We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Friday, April 26, 2019


Madalyn Luna and Samuel White (photo by Carol Rosegg for Manhattan School of Music)

Sometimes operas can be successfully updated or even changed to a different locale. And sometimes the changes strike us a just plain wrong-headed. In 1839, when Emmeline (possibly Emeline in real life) was sent as a 13 year old child to work in a factory in Lowell, Massachusetts, society was different. Her story tells us something about the effect on families created by the Industrial Revolution. It also tells us something about the social mores of the day.

It is 180 years later and we are in the middle of an Information Revolution with very different effects on society, its mores, and the economy. We have child labor laws. We have birth control. We have Planned Parenthood. We have means by which unwed mothers and adoptive children can find one another. A man who never learned to read is almost unheard of.

This is what was going through our mind during Manhattan School of Music's production of Tobias Picker's 1996 opera Emmeline which we saw last night. The performances were stellar, particularly that of the totally committed Madalyn Luna who created the role of the tragic heroine. According to Judith Rossner's book from which J.D. McClatchy's libretto was derived, the poor child was torn from her impoverished family and put to work in the mills to support her family with its numerous children.

Hungry for love, she fell for the blandishments of the boss' son-in-law and got pregnant. Her child was taken from her sight unseen and adopted into a family. Dismissed from the mill she returned to her family where she took care of others for a couple of decades. Unwilling to marry for wealth, she fell for a young man from the Midwest who married her. Her past came back to haunt her in a particularly tragic and mythic fashion.

In order to make this 19th c. story "relevant", Director Thaddeus Strassberger has forced it into a Procrustean bed. Toward the end he has religious bigots carrying posters and signs about "Sin" and "Pro-Life". Yes, we still have pockets of belief like that in the United States but it was wrong-headed to try to force this story to comment upon that. Yes, we still have men in power abusing young women but that's a different opera.

In spite of our disappointment in the production, we enjoyed this "play with music". The music was quite pleasant, particularly in the instrumental interludes, but the vocal lines did not hold our interest. The only melodies we heard were when the excellent chorus sang "Rock of Ages" and also when we heard riffs of a folk song which we couldn't quite identify.

Tenor Samuel White has a good sized instrument which he used well in the role of Matthew Gurney. His acting was persuasive as well. He had a believable connection with Ms. Luna who was more believable as a 13 year old than as a woman in her mid-30's.

Baritone Laureano Quant, whom we just enjoyed as Zurga in Les pêcheurs de perles, was also believable as Mr. Maguire, the "vile seducer".  His singing was just as fine as it was as Zurga but more difficult to appreciate in English, especially with the wandering vocal lines in the score.

Elisabeth Harris turned in a fine performance as the cold-hearted Aunt Hannah, and Gabriella Chea was winning as the warm-hearted landlady/housemother Mrs. Bass.

Kelly Singer filled the role of Sophia, a friend of Emmeline, and did it well. Yi Yang portrayed Emmeline's weak father. Emilyn Badgeley was scarily convincing as Emmeline's spiteful younger sister. Robert Ellsworth Feng was the fire and brimstone preacher.

This same excellent cast will be performing on Saturday; an equally fine cast (several members of which we can vouch for) will be performing on Friday and Sunday.

Paul Tate dePoo III's Scenic Design was believable and quite inventive for the factory scene.

The chorus, directed by Jackson McKinnon was in fine condition and the young musicians of the orchestra did their usual excellent work under the baton of George Manahan, giving Mr. Picker's score a fine reading.

(c) meche kroop


  1. I went twice! The first time was so enthralling I had to go again to see the B cast! I saw the opera in St. Louis and enjoyed it but Mr. Strassberger's concept truly elevated the libretto. I told everyone I could to see it!

    Quick aside: the opera was actually premiered in 1993, not 1996. I believe this was in the program.

  2. I agree with your assessment that the updating of the opera in this production was poorly conceived. However I thought that it was actually a disaster, and left at intermission. Picker took great care to give the music a sheen of early Americana, sometimes even sounding like authentic hymnody. Seeing Emmeline carry a Victoria's Secret bag, watching the factory girls drink Coca cola and watch Friends on tv was just too much for me. Not only did Maguire and Emmeline look on stage like a perfectly legitimate couple, but she was sensual and flirtatious. So wrong in the context of the story. Just disastrous. Then there were the unrelenting promotional comparisons to the Oedipus story. Although the opera shares one plot detail with the myth, that's where it ends. Matthew isn't even a very important character in the story, and he doesn't kill his father, and there's no element of him not being able to escape his fate, nor does he blind himself...
    I went with high hopes and was embarrassed to be sitting in the audience. So my friend and I left. That being said, everything else at MSN has been great: Penelope, Summer and Smoke, Mirandolina...