July 14, 2013

Who was Katie Luther and why write an opera about her?

I've written an opera.

I've mentioned this in previous posts, and between now and October you'll be hearing a good deal more about it.

Katie Luther
It's a one-character chamber opera for soprano and piano entitled Katie Luther: the Opera. I also wrote the libretto.

I've been posting a lot of announcements regarding plans for this piece on my Facebook page lately, and a few people have asked the eminently logical question: "So who is this Katie Luther person? And why an opera about her?"

Glad you asked. Let's tackle the second question first. Of course, in one sense I wrote it because someone asked me to. But what led me to think the project was worth the effort? I wrote this opera for the reasons any opera should be written: it's a great character with a compelling story, a story of a woman's faith, courage and determination. It will provide a fine opportunity for a singing actress to go through a wide range of emotional affects and vocal colors. Finally, the story is still relevant today, and could evoke comparisons with Pakistani teenaged crusader Malala Yousafza.

Fine, then; all the ingredients for a vibrant opera. But who was this woman? Once I tell you a little about her, I thiink you'll understand why I gladly embarked on this project..

Katie Luther was born Katharina von Bora around 1499 to a family residing on an estate near the village of Hirschfeld in the territory of Meissen. Her parents sent her to a Benedictine monastery for whatever rudimentary education was available to girls in that era. By age nine, the girl was ensconced in a Cistercian monastery called Marienthron in Saxony near Nimbschen, set for a secluded lifetime of prayer, work and silence.

Life at Marienthron was well-ordered but harsh and dull. The young Fräulein von Bora learned practical skills, assisting with such tasks as tending vegetable gardens and livestock, making beer and wine, and other aspects of daily life which would later come into play in her role as housewife to a famous theologian. But the atmosphere was strict and joyless.

That theologian, who she always respectfully referred to as "Dr. Luther", dropped a bombshell on the Catholic world in 1517 with his famous "95 theses" on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, debunking the practice of indulgences, among other clerical abuses. As sheltered as life was at Marienthron, news of this sensational act of "heresy" was the buzz of the cloister. Many were outraged, it's safe to say, but a few of the sisters, Katharina von Bora included, a few who had come to regard Marienthron as a prison rather than a home, began to dream of a new life. They dreamed of renouncing their vows, leaving the monastery and finding happiness as wives and mothers.

But leaving the cloistered life and turning one's back on sacred vows was more than radical; it was dangerous. Nuns attempting to escape who were caught were subject to brutal punishments. This was a dangerous dream. The escape was engineered by Martin Luther himself. He arranged for a local merchant to conceal Katie and a handful of other rebellious sisters in his horse-drawn wagon on the evening of Eastertide, 1523, presumably under a blanket of straw.

Once at liberty in Wittenberg, the escaped nuns set about finding safe haven in the institution of marriage. Within a short period, all had been married, beginning their new lives -- all save Katie von Bora. Katie, it seems was hardly a beauty, and she had high standards; some prospective grooms she rejected, others rejected her. This placed her in a precarious position; without a husband's protection, she could be returned to Marienthron in disgrace where an unpleasant fate would await her.

She took the bold step, hardly usual in women of the time, of approaching Martin Luther and suggesting that he owed it to her to solve her dilemma by marrying her himself. Luther, who had never expressed either an erotic nor romantic interest in this feisty young woman, realized that he could hardly preach that men of the clergy should be free to be husbands and fathers if he wasn't willing to lead by example. So a marriage born of practical need for both parties took place.

The road ahead was one of both domestic happiness and terrible adversity. Frau Luther found herself the object of vicious gossip, rumors and character assassination as those faithful to the Pope accused her of everything from having been married only because she was already pregnant to being little more than a whore to being an agent of Satan, whose children would be the Devil's Spawn.

In spite of hardships, Katie (whose nickname in German would have been "Käte") and Martin carved out a vibrant home life in which she can be said to have provided the archetype of the "pastor's wife", a model still in evidence today in Protestant churches: a helpmate to the minister's work, actively engaged as hostess, counselor, confidante and household manager.

