On the 6th April, 1881, a woman was hanged within the walls of Camberwell Prison. The ceremony was to be performed at eight o’clock, according to custom, and just after dawn the other prisoners began their ritual howling…
…The only tribute to sensationalism was her coffin, which had been strategically placed in the prison yard so that she might pass it on the way to her death.
The attention grabbing opening of Peter Ackroyd’s The Trial of Elizabeth Cree (aka Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem) sets off a tale of murder and mystery in the music halls and seedy backstreets of Victorian London. Fact and fiction mingle in the pea-soupers of the Limehouse district.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning team behind Opera Philadelphia’s Silent Night — composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell — has been commissioned to create an opera based on Ackroyd’s story which will open on 14 September 2017 in Philadelphia’s Perelman Theater.
I asked Puts how the project had come about.
Mark Campbell brought this idea to me, and after reading a few pages I was pretty excited about it.
Elizabeth is a fascinating character, for one thing. She starts with nothing but a horrid upbringing and finds herself singing alongside the most famous music hall performer of the day. I loved the way the story moves around chronologically as well — not something often done in opera — and a particular challenge, especially since I could tell the pace of the piece needed to be very quick. Not to mention the quirky inclusion of historical characters like Karl Marx!
How much of Ackroyd’s writing is in the opera?
I intentionally stay away from the source material once I have read it or watched it. I try to address the libretto as an independent document and react solely to that. I know that many of the lines spoken by the characters are the same, and Ackroyd’s story is absolutely intact.
Some chapters of Ackroyd’s novel are written as transcripts of the court case with Elizabeth Cree in the dock, so it reads as a play… or, indeed, a libretto. But the novel has several interlocking stands: there’s John Cree’s diary with its grim secrets; another follows the career of Dan Leno, the vaudeville artist; and novelist George Gissing and even Karl Marx make appearances. There is even an external, modern-day narrator. Campbell has wound all these threads together for a coherent libretto.
Above all, in Ackroyd’s novel, is the gripping nature of an unnerving story, that draws the reader in to its dark world. The New York Times wrote,
Everything and everyone in this novel is so intimately connected that one reads with a sense of the world becoming progressively smaller and tighter; a kind of anguished claustrophobia sets in. The tone is agitated and compelling, by turns macabre and inventive.
What musical tone did Puts want to find to convey the tone of the libretto?
This is a great question, because atmosphere is everything, and in music atmosphere is created primarily through the harmonic choices the composer makes. Elizabeth Cree has a harmonic soundworld which I hope defines it and which will stay in the memory of those who hear it.
How did you achieve this soundworld?
It is often tonal in a somewhat traditional way, but more often harmony is created through the combining of two or more unrelated triads. The instrumentation is a small orchestra of 16 players. At times, there is a clear “chamber” sense to the orchestration, at others I sort of relished the challenge of creating the illusion of something much grander in scale.
Does this differ greatly from your other works?
Every piece has a slightly different feel. I read something recently that noted I was a composer whose style was hard to pin down, or something to that effect. I am fine with that assessment — I have no interest in capitalizing on the success of certain things. However, I am bound by my great affinity for very specific materials, for example harmonic shifts, or ways the melodic material relates to the harmony. I often want to stray further than I do from these ways, which are so close to my heart. But I am who I am.
So the Kevin Puts style comes through…
I am sure listeners who have heard Silent Night or The Manchurian Candidate will hear similarities and common elements, but I feel very strongly that Elizabeth Cree is something unique, and probably the best thing I have done.
The murky squalor of Ripper-London blends seamlessly into the glamour, albeit sleazy, of the music halls with their gas lamps illuminating gilt prosceniums and brightly-coloured costumes. There were curvy dancers, risqué songs, illusionists, and Dan Leno, Britain’s first real stand-up and the most famous Pantomime Dame at the end of the 1800s.
Dan Leno, a prominent character in the book and the opera, was a famous performer of the music halls of that era. So I listened to a recording of two of his… which actually exist! But I was determined to approach the ‘diagetic’ music of the music hall troupe, and the music of the entire opera, in my own way. As always in my opera-writing, there are references to other styles, but I think the opera has a soundworld which is its own.
It was during the run of Puts’ highly successful opera Silent Night in 2012 that directly led to another commission from Opera Philadelphia. His second opera, The Manchurian Candidate, was commissioned by Minnesota Opera and opened in 2015, and Elizabeth Cree will be his third opera and third collaboration with librettist Mark Campbell.
