Murder, mystery, and mayhem are on offer in “Elizabeth Cree” when it opens this Saturday, Feb. 10 at the Chicago Opera Theater.
Set in 1880s Victorian London, the opera begins with the hanging of Elizabeth Cree for the murder of her husband, John. The story then circles back to the trial for that murder and Elizabeth’s own narrative of her story in which she rises from poverty to success as a star of the British music hall.
The opera was a massive success when it world premiered at Opera Philadelphia in fall 2017 and it is expected to continue on such a path in the Windy City and beyond.
The work is the brainchild of Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell, the award-winning team behind “Silent Night,” both of whom recently spoke with OperaWire about the experience of writing this opera and its prevalence in today’s society.
OperaWire: What drew you to this subject material for the opera?
Mark Campbell: I first read Peter Ackroyd’s novel “The Trial of Elizabeth Cree” in 1995 and never stopped dreaming of it in musical terms. I was fascinated with Mr. Ackroyd’s brilliance in mixing the historical with the fictional and his deftness in telling the story from four perspectives: 1) Elizabeth Cree’s own narrative of her rise from poverty to a star in the British Music Hall; 2) the trial of Elizabeth for the murder of her husband, John; 3) the diary of John Cree in which are chronicled a spate of horrific murders; and 4) Inspector Kildare from Scotland Yard in pursuit of this murderer. When Opera Philadelphia approached Kevin and I to write an opera for them (following the success of our opera “Silent Night” there in 2012), I proposed the idea. Kevin read the novel and found it as exciting as I did and we went forward with the project, starting in late 2014.
OW: What do you think are the main themes of the opera?
Kevin Puts: It’s a piece about—among other things— obsession with fame. And also about the blurring between fact and fiction which has recently been such a dangerous and demoralizing issue in politics.
OW: Why should we care about or be interested in the fate of the character of Elizabeth Cree?
KP: Elizabeth has a desperate past, she ascends to the stage and finds a new family. We start with empathy for Elizabeth, but it then becomes more complicated emotionally and psychologically.
MC: Elizabeth is an endlessly fascinating character, beginning with the abuse she suffered from her mother as a child, through her rise in the music hall, and ending with the poisoning of her husband.
OW: What connection do you feel an opera set in 1880’s London has to our world today?
KP and MC: Reality and fantasy blend in both worlds. It’s important to discern between reality show (i.e. a reality show President) and reality. Dan Leno is an island of morality in this opera.
OW: Why the decision to formally organize the work as an intermission-less one-act chamber opera of 90 minutes duration with 29 scenes that skip back and forth in time?
MC: This is a work in which maintaining suspense is paramount to its success. An intermission would’ve punctured that tension—and also led to people revealing elements of the story to each other that might undermine the surprises in the story. I think a better question is “Why does opera have to be three hours long with two intermissions?”
KP: The opera has a pace and trajectory like that of a film; I think musically in that kind of condensed speed and I feel that bringing the comparatively slow pace of Wagner, for example, to contemporary opera doesn’t take into account the speed of life these days—or the speed of drama as we now understand it through film.
OW: From my quick overview of the piano-vocal score, it appears to be built with the processes used in orchestral musical development. The whole work has dramatic and musical elements of Rondo form. Characters say “Here we are again,” a murder trial is happening but yet scenes move back and forth in time – it is not a strictly linear presentation of events. Was this musical repetition preplanned and formulated to mirror the circular nature of the drama, done to give overall musical unity to the work, or is it something that simply happened along the way?
MC: The libretto was written first and I organized the story into a pattern of five similar settings that occur three times: the trial, Elizabeth’s narrative of her life, the music hall (including performances of diegetic songs), the diary entries in which the gruesome murders are reenacted in shadow plays, and Dr. Kildare’s pursuit of the serial killer. This pattern is broken about 2/3rds into the story when Elizabeth marries John and her life changes. There’s also a subtler shift in the text; as the line between theater and reality gets murkier, I ramp up the rhyme to capture that aspect.
OW: There is a mixture of expressionistic opera, music theater, art song and film music blend. Did you plan this all out intentionally before starting the opera – make a chart of harmonic areas and the specific chords you would use or the amount of musical time you would like to apportion to each musical style or simply go through from the beginning to end intuitively reflective the sense of the drama in the music?
KP: No. I wrote it intuitively, with no musical planning whatsoever. Once I established a motive (for example, the syncopated descending fourth motive which the orchestra plays in bar one of the opera), I held onto it and developed it, altering in all sorts of ways by shifting its parameters.
OW: How would you describe your sound-world for the opera?
KP: Harmony is everything to me, it is the primary vehicle by which I feel I can tell a story. As she begins to tell her story, Elizabeth Cree herself inhabits a sound world which shifts between e minor and f# minor, for example. The scenes in the British Library usually begin in D-flat Major with piano arpeggiations and sustained harmony in the strings, accompanied by bowed percussion. Inspector Kildare has a single-note ostinato around which all sorts of harmonies orbit…
OW: What about the instrumentation?
