When vocalist Lucy Dhegrae lost her singing voice, she connected the disappearance to a sexual assault that happened in her past.
“I have heard several stories of others losing their ability to sing following traumatic events,” Dhegrae said in an interview with ALL ARTS. “I am not surprised that my body reacted that way. I was trying to repress that memory, but my body, I think, needed me to heal it, so it took away the one part of my body that I cannot do without: my voice.”
At the time, nearly all of the mezzo-soprano’s income was derived from singing. She also championed the voice of others, founding the Resonant Bodies Festival in 2013 — an intimate series that celebrated voice by giving musicians the opportunity to program free-wheeling sets composed of whatever they like.
“… I wonder if I were a violinist if it would have shown up as tendonitis in my wrist? If I were a dancer, in my leg?,” Dhegrae said. “Our bodies ask for our attention, and so often we are able to ignore the request. Once I connected past trauma to my vocal loss, I always knew I would have to sing about it, that that would be the final step in my healing process. I knew that singing about it, or from it, would access the parts of myself that were needing to be integrated, the parts of me that had been cut off. ”
This discovery of how her voice and trauma were interconnected serves as a jumping off point for the musician’s new performance program, the Processing Series, presented as part of her artist residency at National Sawdust in Brooklyn. Broken into four distinct concerts scattered throughout the coming year, the series sees commissions from Osnat Netzer, Eve Beglarian, Katherine Young and Angélica Negrón, who all incorporate pieces of Bessel van der Kolk’s book “The Body Keeps Score” — a work that was pivotal in Dhegrae’s understanding of her own trauma and its place within her body.
“The idea of the Processing Series,” Dhegrae explained, “is that each show will delve deeply into [one] aspect of trauma at a time, rather than trying to sum up the process of healing post-trauma, which is vastly different for everyone, usually extremely nonlinear and really too big of an experience to describe. I want to expand our understanding of it, complicate it, not simplify it — which I feel inevitably leads to cheesy feel-good, rah-rah endings, and it’s just too complex an experience to do that to.”
The first concert, “More Beautiful Than Words Can Tell,” which premieres at National Sawdust on Nov. 23, draws its title from Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” and focuses on, Dhegrae said, “the experience post-trauma of not having words, not being able to express logically and linguistically your experience.” Other pieces in the series also take interdisciplinary cues, like the Jan. 11 performance “She Gets to Decide,” which enlists the painting “Thérèse Dreaming” by Balthus.
Breaking the series into four parts also serves a practical purpose. Designed with room for development in mind, the programs shift and evolve over time, allowing Dhegrae to account for her own changing interests and her “ever-evolving process of healing from sexual violence.”
“I have grown so much more than I ever thought was possible through this project,” Dhegrae said. “It has really taught me basic lessons of being an artist: believing in your vision, listening to what you want and desire, and releasing yourself from other people’s opinions of you or your work. I feel extremely free, invigorated and terrified of this project, and I think that’s exactly how I would want it to be. It’s uncomfortable, and also joyfully exuberant.”
As for what audiences can expect for the final product?
“There will be humor, there will be dancing, there will be shouting, and I will invite the audience to really look if they are able,” Dhegrae said. “And besides all of that extra stuff, just the music itself will be powerful, as well as beautiful.”
Top Image: Portrait of Lucy Dhegrae. Photo: Kathryn Raines.