And quite a household it was. As professor of theology at Wittenberg university, Martin Luther had a burgeoning career. He and Katie resided at a massive former monastery known as The Black Cloister, given to them as an extravagant wedding present. Here Katie's former skill-sets were put to use: keeping the house clean and tidy; tending cattle, pigs and other livestock; supervising crops; and - her specialty! - brewing copious amounts of beer and ale. The Black Cloister was home not only to the couple and their children, but to a never-ending stream of visitors: students from the university, visiting scholars and others interested in the Reformation movement spearheaded by Luther.

On any given evening the dinner table would be crowded with a lively group partaking of the home-brewed beer and carrying on vigorous discussions on every conceivable subject.

Martin could be difficult and his health was delicate. Katie was no wallflower; Luther called her "My Lord and Master Katie" and "My rib", declaring that in matters of domestic life he submitted to her will but to the Lord in all other matters. They grew to be affectionate and mutually dependent.

When Luther passed on, life changed for Katie; her husband's death left her in increasingly desperate circumstances. As armies at war passed through Wittenberg, her farmlands were burned and her livestock was raided. Luther's sources of income, including stipends from royalty friendly to his anti-Catholicism, dried up, forcing his widow to write pathetic appeals for alms to their former supporters. Worst of all, pandemics of the dreaded bubonic plague swept through the region, forcing citizens to flee for their lives as friends and neighbors died a repulsive death.

Some seven years after Luther's death, Katie found herself among those hastening away from Wittenburg and the plague. While on the road, she lost control of horse and wagon and was crushed in an accident. Carried to an inn at the nearest town, she lingered in agony before succombing to her injuries.

I mentioned Malala Yousafza at the beginning of this post, and provided a link to her story in case you've somehow missed the recent headlines about her. Malala's remarkable story, that of an incredibly courageous teen-aged girl standing up to the autocractic culture of the Taliban, has a real and potent parallel in the story of Katharina Luther, nee von Bora. Like Malala, Katie, at a young age, refused to settle for a fate dictated by others, a fate consigning her to a limited life. She stood up for herself, defiant of the danger and the consequences, and made her way in the world. Tales of faith, bravery and determination continue to inspire us. Why on earth had no one written an opera about Katie Luther before now?

It's my privilege to be the composer/librettist to do so.  I hope you will be one of those to see a performance this October, or in subsequent tours. Check back next week for information on that, as well as how YOU, Dear Readers, can be a part of the team launching my opera into the world!


  1. My favourite art form and my two favourite historical characters combined, brilliant shout!!

    1. That's uplifing! Next week I'll post about a fund-raiser Ms. Lori Lewis has going to secure the financial support needed to produce five separate performances all across the country. Check back! And if you aren't already aware, find the Katie Luther Facebook page. Thanks!

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  3. I thought that you should know that there are over a million Catholics in the diocese Arlington and the Archdiocese of Washington, that you have just insulted with this offensive comparison. You should be aware that your comparison is offensive. To this day Catholics are targeted and persecuted throughout the world for their faith. And bigoted remarks such as this remind everyone that there is still one group of people to hate...Catholics.

  4. just by being Lutheran then I'm offensive to you..A Lutheran in So Cal. We all have our beliefs. I'm not insulted that the Catholic Church killed many Lutherans during the Reformation and called Luther a Heretic. The Catholic Church was is a bad state 500 years ago, most Catholics I know would agree with this.

  5. The Roman church was one powerful, corrupt, and nasty institution in the 16th century. The Counterreformation and the Inquisition were not exactly high tea in the countryside. When Luther was excommunicated in 1520, he had to go into hiding for over a year because his life was in danger and excommunication meant loss of civil rights and protections. Fortunately, he had a benevolent elector who didn't think much of either the Emperor or the Pope. Read the history.

  6. Most Catholics I know are actually Lutheran in theology now. Most of my Catholic friends do not believe in Purgatory, despite this being official Catholic doctrine. Most of my Catholic friends believe that priests, brothers, nuns ought to be free to marry and have families. The above 2 points were 2 critical issues that Luther reformed by leaving the Catholic church and starting the Lutheran Church, which ought to be called the reformed Catholic church.