KP: I have a 16-player orchestra. [I] was nervous at first because I’m used to writing operas with a large orchestra, but am now liking the challenge of chamber instrumentation, it gives a certain clarity— and I find myself involving everyone, even in subtle ways. I have found a new ensemble which I now love.
OW: What about orchestral doublings of vocal parts; is this something you often do?
KP: I sometimes double the voices in the instruments, sometimes not. In my first opera, “Silent Night,” I never supported the voices in the orchestra, but I began to see the value and beauty of it while working on “The Manchurian Candidate.”
MMR: How long did the opera take from conception to production?
MC: About two and a half years.
OW: You workshopped this opera while it was being created. What was that process like?
MC: Opera Philadelphia gave us two workshops to refine and improve the work. Kevin organized a third workshop for the orchestra with students at Peabody. The workshops were spaced to give us enough time to make revisions: about eight months apart. The conductor in Philadelphia was not present at any of the workshops; but Geoff MacDonald, who will be conducting in Chicago, was there. Kevin and I listen to performers a lot during workshops; if we sense that they are struggling with a moment musically or textually, we change it. We did not have the full cast assembled for the opera until the premiere.
KP: We knew the performers and worked with them in both workshops. I wrote specifically for their voices, to a degree I never had before. There were maybe six months between workshops. Don’t ever let anyone say “Oh, it’s just a chamber opera!” I worked longer and harder on this piece than anything else I have done.
OW: Mark, can you tell us some about Stage Director David Schweizer’s role in the production?
MC: I knew about 10 years ago that I wanted to work with David Schewizer on this opera. He directed the premiere of my musical “Songs from an Unmade Bed” and several other operas of mine, including “As One” at Long Beach Opera. He knows Peter Ackroyd, so was very helpful in obtaining the rights, but also has the perfect combination of theatricality and expert story-telling to make this complicated story work. David was a guiding force in the workshops, helping us identify any potential issues. When it came time to production, he and designer David Zinn brought the whole thing to life on the stage with incredible vividness. I’d also have to credit our original cast in Philadelphia.
OW: What do you feel are the strongest parts of the opera? Are there still parts of the opera that you wonder if you should do differently?
KP: I just spent five months revising lots of minor things on this opera, so the Chicago performance is a little different than the Opera Philadelphia premiere. Composers often like things about their work which no one else notices or cares about! So, for me, I like the way the music keeps building throughout the progression of the Inspector Kildare scenes to the last one, in which he sings “I can see the headline already: ‘Kildare Saves London’” and the chorus has become quite large and sort of swirls around him. I like the way that moment worked out and feel it is one of the most exciting in the opera.
MC: I like the British Museum reading room scenes. I unashamedly ripped off that idea from the Berlin Library scenes in the Wim Wenders film, “Wings of Desire,” where angels can hear everyone’s inner thoughts. And, of course, I love Elizabeth’s final confession. It was also fun for me to use my skills as a lyricist and write the four musical hall songs.
MMR: Tell us about the importance of the Chicago Opera Theater and new works.
KP: They have been wonderful and I know these performances are going to be spectacular. They bring tremendous love and energy to new work.
MC: Many people consider opera to be a dying art form. But in this country, that assessment is contradicted by the sheer number of new works being commissioned and performed—and the growing audiences who attend those new works. Opera will die unless we keep creating stories that are relevant to our times and engage audiences in our broken country. Chicago Opera Theater’s devotion to new work makes the company a major player in the field; the company has also cultivated an audience that expects and appreciates new work and perhaps are bored with seeing “Rigoletto” for the umpteenth time.
OW: What are the next creative projects you are thinking of?
KP: We have a couple of big and exciting projects in the pipeline but are not able to discuss the subjects at the moment! My non-opera projects include a large song cycle with orchestra based on the letters of Georgia O’Keeffe which Renée Fleming will perform with a number of major orchestras in 2019-20.
MC: I’m going to be writing the book for a new musical that will open in Paris and arrive later, I hope, on Broadway and Kevin and I are talking about our next opera together. Both projects are not announced. I have a tremendous respect for Kevin and his work and can’t wait to start on another opera with him. In addition, I also have premieres for an oratorio and two operas coming up: Sanctuary Road (with composer Paul Moravec) at Carnegie Hall for the Oratorio Society of New York, Edward Tulane (with Paola Prestini) for Minnesota Opera and Today It Rains (with Laura Kaminsky and Kimberly Reed) for Opera Parallèle.
OW: Tell u about life away from the opera world?
KP: I become more and more interested in tennis as a hobby, and if somehow I could put life on “pause” and spend two weeks at a tennis academy doing nothing but eating, sleeping, breathing tennis, I wouldn’t complain! I never have time to improve my game and I love it! My 7-year old son and I play a lot. He is better than I am. I am a die-hard Roger Federer fan.