Chicago Opera Theater continues its 2017/18 season with a world premiere, Elizabeth Cree, an adaptation of Peter Ackroyd’s murder-filled novel, The Trial of Elizabeth Cree. The opera is the latest from the team of composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, who together created the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Silent Night.
Cree is a co-production of Opera Philadelphia, which presented the first performances of the opera in fall of 2017 and also commissioned the work. The Philadelphia Inquirer called Cree a “bloody good opera,” praising it for being “grand” in scope while still presenting “three-dimensional human beings and the culture around them.” Opera News called it a “a virtuosic, enjoyably literate titillation.”
Set in Victorian London, the titular heroine is unlike any other to appear on the opera stage before. When we meet Elizabeth Cree, she is about to be hanged for murdering her own husband. The story then flashes back to her trial, and she describes how she was raised in poverty by a single mother who violently abused her. Hear Daniela Mack, who originated the role of Elizabeth Cree, perform an aria from this scene accompanied by the composer below.
Yet Elizabeth is able to make a hugely successful career in London’s music halls through her own resolve, a bit of luck, and a troupe of vaudevillians that becomes her adopted family. But, despite achieving fame, financial stability, and even a husband, her story, as the opening scene foreshadows, does not end happily.
Katherine Pracht, who plays Elizabeth Cree in Chicago, spoke about this blood-curdling new opera during her last days of rehearsal.
“I’m more of an actor,” she said, “that’s kind of where my heart really is. I long for opportunities to create interesting characters on stage, rather than just find a feature for my voice. It’s so fun to have the opportunity to do something that’s so rags to riches.”
While tragic heroines in some classic operas might make a modern feminist’s blood boil, Pracht said she is fascinated by Cree, who “doesn’t seek stability from a man. She really relies on herself, and she has huge dreams. What would propel a person to go from a place of poverty and modesty to seeking actual stardom?”
“She’s fearless. In some ways, that’s a little bit scary,” Pracht added. “Maybe if she had more awareness of other people and were less obsessed with herself and her fame, she might not have made certain decisions that she did.”
“Throughout the opera we hear descriptions of violence that are gruesome and shocking. But I love how the team created a production that has a lot of the violence implied. There’s no blood on stage, though you do see some things through the use of silhouette projections, which is definitely thrilling and might frighten some audience members.”
But for Pracht, the real thrill is not just in the gruesome details, but in showing the character’s long life journey within a compact 90 minutes composed of 29 short scenes. “The opera is fast paced. It’s a fresh whirlwind of a story. A lot of other characters I play in other operas, and I do a lot of contemporary opera, there isn’t quite as much time lapse.”
“When I’m running around backstage doing all kinds of costume changes, I’m not just changing clothes; I have to age, too. I have to remember where I’m coming from and where I’m going, even with the accents, as she changes her manner of speaking throughout her life.”
For those who are new to new opera, Pracht assures, “Just because this is new opera doesn’t mean that it’s hard to listen to. It’s really cleverly written. It absolutely has beautiful, richly composed lyrical lines. It’s not a twelve-tone piece or anything like that where you feel like you’re struggling to listen. The music hall feel is ever-present.”
COT’s performances of Elizabeth Cree at the Studebaker Theater February 10, 16, and 18 continue the company’s dedication to presenting new and rarely-performed operas. Nearly one third of the works Chicago Opera Theater has presented in its 45-year history are by American composers.