Published1 Aug 2017
Opera Philadelphia Opens Inaugural “O” Festival with the World Premiere of Elizabeth Cree (Sep 14–23) by Pulitzer Prize-winner Kevin Puts & Mark Campbell
This September, highlighting O17 – the first edition of its game-changing new annual season-opening festival, Opera Philadelphia presents the world premiere of Elizabeth Cree in collaboration with London’s Hackney Empire (Sep 14–23). A chamber opera, based on Peter Ackroyd’s novel The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, is the newest collaboration by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, the creative team behind 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winner Silent Night. Elizabeth Cree stars soprano Daniela Mack, “a purringly elegant BMW of a singer” (The Telegraph, UK), with Jack Mulroney Music Director Corrado Rovaris leading the Opera Philadelphia Orchestra for five performances in the Kimmel Center’s intimate Perelman Theater, in a production by Obie and Drama Desk Award-winner David Schweizer. As New York magazine noted after hearing previewed excerpts from Elizabeth Cree in concert, “With a score full of diabolical music-hall numbers and dreamy, seductive arias about butchery and woe, the opera promises a macabre romp.”
Silent Night, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, was the first opera from the team of Puts and Campbell. Perhaps “the first enduring operatic masterpiece of the century” (Opera Today), after bowing at Minnesota Opera the opera received its East Coast premiere at Opera Philadelphia, and has since been mounted at Fort Worth Opera, Cincinnati Opera, the Wexford Opera Festival, Calgary Opera, Opera de Montreal, and the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. Their second collaboration, an adaptation of The Manchurian Candidate, “proved gripping from the first note” (Austin Chronicle).
Now Puts and Campbell return to Opera Philadelphia with a chamber opera based on Ackroyd’s novel. Also the inspiration for a new film adaptation (The Limehouse Golem, likewise due for U.S. theatrical release this September), the novel impressed the Los Angeles Times as “downright exhilarating… with characters and issues likely to haunt our imaginations long after the book has ended.” Like the novel, Puts and Campbell’s new opera is set in London in the 1880s, and interweaves multiple narratives, including the trial of the titular heroine for the poisoning of her husband and a series of brutal murders committed by a Jack the Ripper-style killer, while depicting London scenes that range from the storied British Library Reading Room to the high-spirited, working-class music hall. Featuring “guest appearances” by such luminaries of the Victorian Age as Karl Marx, novelist George Gissing, and comedian Dan Leno, Elizabeth Cree is a suspenseful, many-textured mystery that fuses factual history with highly imaginative fiction.
Peter Ackroyd, who was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2003 and named a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences three years later, says:
“I am surprised and delighted that my book has been found worthy to have an opera devoted to its narrative.”
Mark Campbell, “a major force in opera” (Opera News) and one of the most in-demand librettists working in the genre today, instantly saw the operatic possibilities inherent in Ackroyd’s novel. He recalls:
“I read The Trial of Elizabeth Cree when it first came out in 1995 and my desire to adapt it into a musical form never waned. It has been both a thrill and a challenge writing this libretto and trying to capture the many levels in Peter Ackroyd’s brilliant novel – murder mystery, historical fiction, English music hall, Gothic horror – while keeping the audience on the edge of their seats for 90 minutes.”
“A brilliant composer with a strong musical voice” (New York Times), Kevin Puts was on board from the first. “After reading the first few pages of Ackroyd’s gripping novel, I was hooked,” he says, adding:
"Elizabeth Cree is fast and furious, moving from scene to scene with the pace of a thriller, and I have delighted in working toward a seamless and organic flow to it all. So as the piece moves swiftly among its primary arenas – the courtroom, the police station, the music hall, the residence of Elizabeth and John Cree, and eventually the Reading Room of the British Library – the pulse is consistent. I rely upon other parameters such as harmony and texture to set each apart from the others. One setting in which I broke from this sense of consistent pulse was in the three murder scenes. I wanted complete freedom in these moments to illustrate in the music the creativity, artfulness, and passion with which these grisly acts are committed.”
Fresh from debuts at the Metropolitan Opera and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack – a finalist for the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, with “a voice like polished onyx: strong, dark, deep and gleaming” (Opera News) – makes her Opera Philadelphia debut in the title role of Elizabeth Cree. As she points out:
“The role of Elizabeth is complex! In a very short time, we see her grow from an abused and penniless orphan, to a wildly successful music hall performer, to a dignified Victorian lady on trial for the murder of her husband. The chance to embody so many different aspects of a single character will be a fascinating challenge for me as a performer.”
