Q & A: Composer Iain Bell & Librettist Emma Jenkins on ‘Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel’ for English National Opera

By Sofie Vilcins

British composer Iain Bell and librettist Emma Jenkins previously collaborated on their opera “In Parenthesis” in 2016 and their new work, “Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel” opens at English National Opera on March 30, 2019.

In a recent talk with OperaWire, the duo commented on storytelling, Ripperology,  and opera’s answer to “Ocean’s 8”.

OperaWire: Tell us about how the opera came about.

Iain Bell: I’m a Londoner and I always dreamed of writing a trilogy of London operas. “A Harlot’s Progress” opened in Vienna in 2013, then “A Christmas Carol” opened in Houston in 2014.

I always wanted the third to be a Jack the Ripper opera but from the view of the women. It’s troubling that he’s a mythological figure and the women are anonymous, and I think opera is the perfect way to address that. English National Opera approached me in 2016 about any possible ideas, and when I stressed this would be about the women they were really interested in pursuing it.

Emma was my librettist for “In Parenthesis” and I knew this would be subject matter that she would respond to.

Emma Jenkins: We work well together, we have an easy shorthand, so it seemed like a natural thing for us. To be honest when Iain first asked me I was uneasy, because I didn’t want to go into the mind of a serial killer.

But when he said we’re going to explore it from the perspective of the women, that immediately relaxed me and I became interested in looking into the stories of not just the women killed by Jack the Ripper, but of women and girls living in Whitechapel at this extraordinary period of time.

IB: I was definitely wary of avoiding a “whodunnit” or a police procedural. We wanted it to take a much wider, multigenerational view.

EJ: There is a move towards giving victims a voice rather than glorifying the perpetrators, no matter how fascinating or famous they used to be. This is a dramatic reimagining, we’re not sticking closely to history because we wanted to represent Whitechapel women and girls generally. But there’s nothing made up, it all came from accounts of things that really happened in Whitechapel and the East End in the 1880s.

OW: How did you find out more about the time period?

EJ: What struck me when I began researching was how little information there was about the five women believed to have been murdered by Jack the Ripper –  Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. There’s so much information about the Ripper – he’s got websites, museums, blogs and documentaries. And then you research the women and they’ve been reduced to these macabre autopsy photographs and very little information, much of which is contradictory.

I started looking more into the lives of women and girls generally in that period and for me the most helpful source was the journalist W. T. Stead. He was the grandfather of investigative journalism in the late 1880s, and a social reformer. He embedded himself in the slums of the East End, living among women and girls and interviewing them, and some of these stories became subplots that are woven in to the opera.

We’re not putting anything on stage that wasn’t extremely prevalent. Stead’s writings are a horrible read. but they’re a necessary read. Because while the slums may have been cleared, these things are still going on all over the world.

OW: How have you portrayed Jack the Ripper in the opera?

IB: It was a conscious effort not to have him in the opera because we thought it could pull focus from the women. We’re occasionally aware of an ominous darkness, but none of the murders take place on stage, Jack never appears. He’s referred to because what we’re dealing with here is a community that is left totally shaken. We see his effects but never see him.

EJ: We can’t change the fact that the women die, but the minute you remove Jack from the equation you realize it’s London as it was in 1888 that kills these women. There was a food shortage, homelessness on a level never before experienced, pollution, and the underground is being dug, unearthing plague bodies. London must’ve been like hell on earth.

Lots of writers of the time describe it as an abyss, and it struck me that it’s the circumstances that consume these women. For many, it was a choice between the workhouse and the doss house, always asking “Can we get enough to eat and to spend the night undercover?” For a lot of women, the only alternative to poverty was to sell their bodies. There’s no judgement and I don’t think it helps to airbrush that out. It certainly doesn’t diminish the women. If anything, it highlights their resilience and their dignity.

OW: Iain, tell us about the music.

IB: The music is melodic with a touch of a bite. Even though it’s part of a trilogy, I wanted this opera to stand on its own and have its own personality. So for instance, when we do have the idea of Jack “summoned” in music, I used a cimbalom which has this rusting old piano sound to it, which will give people a feeling of the discomfort.

But the strength of Emma’s libretto is this sense of community that she’s been able to bring. The chorus plays a really big role as onlookers: they’re our eyes, and comment back to us about what we’re seeing; but also as active participants in the time. Such is the strength of the human spirit that in times of the utmost horror we are able to find levity and even humor or tenderness.

Emma’s text afforded me the opportunity to have moments of kindness and of raucous community. And it was a joy to write for these performers because I adore the female voice.

OW: Yes, tell me about working with this luxury cast, full of ENO favourites!

IB: Whenever I work on an opera, if I know the cast in advance I’ll meet with the singers to discuss elements of vocal technique, from basic things like range to where the vowels are modified in each singer. I was able to anatomize the voice for each to find out what would suit them properly and highlight the varying parts of the voices where they shine. I wanted to write something to really showcase the voices of these women as best I could. And it wasn’t hard!

Once women get over a certain age, by and large they get demoted to maids or they’re harridans.

You compare that to Verdi operas where there can be fifteen men and just one woman. I was given the opportunity in this piece to have five roles that aren’t tiny character roles or cameos. They are roles that show women performers only get better.

These women are fabulous. It’s the equivalent of “Ocean’s 8″…Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Rihanna. It’s Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Emma Stone and Dame Maggie Smith. This is the biggest cast I could hope to have. They bring a sense of assuredness and a stagecraft that is electrifying.

I can’t communicate to you just how proud I am of those people and how humbled i feel that they’re singing my music, and I know i’ll look back at this and think “I was lucky”.

OW: With this subject matter, it’s possible it might be someone’s first opera experience.

IB: I’d love it to be someone’s first opera, as nothing needs any explanation. I’d love them to think “was that two hours already?!” and that they were captivated by the performance and the storytelling on stage and hopefully they’ll just think that’s another way of telling a story.

OW: What do you hope they might take away from it?

IB: My aim in doing the piece was to give these real women who were killed their dignity, femininity and humanity back. I always felt the deepest sense of injustice in them being seen as anonymous and I hope that people take away that these women were flesh and blood, that they had kind sides and more raucous sides, as we all do, and ultimately they shouldn’t be defined by the way they died but by the way they lived.

EJ: We don’t want to cram issues down people’s throats, we’re doing it through storytelling, but I think the message is that yes, things are better, but so much still remains the same.

Many of the issues that they were struggling with in the 1880s, women and girls are still struggling with, just in another shape or form. I don’t think there’s any way to sugar coat that and I don’t think it’s something one should judge, because this idea that every woman is one man away from ruin is a tragic circumstance and it’s still true in some parts of the world.

IB: One in four women in Whitechapel at that time had to do sex work now and again. We’re dealing with universal themes, we’re dealing with manipulation of women and the vulnerable. It’s incumbent on us as storytellers to make our stories as universal as we can.


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