‘Therese Raquin’ slated for four performances by Chicago Opera Theater
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BY KYLE MACMILLAN | FOR THE SUN-TIMES
Gioachino Rossini wrote his inaugural opera while still in his teens, and Richard Wagner made his first foray into the form at age 21. But many composers wait until they are a little older and possess more experience before taking a crack at operatic writing.
Tobias Picker falls squarely in that second category. He had just turned 42 when the Santa Fe Opera (New Mexico) presented the 1996 world premiere of his first opera, “Emmeline,” a retelling of the Oedipus myth set in 19th-century New England.
Opera has since gained an increasingly important place in the multifaceted output of the New York composer. He has written five works in the form, including his most frequently staged “Therese Raquin” (1999-2000), which the Chicago Opera Theater will present during four performances beginning Feb. 20.
Where: Chicago Opera Theater, at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 20, Feb. 25 and Feb. 28; and 3 p.m. Feb. 22
“I had always intended to write opera,” Picker, 60, said. “It was something that was in my mind from early childhood. But it was always something that I thought was going to be in the future once I had done everything else, once I had learned to write for every instrument. I wanted to feel that I could control an orchestra and make it do it what I wanted it to do before I started dealing with the voice.”
Though a stumbling block for many aspiring opera composers is learning how to deal with narrative and the demands of the theater, Picker said he felt comfortable with such challenges right from the beginning. He noted that his father was a theater critic who eventually fulfilled his dream of writing a play, and his sister majored in English and wrote several plays that were produced at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“So, it must have been in our genes, because the theater came naturally to me,” Picker said.
After the success of “Emmeline,” which Wall Street Journal music critic Heidi Waleson described in 2009 as a measure by which the theatrical impact of all other new operas could be judged, three other companies commissioned Picker to write operas, including the Dallas Opera.
The composer’s first task was to find an appropriate subject, and he enlisted the help of family and friends. One day, his sister was dusting and knocked a book off the shelf: Emile Zola’s “Therese Raquin.” The once-scandalous 1867 novel centers on an orphaned young woman who was unhappily married off to her cousin, Camille, by her aunt. She ignites a passionate affair with her husband’s friend, Laurent, and the two conspire to kill the husband and make it look like a boating accident.
Picker’s sister re-read the book and quickly realized it would be ideal for an operatic adaptation.
“She was right,” Picker said. “It has a [love] triangle. It has all of these other fascinating relationships — universal kinds of relationships in exaggerated forms. And it had this drowning. I was fascinated by death by water in an opera, because there are not too many operas that have that.”
At the suggestion of Francesca Zambello, who would later direct the new creation in 2001, the composer chose Gene Scheer as his librettist. The pairing worked out so well that the two collaborated again on “An American Tragedy,” which debuted at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2005.
The two-hour opera has a tonally anchored, cohesive feel in the first half, but the music becomes fragmented and dissonant in the second act, as the relationship collapses between the lovers, who are haunted by their murderous guilt and deceit.
The Chicago Opera Theater’s presentation of “Therese Raquin” is a co-production with the Long Beach Opera, where it closed on Feb. 1, and will feature the same cast. Conductor Andreas Mitisek heads both companies, and they frequently share projects like this one. Soprano Mary Ann Stewart will sing the title role, with tenor Matthew Di Battista as Camille Raquin, her spurned husband, and baritone Ed Parks, as Laurent. Ken Cazan directs the production.
Picker has three new operas in development, and in June, the Opera Theatre of St. Louis will present the first major revival of “Emmeline” in 17 years, bringing full circle his career so far in a form that he has long valued.
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.