In a contemporary landscape overrun with new operas featuring white, cisgendered men in the title roles, it’s refreshing to consider Opera Philadelphia’s newest commission, “Elizabeth Cree.” This chamber opera, composed by Kevin Puts with a libretto by Mark Campbell, adapts Peter Ackroyd’s macabre murder mystery, “The Trial of Elizabeth Cree.” The story, set in late 19th century London, follows Elizabeth Cree, an actress accused of poisoning her husband.
Mezzo Daniela Mack will create the title role under the baton of Corrado Rovaris at the premiere this September. In an interview with OperaWire, Ms. Mack spoke about the upcoming world premiere. She admitted that she’s “new to the whole premiere thing.” She’s better known for her bel canto and baroque repertoire, but recently she began to delve into new music with the world premiere of David T. Little’s “JFK” and her role as Sister Helen in Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” with Madison Opera. She worked on “JFK” with the creative team for about a year and a half, workshopping the opera before its world premiere at Fort Worth Opera last year, and she’s spent about the same amount of time on “Elizabeth Cree.” When asked about her favorite aspect of working on a world premiere, she answered, “It’s fascinating to be privy to the work that goes into this, to be part of it from the beginning of the creative process. I’m really lucky to be involved.”
Creating Her Own Role
A world premiere offers the unique opportunity to work with the living composer in the room. When asked what this is like, Mack replied with a chuckle, “It’s daunting. You just want to be true to what they’ve created.” In terms of being part of the process of creating the character and her music, Mack explained that, as with David T. Little, she’d had a dialogue with Kevin Puts before he began composing the opera. She described the long email she’d sent him about her voice and how she hadn’t worried much because she already trusted Puts to “know instinctively what to do and not do.”
Mack also noted that the best thing about having a role written specifically for her voice is that it allows her the freedom to focus more on characterization because she doesn’t have to work to fit her voice into the mold of the role. “[Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell] have been so generous and they’re always open to collaboration. I infuse my own ideas and [Puts] finds ways to show the strengths of my own instrument, but, in the end, you put your own stamp on it.”
Ms. Mack has had the luxury of playing a wide range of characters: from pageboys to nuns to Cinderella. Elizabeth is a foray into yet another foreign land character-wise. “Well, I’m not allowed to give spoilers, but I’ll say that she’s radically different from any other role I’ve ever done.” She explained that the libretto utilizes flashback to tell the story through Elizabeth’s eyes, drawing the audience into Elizabeth’s narrative and forging a connection between the character and the audience immediately. Mack feels especially drawn to the setting of 19th century London. Not only does she find the city appealing (she visited London recently in order to inform her imagination), but she loves fiction set in that time period.
When asked what she was looking forward to most about the “Elizabeth Cree” production, she said without hesitation, “Rehearsal.” She spoke at length about the joy of creating something for the first time and the freedom to experiment and grow throughout the process. She was adamant that the entire cast and crew are fantastic and that she’s excited to get to know them better.
Despite the opera centering around a female character, the creative team (composer, librettist, conductor, and stage director) consists entirely of men. When asked if this changed the way that the character of Elizabeth was written or if it influenced Mack’s experience in the overall process, she answered, “It’s not uncommon to have the creative process dominated by male colleagues.” The team hasn’t started staging the opera yet, but Mack is confident that “we’re making her a fleshed-out female character.” She went on to explain: “We operate in this medium where music dictates what [the performer] can add to any character. I can only hope to make her as real as possible.” Mack definitely has the training and ability to bring Elizabeth to life in a moving way on the Opera Philadelphia stage. The San Francisco Chronicle said that her performance in Christopher Alden’s “Partenope” (2014) “[let] the audience feel viscerally the depth of the character’s ardor and pain.”
Overall, the production promises to be thrilling. There is no doubt that Daniela Mack will bring everything she has to the title role and perform fantastically in the world premiere of “Elizabeth Cree.” Perhaps her work, and this opera will inspire composers, librettists, and companies to produce even more new operas with strong female leads.