I love our work together. The way we work — and this may differ greatly from other teams — is that Mark goes away and writes the libretto. And then he shows it to me and I share my ideas about it. We did a lot of work on the libretto before I started writing, and also after this time!
I think I had a better sense of what I would like to do, having had two operas under my belt. There are recurring settings in which this story takes place, for example the courtroom, the police station, the British Library, the music hall, etc. We wanted to give each its own music, so the opera sort of cycles through them seamlessly. So with that in mind, Mark had to construct the libretto in a very particular way. Director David Schweitzer was with us from the beginning, sharing his own ideas which were invaluable to us.
The pair were rethinking, reworking, and revising in major and minor ways right up until the deadline — “when we are forced to turn things over” — and were able to have an invaluable workshop with their “wonderful cast”.
After Day 1 of the first workshop, Mark and I had about a thousand rewrites we wanted to make; we were scrawling all over our scores during the reading. It’s just different when you hear it sung, I can’t really explain it.
So I stayed up all night rewriting and the cast had a new PDF of the score in the morning. They were so accommodating and patient with us!
An element of that wonderful cast was Argentinian mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack who had been given the role of Elizabeth Cree. When she participated in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World in 2013, The Telegraph’s Rupert Christiansen called her “a purringly elegant BMW of a singer”. Since then she has made debuts with the Metropolitan Opera, The Royal Opera and is a regular at the major American houses.
Daniela Mack was going to be Elizabeth from the start, so before I wrote a note I listened to everything of hers I could find online and also asked her to send me a description of her voice. This was so helpful. You know, she told me “these are my favourite low notes… these are my favourite high notes… I can sing this note as long as it is approached…” and so on.
I asked Mack how much she knew of Puts’ work before being offered the role.
Several of my colleagues were involved with the premiere of Silent Night, and had wonderful things to say about Kevin’s music, but I wasn’t familiar with it first-hand until I saw the broadcast on PBS. There is a wonderful lyricism and honesty in his work.
When I was approached for Elizabeth Cree, I jumped at the chance to work with him.
Mack was surprised and delighted with Puts’ openness to collaboration.
He took great care to tailor the role to my instrument. As a result, the custom-built role feels very organic. Since the music is so intuitive, I am free to pour my focus into who Elizabeth is as a human being, and develop her more dramatically, which I find very stimulating.
And who is Elizabeth?
Elizabeth is highly complex and multi-dimensional, and the piece is darker than much of my repertoire. Creating the role has been riveting.
She had a brutal childhood and suffered at the hands of those closest to her. These events colour the way she sees and interacts with the world. This is a mystery, and everyone has demons that they try to hide.
In addition to two workshops there was also a public performance of the opera’s ‘highlights’ as part of Unison Media’s Crypt Sessions series in May of this year. The Crypt Sessions take place in the crypt of the Church of the Intercession in Manhattan: no better venue for Elizabeth Cree. Puts was on the piano with Mack and tenor Joseph Gaines, who is cast as Dan Leno. It was just a sneak preview, making up half of the evening’s programme, but helpful for singer and composer.
The Crypt Sessions concert was a very special prelude to our fall opening. Having the chance to put some of the piece in front of an audience was invaluable — what better space than a dark crypt to infuse the scenes with a certain atmosphere? The experience only added to my excitement for our premiere.
Did putting the music in front of an audience lead to any modification of the score?
I did not change anything after that little preview we gave — says Puts — but it was useful for me, in terms of my own enthusiasm and belief in the piece. Prior to that event I had been orchestrating for several months, so it was wonderful to be reminded that, “Oh yeah, this is about the singers and don’t they sound amazing!”
Rehearsals are now underway and in little more than a month’s time the curtain will open on Elizabeth Cree, a tale told over 90 intense minutes, with no interval to disrupt the intrigue and its haunting mood. Kevin Puts says,
I can’t wait! An opera isn’t an opera until it is on the stage and we can see the staging, the sets, how the characters interact and behave in their roles.
Daniela Mack can’t wait either:
Creating this role, her essence and personality, and living with her for months is a deeply personal experience. I am eager to collaborate with the rest of my stellar colleagues and really craft the story, which is my favourite part of the process. Sharing the piece with the world on opening night is the icing on the cake!
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.