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Opera Theatre of Saint Louis revives American saga, ‘Emmeline’

Ken Howard
John Irvin as Matthew Gurney and Joyce El-Khoury as Emmeline Mosher in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ production of "Emmeline."";

Although Tobias Picker’s “Emmeline” received great accolades for its Santa Fe Opera premiere in 1996 and again in 1998 when that production was staged at the New York City Opera, it hasn’t been mounted since. But that will change on June 13 when Opera Theatre of Saint Louis opens its production of the American saga.

The composer is not surprised at the length of time between productions. “For a piece to survive, it usually has to be revived, and it usually takes about 20 years for a piece these days to enter the repertory,” Picker told “Cityscape” host Steve Potter. Opera Theatre of Saint Louis general director Timothy O’Leary observed that’s what happened with John Adams’ opera “Nixon in China.” It had been 17 years since its premiere when Opera Theatre produced it in 2004, but then that production was done by a number of different companies before the Metropolitan Opera mounted their own production in 2011.

“That’s very much the reason we are producing this revival of “Emmeline,” because it has been hailed as one of the great American operas of all time and needs to be performed in a new production,” O’Leary said.

J.D. “Sandy” McClatchy wrote the libretto for “Emmeline” based on the novel by Judith Rossner which in turn was based on a true story gleaned from oral histories.

The opera takes place in mid-19th century New England. At age 13, Emmeline Mosher is sent from Maine to Lowell, Massachusetts to work in a textile mill because the dollar a week that she earns is needed to keep her family afloat. Although she is promised that the mill will “spin her dowry” and “set her free,” she is taken advantage of by a mill supervisor and bears his child. Her aunt arranges for the baby’s adoption without Emmeline every seeing him. 20 years later, she falls in love and marries a much younger man named Matthew. They enjoy a happy life until her aunt meets Emmeline’s husband and reveals the secret that puts an end to their relationship and causes her to be shunned. Emmeline is forced to live out the rest of her life in shame.

Credit Alex Heuer, St. Louis Public Radio
L-R: Tobias Picker, J.D. McClatchy and Timothy O'Leary

When Picker began his score, he created a leitmotif [short, recurring musical phrase] for each character and emotion. “Wagner really knew what he was doing giving us leitmotifs," he said. "The very first thing I did was to write out what Emmeline’s theme was and then all of the others, and then I proceeded to weave it through Sandy’s remarkable text to what it is.”

Responding to the assertion that his opera is dark, Picker observed that it is no darker than "La Boheme" or "Tosca." “There is light in this,” he said. “Because being a strong American woman, she doesn’t jump off the parapet wall at the end and she doesn’t die of consumption. She goes on living her life out.”

McClatchy added, “Talking about this story and the redemption of the heroine at the end, how in my mind, what redeems her finally is the music itself which is spectacularly beautiful – lush, tonal, constantly varied and with extraordinarily beautiful arias. It’s just what one has come, alas, not to expect in contemporary opera.”

“Emmeline” is the fourth production in Opera Theatre’s 40th anniversary festival season and will continue in repertory through June 27.  The June 17 performance will benefit two local organizations, Our Lady's Inn and Kingdom House.

On June 23, Opera Theatre starts a new tradition with its Center Stage Concert featuring singers from the Gaddes Festival and Gerdine Young Artists programs in an evening of opera favorites accompanied by members of the St. Louis Symphony.

Related Events

Tobias Picker's "Emmeline"

  • When: June 13, 17 and 25, 8 p.m.; June 21, 7 p.m.; June 25, 1 p.m.

Center Stage Concert

  • When: June 23, 2015, 8 p.m.
  • Where: Loretto Hilton Performing Arts Center, 130 Edgar Road (At Big Bend), St. Louis, MO 63119 (all shows)
  • More Information

“Cityscape” is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and sponsored in part by the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis.

Mary Edwards is a producer for St. Louis Public Radio's broadcast program, "St. Louis Symphony."