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A Bloody Good Yarn

Exploring the narrative of Elizabeth Cree with Librettist, Mark Campbell

In early 2016, when Kevin Puts and I began creating an opera based on Peter Ackroyd’s novel, The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, it seemed like truth was in a surer place. By the time the work opened at Opera Philadelphia in 2017 (and at Chicago Opera Theatre not long after), truth was being subjected to a very serious battering. As a nation, we were becoming inured to the daily onslaught of lies from our unelected leaders and their minions; the concept of reality was being razed by—ironically—a reality show celebrity.

(L-R) Daniela Mack as Elizabeth Cree, in the world premiere at Opera Philadelphia; the Chicago Opera Theatre of Elizabeth Cree with Katherine Pracht in the title role.

As we move into the age of “The Big Lie” and past the pandemic in which prevarication and the denial of science resulted in the deaths of thousands of people and an economic catastrophe, the smudging of the line between fact and fiction in Elizabeth Cree may attain a stronger relevance with audiences. I wish I could claim prescience in the choice of adapting this novel into an opera…but for me it has always just been a bloody good yarn.

My intense love for this bloody good yarn began right after The Trial of Elizabeth Cree came out in the mid-1990s and after tearing through the novel, vowed to create a musical treatment of it someday. The author’s astonishing brilliance at weaving together a courtroom account, diary entries, a detective story, a backstage saga, historical and fictional characters and a gothic thriller into one book seemed to scream out—if you’ll pardon the expression in this context—for song.

When that someday finally arrived some twenty years later, I began adapting the work by establishing strong bones in the story. While there is enough material in The Trial of Elizabeth Cree to stretch an opera into well over three hours, the thriller aspect of the book would be more effective if it clocked in around 90 minutes—and a mathematical structure to the libretto would help the audience follow the story without getting ahead of it.

The narrative of Elizabeth Cree is propelled by four plot lines:

1) The trial and hanging of its titular hero;

2) Elizabeth’s rise in the English music hall (and her courtship to John Cree);

3) The entries in John Cree’s diary recounting three grisly murders and

4) Inspector Kildare’s search for the murderer.

In the libretto, these four plot lines are repeated three times in the same sequence. This sequence is disrupted in Scene 18 when Elizabeth marries John and her life changes radically. From that moment to the end, the libretto alternates between the breakdown of Elizabeth’s marriage and scenes in the Reading Room of the British Library that tie the entire story together. After Elizabeth’s confession, there’s really only one direction the opera can go; meta. And in the final scene, our characters—living and dead—meet again on the opening night of a new melodrama “based on real events.”

(L-R) Composer, Kevin Puts and Librettist, Mark Campbell

I feel extremely fortunate that Kevin was my musical accomplice in the telling of this story. We’ve always enjoyed a strong collaboration, but somehow our work together on Elizabeth Cree still feels special. Kevin rose adeptly to the many challenges of this opera and with economy and depth composed a score that leaps agilely from gore to gaiety and sincere to savage.

The charging narrative of Elizabeth Cree pauses for one moment when the comedian Dan Leno sings a brief aria called “O Woeful World.” How apt that sentiment felt a year ago at this time! But here I am, attending opening night of this opera (my first live performance since the pandemic) in a new production from West Edge Opera, a company that specializes in galvanizing second productions of recent work and more so, a company I am honored to be associated with. I couldn’t be happier. And I’m very much looking forward to getting reacquainted with the ever-endearing darling of the stage, Elizabeth Cree. ¶

Photo Credits: Opera Philadelphia; Evan Hanover/Chicago Opera Theatre; David White; Frances Marshall


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