A NEW CHAMBER OPERA
Music by Gerald Cohen
Libretto by Catherine Filloux
Cori Ellison, Dramaturg
One act, 90-100 minutes in length
Mary Godwin Shelley, Mezzo-soprano, Age 18 and 33
Percy Shelley, Tenor, Age 23 (also plays Victor Frankenstein)
Lord Byron, Baritone, Age 28 (also plays William Godwin & DeLacey)
Claire Clairmont, Soprano, Age 18 (also plays Mary Wollstonecraft)
John Polidori, Bass, Age 21 (also plays The Creature)
Orchestra of 10 players (winds, strings, piano, percussion)
For more information, contact:
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The enduring horror story, Frankenstein, has captivated audiences for over 200 years. Less well known is the story of the novel’s creator, Mary Shelley. The opera Mary Shelley gives context to the internal and external forces that lead this 18-year old woman to bring this dark tale to life.
Told from Mary’s perspective, the opera weaves together the influences of her painful and tragic youth with the complex reality of her present situation. In a fury of creativity, Mary pulls on these deeply personal aspects of her life to create a powerful modern myth.
Our telling of Mary’s story in this opera moves between several time periods and settings:
- The prologue and epilogue show Mary in 1831, 15 years after the creation of her novel, looking back on her life.
- The main part of the opera takes place in Geneva in the summer of 1816, with Mary, Percy, Byron, Claire and Polidori gathered in Byron’s house for complicated and heated interpersonal relationships, intense conversation about science and literature, and evenings telling ghost stories.
Interspersed among the 1816 scenes are:
- Scenes of Mary’s early life, showing how the loss of her mother, her intense relationship with her father, her elopement with Percy, and the loss of her infant daughter all contributed to her vision for the novel Frankenstein;
- Scenes from the novel bringing to life the characters of the story as they are formed in her mind: Victor Frankenstein, possessed by his dream of creating life from dead matter, and the Creature he animates, a being possessing great humanity and intelligence but shunned by his creator.
In particular, a close association is made between Mary’s lover Percy Shelley and her character Victor Frankenstein; both are deeply and rather blindly committed to the belief that they can change the world, and in many ways oblivious to the consequences of their actions.
The cast of five plays multiple roles, with a small instrumental ensemble. This enables Mary Shelley to be a truly intimate chamber opera, and emphasizes the fact that all of the scenes noted below that take place outside of Geneva—the flashbacks to Mary’s childhood and the scenes from the novel Frankenstein—are essentially a product of Mary’s thoughts.
Mary, as the central character, is on stage for nearly the entire opera, and the course of the drama shows her progressing from a young woman who feels the weight of expectations of being a writer, to one who—drawing on the events of her early life and her fascination with the science and other currents of thought of her time—creates in her novel an enduring myth that still resonates in our own time.
Mary Shelley was 18 years old when she wrote Frankenstein, her first and most famous novel. The novel was conceived in 1816 when Mary was in Geneva, Switzerland with her lover, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, their infant son, and her stepsister Claire Clairmont. The three were spending the summer with Lord Byron and his doctor John Polidori. After a night of telling ghost stories, Byron challenged each of his guests to write their own ghost story. Mary took the challenge most seriously, and created one of the seminal myths of the modern world.
Mary Godwin (later Shelley) was the child of two of the most famous writers in England, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. Wollstonecraft died in 1797 at age 37, a few days after her daughter Mary’s birth. From early in her life, Mary Godwin learned to revere her late, brilliant mother. Her father took her every day as a young girl to visit her mother’s grave, and Mary likely felt grief, anger, and guilt over her mother’s death. Her father’s remarriage left her feeling abandoned by him and unloved by her stepmother.
Mary met Percy Shelley in 1814 when she was 16 and he was 21 and already married with a family. Mary and Percy declared their love for each other while sitting by her mother’s graveside. Mary expected her father to approve of the couple but instead, they encountered his strong disapproval, as well as the disapproval of Percy’s wealthy father, who cut them off financially. Fleeing from her father and her former life, Mary eloped with Shelley to Europe. Back in England, Mary experienced the premature birth and death of her infant daughter, Clara, feeling intense grief over that and connecting it in her mind with losing her own mother.
In 1816, Mary and Percy went again to Switzerland with their baby son William and with Claire, who had had an affair with Byron and was carrying his child. Byron had already lost interest in Claire, and was much more interested in getting to know Percy and Mary. Byron was accompanied by his young doctor, John Polidori, who was also an aspiring poet. In Geneva the group was considered scandalous, suspected of living together in a state of “general promiscuity”. They had many extended discussions about the literature and science of the day, including recent famous experiments attempting to bring corpses back to life.
