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Why Emmeline?

I am in the midst of staging rehearsals for BU Opera Institute’s production of Tobias Picker’s Emmeline, which premiered in 1996 at the Santa Fe Opera and is based on Judith Rossner’s 1980 novel. I have been considering the all-important question of why we are producing this opera here and now and through the process so far I have come to a few answers that feel potent.

Act I: 1841. Emmeline, a thirteen-year-old girl from Maine is sent by her family to work in the textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts. The mill owner’s son-in-law soon notices Emmeline and seduces her. Weeks later, after Emmeline faints in the factory, it is discovered that she is pregnant and she is immediately sent away to her aunt Hannah who initially brought her to the mill. After Emmeline gives birth, Hannah immediately takes the baby away to be raised by a young couple and allows Emmeline to believe that the baby was a girl.

Act II: 1861. Emmeline has been back home serving her family for the past twenty years and remains unmarried, haunted by her memories. A young new border, Matthew, arrives and he and Emmeline quickly fall in love and marry despite the whispers around town that he is too young and she is too old. When Emmeline’s mother dies, her aunt Hannah arrives for the funeral after having ignored Emmeline’s pleas for more information about her child for the last twenty years. The aunt surprisingly approves of Emmeline’s marriage, before learning Matthew’s age and family history and, putting two and two together, reveals that Matthew is in fact Emmeline’s son. Matthew deserts Emmeline and the town shuns her but she refuses to leave, living the rest of her days alone.

Now: why are we telling this story about some 19th century white people dealing with seemingly 19th century problems? Upon first encountering the opera before rehearsals began, I found it fascinating the extent to which its focus is upon the society that causes Emmeline’s suffering. The “why now?” question seemed to become clear to me: while our history books (rightly so) condemn the Confederacy and slavery, the Union is not by any means in the clear. We know of the North’s involvement in the triangular trade, and while slavery was illegal, the textile mills of New England were run on the labor of young girls unprotected by law. As we sit in 2017 in liberal America railing against the Drumpf-voting segment of America, we must also look in to ourselves and see where we have have, where we are culpable, and where we have thrived due to the suffering of others.

At our first sing through, though, my vision of the opera shifted somewhat. I saw for the first time that the opera is structured similarly to Sophie Treadwell’s play Machinal: Emmeline is the antagonist to the protagonist society that breaks and disowns her for disrupting its rules. The opera’s story is bleak already; the notion that society will win out in the end against an individual that dares defy it is bleaker still and feels all too current.

As we worked through the opera at the table (a practice that is unfamiliar to many opera singers) I began thinking more and more about the “here” part of the question of why we are producing this piece. In much the same way that we must look at ourselves above the Mason-Dixon line with the same critical eye with which we look at those below it, we in Boston must look to our past and see what has brought us here to the city, state, and region we know today. It’s fascinating to me how Boston and Massachusetts in general is this beacon of progressivism, and yet the area is haunted and marked by a Puritan past. I believe Emmeline holds the key to at least some understanding of how the Massachusetts of today came to be the way it is.

As our staging rehearsals are progressing and our production is taking shape, I am noticing more and more the people that surround Emmeline’s story and how quick they are to point a finger at her at the slightest provocation. “Better her than me” is the guiding ideology and self-preservation is the rule. Doesn’t seem like solely a 19th century problem to me.

Before this process I had always thought that the “why now” question was something you addressed in table work and kept in the back of your head but ultimately moved on from. The exciting discovery I am making on this process is that the “why now” question can (and should) be considered all along and, even more exciting, that the answers to the question can grow and shift and change as the process continues. I have three weeks left of this process — who knows what new answer I might find in that time? I’ve been thinking a lot about what a privilege it is to be stage managing the New England premiere of a contemporary opera set here. And what a privilege it is to be telling a story that needs to be heard.


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