UrbanArias has gone wild! The company that pushes boundaries, reconceiving opera that is short, smart and fast, has given us an opera about a chimpanzee. Luckily, the chimpanzee, which we learn could perform just about everything else (and she does smile and laugh,) does not sing.
Lucy is an opera based on a social science experiment in the sixties that examined how our closest primate relatives would do raised as humans. Lucy, one of the chimpanzees in the study, was adopted, only a day old, by a couple, Maurice Temerlin and his wife Jane. Temerlin called Lucy his “daughter” and taught her to dress herself, use a fork, host tea parties, “read” magazines, and communicate through sign language. The Temerlin family also included a human son named Steve who grew up with a chimp as a sister.
In retrospect, it is hard for many today to realize how such “wrong-headedness” could have conceived of such an idea. But science does not always mesh well with morality.
Librettist Kelley Rourke, having read Temerlin’s account of the experience in his memoir (“Lucy: Growing Up Human”) organized the solo-opera much like a song cycle for a single singer. This had the advantage that a long time (eleven years as a family) could be collapsed by jumping ahead with each song, accentuating different emotional states on Temerlin’s journey.
Rourke is a gifted librettist, one of the best. She understands that words in opera need to be terse and offer singable vowels. She also knows what opera can do better than any other performance form: to provide ambiguity and multiplicity of perspective through repetition.
Luckily, Rourke and composer John Glover have great sympathy for Temerlin and have shied away from stark political correctness. They worked well together to give us songs that let the portrait of their man Temerlin be fractured like a prism. They have also created a most relateable arc from the joys of a happy home through conflicts and obstacles to the final section that carries with it such tragedy.
They found a marvelous collaborator and interpreter in the singer Andrew Wilkowske. The baritone has approached the work through a deep empathetic acting process. Unlike so much operatic settings of music, we can clearly follow his words and enter Temerlin’s emotional state in every song.
How can we not understand a papa’s pride in his precocious daughter’s development? How tenderly he repeats, in Glover’s score, the downward inflection of “Lu-cy.” We enter Temerlin’s inner being; as we sit with Lucy, we too feel a kinship.
We can also identify with a parent’s frustration over a naughty child. One of the funniest moments of the evening is the delightful waltz in which our singer-actor goes into full recital mode primly singing that “feces is deposited in the proper place” (or not!) Glover is not above finding absurdity in both the situation and the world of classical music recitals, and neither is Wilkowske.
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The opera also shows us that Temerlin is a very flawed human and man of his times. He begins seeing Lucy as his drinking companion. Another time, he’s toking up, rather proud of his counter-culture identity. Such actions also build the inner tension of a man torn between losing his friends and quality of life and staying loyal to the chimpanzee he has adopted.
Glover and Wilkowske give us one glorious full-out aria about Lucy seen in her natural setting, “a thing of great beauty and dignity.” Beginning with toy piano, then strings and piano, the music moves us into something as spacious and limpid as Debussy or a flowing ballet.
Our joy at the song’s gorgeous melody and the projected image of a wild free creature breaks us open emotionally for one of the most brilliant moments in the opera when Temerlin loses his control seeing a torn-apart banana tree and raises his hand to strike Lucy. “Why? Why?” He screams at her. He describes how she stared into his eyes and makes the sign, “I am Lucy.”
From his first staging of the opera in Milwaukee in 2014, Director Erik Pearson has re-imagined a brilliant single setting as a long-abandoned child’s nursery. We see the faded wallpaper, the infant-sized bed, a child’s table and chairs, a single adult rolling chair and notably a tipped-over standing lamp. At the back of the room there are boxed-up effects, memorabilia of Lucy’s singular childhood. It is a world long locked-up of parental devotion and dashed hopes. It’s both sweetly sentimental and chilling.
The orchestra, made up of five instrumentalists including a person playing a toy piano, played with verve the variety of music, organized as interrupted “snippets” that jumped from syncopated atonal open strings, to plinkety-child-like tunes on the toy piano, and other movements reminiscent of Debussy, Poulenc, Philip Glass. Robert Wood as conductor clearly has a deep appreciation for Glover’s music.
The smorgasbord of sounds might have been a disaster, but for two things. Composer John Glover has an inventive curiosity about organizing what he jokingly calls “noise” that is fresh and appealing. The story itself is about a social experiment, albeit one that went disastrously wrong, and so the quirky short “experimental” pieces fit well the subject.
I only thought that perhaps the placing of the orchestra offstage was a mistake. I understand that for the work’s debut in Milwaukee, the musicians were on stage. As the piece is about the memories in the solo character’s head, I think the visual integration must have been delightful. After all, the instruments are clearly other characters in the work. Having the chamber musicians all dressed in black and sidelined made for an old-fashioned formalization and split of action and music, and at times a kind of sublimation of the musical intentions of Glover.
Also, I was mildly disappointed since the creators chose opera as a form that they did not consider “introducing music to a primate” as part of their imagining of Temerlin’s experiment and so have music integrated as subject matter.
At the end of the opera, there is a beautiful reprise of the memory of Lucy free in the trees, full of beauty and dignity. Whatever she had learned from us humans, we continue to learn more from her.
I walked away from this work with a thousand still-unanswered questions. What happened to Lucy’s mother, robbed of her child on day one, and did she grieve? Were any of the other chimps in the study similarly “orphaned?” What happened to Steve, the “other,” human child of the Temerlins? What responsibility do we have to wild animals that cannot be re-integrated successfully into their native habitat? When we are in relationship with any animal, are we not both changed fundamentally in evolutionary patterns, and what have we to learn from this?
After the show, we were privileged to be in a conversation with Bob Ingersoll, noted primatologist and chimpanzee “rescuer”. However, he set the tone for what immediately made the “issue” obliterate the emotional sensitivity of the opera.
With due respect, I think as so often is the case we risk mis-understanding history by judging events out of context. I also speak as someone brought up in the third world where animals were killed, left orphaned or captured in nets and sold for food. Then rehabilitation was not an option. The issue is more complicated than the black-and-white sides of science vs. activists.
Rightly or wrongly, I do feel that our future and the future of other creatures are inextricably combined and that the permeability of our cells in our energetic exchanges build relationships and change both sides essentially forever. Animals can neither live completely with us nor, I believe, (perhaps sadly) without us.
Lucy . Music by John Glover . Libretto by Kelley Rourke . Directed by Erik Pearson . Conductor: Robert Wood . Set and Costume Design: Michael Locher . Lighting Design: Burke Brown . Produced by UrbanArias . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.