by Tom Sandeman

Sirens: The Seductive Lure of the Female Voice. How could such a title fail to entice a curious audience, despite any initial apprehension created by the evening’s description as a ‘lecture-recital’?

Hannah Rosenfelder expertly retained this sense of intrigue as she led her listeners deep into the mysterious sound-world of the Siren; an age-enduring symbol who has featured regularly in literature ever since her initial appearance in the mythology of Ancient Greece.

Rosenfelder is remarkably well-qualified to present such a programme. She studied Classics at Cambridge before beginning her vocal training at Guildhall and her infectious charm and vivacity made her a fitting narrator for, what she described as, a story of ‘women, danger, seduction and song’. She began with a study of the female voice; describing its seductive quality and suggesting that it was a realisation of this trait that led to the exclusion of female vocalists within many religious contexts. For Rosenfelder, the Siren embodies the dangerously seductive element that is inherent in the female voice.

And Rosenfelder’s rich mezzo certainly does have a beguiling and compelling power. She illustrated her talk with songs, beginning with Siren’s Song, a setting of Homer’s Odyssey by Benjamin Wolf, a graduate of University College, in which the singer was accompanied by fellow Guildhall student, Anneke Hodnett, on the harp. Songs by Arne, Bizet and Gershwin showed that musicians throughout the centuries have been equally captivated by the Siren.

Two settings of Heinrich Heine’s, Der Lorelei, by Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann, exhibited a stark discrepancy in mood, which Rosenfelder attributed to gender. Where Liszt’s setting is gently passionate, Schumann’s is violent and stormy. The hot-blooded Liszt falls victim to the wiles of the Siren of the Rhine, whereas Schumann’s feminine sensibilities expose the true character of the creature – an appalling disgrace to womankind.

Rosenfelder concluded by demonstrating how the seductive charms of the Siren have overflowed into twenty-first century culture. A reading of Margaret Atwood’s poem Siren Song highlighted the strong hold that the creature retains on the literature of today. Even in the ubiquitous logo of Starbucks, the Siren advertises the alluring power of the coffee.

Undoubtedly, the eager audience that filled Magdalen Auditorium on the chilly night of Halloween 2007 was a testament to the enduring appeal of the Siren. Evidently she is still capable of attracting a sea of admirers, despite reaching a truly epic age.