By Sabina Mollot
It’s the gothic opera that has something for everyone. Romance. An evil doctor. Science experiments involving poison.
And it’s an original show slated for a September run at Theater for the New City, with libretto written by Stuyvesant Town resident Linsey Abrams. The opera, “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” is based on a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Abrams said she chose that story because, despite its being based in medieval Italy, she found that it still resonates in in today’s American society.
“Rappaccini’s Daughter” revolves around Beatrice, a girl whose life is spent in a garden that is full of poisonous flowers. Her father, Rappaccini, is a doctor who cares more about his science experiments than his patients. He teaches at a medical college and ends up luring a young man there named Giovani into taking a room that overlooks the garden. After Giovani does this, he falls in love with Beatrice, with neither the young man or woman realizing they’re both the subjects of a science experiment.
“It has a lot to do with our current day,” said Abrams. “That science is being used for improper purposes, weapons, genetically modifying our food, pesticides and all of those things that people are making money off of, but they’re bad for humanity.”
But at the same time, love still manages to find its way. “It’s behind the scenes manipulation, but the two young people are falling in love,” said Abrams. “She’s been alone in a garden her whole life and he’s been a student his whole life. I just fell in love with it. As did our composer.”
The composer of the music for “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is Michael Cohen, who has partnered with Abrams on other musical projects in the past and who also created the music for “Yours, Anne,” which was based on the life of Anne Frank. That show has been performed in venues around the world, and was recently translated into Dutch to be performed in Amsterdam. A concert hall version of some of the music also been performed at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall and one of the songs was also played at the opening of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
Musically, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is what Abrams describes as a hybrid opera/musical, with music that is meant to be dramatic, yet accessible. The five-person cast is made up of singers as well as actors, since the audience’s understanding of the story was made priority. This was especially necessary, explained Abrams, since the ending has been changed from how Hawthorne wrote it.
“We’re in an era that’s considerably different from 1844, which is when it was written,” she said. “We had to change the ending because it was appropriate to the characters as we learned who they were.”
Cohen, meanwhile called the show a dream to compose, with a story that allowed for some “exoticism and chromaticism. It’s the sort of thing a composer would have a field day with.”
Cohen and Abrams have been working together for around 25 years, after being introduced by a mutual friend. The friend, a director, who died from AIDS, had once held a party, being sure to let people know that only the 10 most intelligent people he knew would be invited. “So of course everyone wanted to go,” said Abrams. Once there, her host, Paul Corrigan, introduced her to Cohen, telling her, “‘You two would make brilliant collaborations.’ And he was right.” Cohen read two of Abrams’ three published novels, she listened to some of his music and the rest was history. They then went on to work on several musicals, including some commissioned works for children.
For a while though, writing had to be put on hold for Abrams, who, along with teaching fiction writing at City College, was also the director of the school’s MSA program for 12 years. She recently stepped down from that role to focus more on her writing, though she’s still teaching.
Cohen, too, has been focused more on his creative work, now that he’s retired from a career as a producer with an advertising company. His job had involved working all aspects of musical production from jingle writing to hiring musicians to supporting audio. These days, he’s been composing a lot of chamber music, which he hopes will eventually be performed in concert halls.
Cohen, a Brooklyn native, lives in East Midtown. Abrams is a former East Village resident, having lived in the neighborhood on East 13th Street for 10 years before moving to Stuyvesant Town 20 years ago. Her last book, Our History in New York (Great Marsh Press, 1998), was about about a group of gay and lesbian artists living in the Village. Her other two novels are Charting by the Stars (Crown Publishers, 1980) and Double Vision (Atheneum, 1984). She was the founding editor of Global City Review, a literary magazine, from 1993-2013.
“Rappaccini’s Daughter” will be shown as part of a double bill. The other opera to run with it, by the recently deceased playwright Seymour Barab, is called “Out the Window.” The entire run, from September 12-28, is dedicated to the memory of Barab, who died at the age of 93 last month. Director is Lissa Moira and the music director is Jonathan Fox Powers Performances will be at the Theater for the New City, located at 155 First Avenue between 9th and 10th Streets, Thursdays to Sundays at 8 p.m. each night. Matinees will be on Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets ($18) are available by calling the box office at (212) 254-1109 or by visiting http://www.theaterforthenewcity.net.