Opposite Mack (who will return to headline Opera Philadelphia’s Carmen next spring), Troy Cook lends his “beautiful, robust baritone” (New Criterion) to Elizabeth’s husband, John. Soprano Deanna Breiwick, a “vocal trapeze artist” (New York Times), makes her house debut as Aveline Mortimer, the performer-turned-housekeeper who, with Elizabeth’s blessing, becomes her husband’s mistress. Grammy Award-winning baritone Daniel Belcher sings Inspector Kildare of Scotland Yard, and the Victorian music hall is brought to life by charismatic tenor Joseph Gaines – “such an exuberant performer you couldn't help but smile” (Minneapolis Star-Tribune) – as comedian Dan Leno; bass Matt Boehler – “quite simply a marvel” (Washington Post) – in his house debut as the ventriloquist, Uncle; tenor Jason Ferrante, who is “as musically and theatrically adept as one could hope for” (Philadelphia Inquirer), as Little Victor Farrell the magician; and mezzo-soprano Melissa Parks, “a fine singing actress” with “spot-on comedic timing” (Opera News), as Doris, the “Goddess of Wire-Walking.” Rounding out Opera Philadelphia’s stellar cast, in multiple roles apiece, are baritone Johnathan McCullough (Mr. Greatorex, George Gissing, Etcher), bass-baritone Thomas Shivone (Mr. Lister, Karl Marx, Voiceover, Soloman Weil), mezzo-soprano Maren Montalbano (Jane Quig, Annie the Serving Girl), and tenor Daniel Taylor (Priest, Librarian, Mr. Gerrard).
Ackroyd marvels: “To have such a cast is equivalent to have written another book.” Puts agrees:
“It was an enormous pleasure to know the extraordinary cast throughout the entire process of composing, to have the opportunity to create roles specifically designed around their wonderful voices. I am deeply grateful to Opera Philadelphia and to everyone involved in the production of Elizabeth Cree, and to Mark Campbell and David Schweizer for the vibrant spirit of collaboration we shared.
* * * * *
Elizabeth Cree represents the most recent of the “ambitious, accomplished and dramatically direct” (New York Times)” new works yielded by Opera Philadelphia’s innovative American Repertoire Program. Founded in 2011 with a commitment to producing a recent American work in each of ten consecutive seasons, this was established to foster a new generation of homegrown opera composers to tell authentically American stories. As a result, besides mounting East Coast premieres of such important contemporary works as Cold Mountain, A Coffin in Egypt, Oscar, and Pulitzer Prize-winner Silent Night, in recent seasons the company has also presented its first three world premieres in four decades. These are Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD, an Opera Philadelphia commission that went on to launch new partnerships with Harlem’s Apollo Theater and London’s Hackney Empire; ANDY: A Popera, an opera-cabaret hybrid inspired by Andy Warhol; and Breaking the Waves, a 2017 International Opera Award finalist that not only won the Music Critics’ Association of North America’s inaugural “Best New Opera” award, but is already reputed to be “among the finest operas of the new century” (New York Times). In addition to Elizabeth Cree, the upcoming season-launching O17 festival (Sep 14–25) features two further world premieres: The Wake World, a hallucinatory musical journey through the art collections of Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation from composer-in-residence David Hertzberg; and We Shall Not Be Moved, an interdisciplinary new chamber opera that draws on the collective talents of Haitian-American composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, spoken word artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and peerless director, choreographer, and dramaturge Bill T. Jones.
About Opera Philadelphia and O17
Opera Philadelphia is committed to embracing innovation and developing opera for the 21st century. Described as “the very model of a modern opera company” by the Washington Post, Opera Philadelphia was the only American finalist for the 2016 International Opera Award for Best Opera Company. The company looks forward to opening its 2017-18 season with O17, a twelve-day immersion that promises to “blanket the city with opera” (Washington Post). Besides the three world premieres, O17’s compelling lineup includes the Philadelphia premiere of War Stories; the exclusive East Coast appearance of Barrie Kosky’s groundbreaking production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute; and a recital and master class by inaugural Festival Artist and superstar soprano, Sondra Radvanovsky. Opera Philadelphia will continue to present a spring season each year, including two additional productions in February and April, making it the only U.S. opera company producing an annual opera season that begins with a dynamic festival. For more information, visit operaphila.org.
Music by Kevin Puts
Libretto by Mark Campbell
Based on the novel The Trial of Elizabeth Cree by Peter Ackroyd (original UK title: Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem)
World Premiere: Sep 14 (gala), 16m, 10, 21, 23m | Perelman Theater
Conductor: Corrado Rovaris
Director: David Schweizer *
Set and Costume Design: David Zinn *
Elizabeth Cree: Daniela Mack *
John Cree: Troy Cook
Dan Leno: Joseph Gaines
Inspector Kildare: Daniel Belcher
Aveline Mortimer: Deanna Breiwick *
Uncle: Matt Boehler *
Doris: Melissa Parks
Little Victor Farrell: Jason Ferrante
Mr. Greatorex, George Gissing, Etcher: Johnathan McCullough
Mr. Lister, Karl Marx, Voiceover, Soloman Weil: Thomas Shivone
Jane Quig, Annie the Serving Girl: Maren Montalbano
Priest, Librarian, Mr. Gerrard: Daniel Taylor
Lighting & Projection Design: Alexander V. Nichols *
Assistant Conductor: Geoffrey McDonald
Assistant Director: Dylan Evans *
Stage Manager: Janet Neukirchner
Assistant Stage Manager: Sara Prince
Assistant Stage Manager: Brandon Ehrenreich
*Opera Philadelphia debut
Major support for Elizabeth Cree has been provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Production underwritten by the Wyncote Foundation at the recommendation of Frederick R. Haas. Commissioning support provided by Constance and Michael Cone. Additional production support provided by Ady L. Djerassi, M.D., and Robert Golub, M.D.