2020, Salvant received the MacArthur Fellowship and the Doris Duke Artist Award. Then I read she had skills as an illustrator and was working on “Ogresse.” Obviously, her dream evolved.
I sense “Ogresse” is still a work in progress. It will continue to evolve because Salvant’s voice, vision, and storytelling capabilities stay fluid.
Learn more about Cécile McLorin Salvant at https://www.cecilemclorinsalvant.com.