After Byron gave his challenge, Mary was the only one who took it up with real determination. In an introduction to a revised version of Frankenstein, she confessed to having had doubts about being able to create a story that “would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror.” Then she had a “waking dream,” in which she saw the scene of the “pale student of unhallowed arts” beholding with horror the creature he has made—and the creation of the novel flowed from there.
CREATIVE TEAM BIOGRAPHIES
Composer Gerald Cohen has been praised for his “linguistic fluidity and melodic gift,” creating music that “reveals a very personal modernism that…offers great emotional rewards.” (Gramophone Magazine). His deeply affecting compositions have been recognized with numerous awards and critical accolades. The music on his most recent CD, Sea of Reeds, “is filled with vibrant melody, rhythmic clarity, drive and compositional construction…a sheer delight to hear” (Gapplegate Music Review).
Steal a Pencil for Me, with libretto by Deborah Brevoort, and based on a true concentration camp love story, had its world premiere production by Opera Colorado in January 2018. Excerpts were featured at Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers Festival in 2016.
Cohen is a noted synagogue cantor and baritone. His experience as a singer informs his dramatic, lyrical compositions. Recent instrumental compositions include Voyagers, a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Voyager spacecraft, which had its premiere at New York’s Hayden Planetarium, and Playing for our Lives, a tribute to the music and musicians of the WWII Terezin concentration camp near Prague.
Recognition of Cohen’s body of work includes the Copland House Borromeo String Quartet Award and Hoff-Barthelson/Copland House commission, Westchester Prize for New Work, American Composers Forum Faith Partners and American Lyric Theater residencies, Hallel V’Zimrah award from the Zamir Choral Foundation, and commissioning grants from Meet the Composer, National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, and Westchester Arts Council.
Gerald Cohen is cantor at Shaarei Tikvah, Scarsdale, NY, and is on the faculties of The Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College. www.geraldcohenmusic.com.
Librettist Catherine Filloux is an award-winning playwright who has been writing about human rights and social justice for over twenty-five years. Her many plays have been produced around the U.S. and internationally.
Catherine has been honored with the 2019 Barry Lopez Visiting Writer in Ethics and Community Fellowship; the 2017 Otto René Castillo Award for Political Theatre; and the 2015 Planet Activist Award. Filloux is the librettist for three produced operas, New Arrivals (Houston Grand Opera, composer John Glover), Where Elephants Weep (Chenla Theatre, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, composer Him Sophy), and The Floating Box (Asia Society, New York City, composer Jason Kao Hwang). Where Elephants Weep was also broadcast on national television in Cambodia; The Floating Box was a Critic’s Choice in Opera News and is released by New World Records.
Catherine is the co-librettist with composer Olga Neuwirth for the critically acclaimed opera Orlando, based on the novel by Virginia Woolf, which premiered at the Vienna State Opera. She is the librettist for L’Orient, a new piece in development by Thresh, with choreographer Preeti Vasudevan and composer Kamala Sankaram. Filloux’s new musical, Welcome to the Big Dipper (composer Jimmy Roberts, and co-book writer John Daggett) was a 2018 National Alliance for Musical Theatre finalist and received a workshop at the Redhouse Arts Center in Syracuse, New York. Catherine Filloux is represented by Elaine Devlin Literary, Inc. www.catherinefilloux.com.
Cori Ellison, a leading creative figure in the opera world, has served as staff Dramaturg at Santa Fe Opera, the Glyndebourne Festival Opera and New York City Opera.
Active in developing contemporary opera, she leads the Opera Lab, a unique new practical training program for composers, librettists, and performers at The Juilliard School, where she serves on the Vocal Arts faculty. She is also a founding faculty member of American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program and was the first dramaturg invited to participate in the Yale Institute for Music Theatre. At New York City Opera she was a curator of the annual VOX American Opera Showcase and co-founded and led City Opera’s “Words First” program for opera librettists. She has been a sought-after developmental dramaturg to numerous composers, librettists, and commissioners, including Glyndebourne, Canadian Opera, Opera Philadelphia, Arizona Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, and Beth Morrison Projects and has served as production dramaturg for projects including L’incoronazione di Poppea at Cincinnati Opera; Orphic Moments at the Salzburg Landestheater, National Sawdust, and Master Voices; Aci, Galatea, e Polifemo at National Sawdust; Washington National Opera’s Ring cycle, Opera Boston’s The Nose, and Offenbach!!! at Bard Summerscape. She is a faculty member at the Ravinia Steans Music Institute Program for Singers and has taught and lectured for schools, performance venues, and media outlets worldwide. She creates supertitles for opera companies across the English-speaking world, and helped launch Met Titles, the Met’s simultaneous translation system. Her English singing translations include Hansel and Gretel (NYCO), La vestale (English National Opera) and Shostakovich’s Cherry Tree Towers (Bard Summerscape). www.coriellison.com.