Chicago Opera Theater opened its 2020–2021 season, where every performance will be streamed online, with a concert version last week, of the new opera “The Transformation of Jane Doe.”
Chicago composer Stacy Garrop has created a splendid score. Her compositional vocabulary is accessible yet never predictable or formulaic. Her originality is delightful and with a very small pit ensemble (four strings, two winds, and piano) she is able to create a full and compelling sound.
This opera might be called a drama or a mystery, but is probably best described as a ghost story. Garrop’s music envelopes you in mystery and magic. The story is centered on Abigail, a reporter given the task of writing about a Jane Doe who jumps to her death from the top of the Drake Hotel on New Year’s Eve, 1919. Abigail herself is haunted by an event in her past.
Garrop’s music is gloriously haunting, but never hokey or spooky, never stereotyped carnival fare. The sound is bracing, lyrical, complex, and even occasionally light-hearted. It features some early jazz influences so thoroughly communicated in her own musical vernacular that you never feel as if it were simply tacked on for effect. Scene changes, even in this concert version, are very clear, with Garrop’s score shifting moods and sense of place (as one example, the scene in the newspaper office is stuffed with tabloid energy). She even has clear musical cues when characters move from the present to remember Jane Doe in the past.
There is also much to praise in Jerre Dye’s libretto. It is not until the opera is over that you realize that Dye has skillfully crafted a story that in one sense ends where it began and in another sense resolves in a complete change in the course of Abigail’s life.
Dye sets the story in Chicago, New Year’s Day of 1920, and makes the city itself a character. As the opera progresses, the heroine and the city begin to fuse, with Abigail emerging as gritty and sublime as the city she inhabits. Historical facts relevant to our own time make cameo appearances: Abigail’s father has been physically debilitated by the Spanish Flu, and the 19th Amendment (votes for women) gets a mention. Dye pays attention to detail and symbolism, for example having the suicide victim reported as dressed in white, evoking both a ghost as well as a suffragette, and only near the end of the story do we understand his repeated use of a dove -- once in the magic act and once as an affectionate term used by the father to describe his daughter.
The story revolves around a major plot twist which becomes obvious some time before it is revealed. This is not a flaw, but rather a clever way of drawing you deeper into the story, keen to observe more of Dye’s breadcrumb path of clues. And the librettist does not end the opera on his clever denouement, as lesser writers might, instead pushing forward with a thrilling and optimistic declaration by Abigail, who is not demoralized over what she has learned, but spurred on to bigger things, even in a time when women had to fight for every opportunity.
Lidiya Yankovskaya, music director of Chicago Opera Theater, conducted the opera with skill, drawing out the drama, the mystery, and the power of the music. She ensured it was well paced, and she was always sensitive to the singers, never allowing her muscular chamber ensemble to overpower them.
This concert performance had six performers, most of whom took on multiple roles. Four of the six are COT young artists, two currently in the young artist program and two who have just completed it. The opera was streamed live, and must have been nerve wracking for these young singers, as it was surely the biggest performance of their young careers, where instead of performing for an audience they could see and react to, they sang for pitiless cameras. These four, along with two experienced Chicago singers, all acquitted themselves well.
Samantha Schmid starred as Abigail, who dominates the opera with only a few brief sections where she is not the center of the action. Schmid had incredible staying power that extended throughout the 90-minute performance. She sang with confidence and grace (as well as a sometimes distracting vibrato), and created an Abigail who was frustrated yet driven, confused yet unrelenting, entirely human and entirely absorbing.
As her father, John Mathieu displayed wonderful paternal affection and concern, and he sang with the simple honesty of home life. Together with Schmid, they were gentle and wistful when, in the first scene, the two of them meld their voices together singing “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” one of the dreamiest, most beautiful sections of the music. This same text and music is repeated, with a slightly different meaning, in the final scene as well.
Keanon Kyles fully inhabited the role of the magician. While the cast wore concert attire rather than costumes, Kyles’s black cape with blood red lining was a deft touch, helping to establish the showmanship of his character. He sang with clarity, vigor, and a touch of sly humor.
Morgan Middleton was Jane Doe, and she was expert at heightening the mystery surrounding her character. Leah Dexter, a marvelous singer-actor, was tremendous as the night maid at the Drake, an eye-witness to Jane Doe’s suicide. I particularly loved her humorous glissandos. Curtis Bannister brought out the corporate panic of the hotel manager who had no interest in Jane Doe’s story being splashed in newspaper headlines.
The camerawork for the streaming production was workmanlike, but mostly sensible. There was the oddity of repeated if usually brief use of a full stage shot of the Studebaker Theater. Odd, because in order to display all six singers, the shot was taken up mostly by the black, empty upper backstage while the bottom third of the shot was crowded with singers and subtitles. The only true downside to the concert was the lighting, which was incredibly low and left the two singers at either end of the stage in half darkness. The sound reproduction was very good.
Stacy Garrop is an experienced composer who had never previously written an opera. “The Transformation of Jane Doe” is the first fruit of COT’s Vanguard Initiative, a program that mentors composers in opera writing. COT must surely be delighted with this first result, beautiful and forceful, and ready for its world premiere, which I hope happens soon.