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Reflection: Opera Theatre rediscovers lost gem in 'Emmeline'

Joyce El-Khoury as Emmeline Mosher, Meredith Arwady as Aunt Hannah Watkins, and Geoffrey Agpalo as Hooker in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ 2015 production of Emmeline.
Ken Howard

The muntined window that looks into the suffocating world of Emmeline Mosher is opaque with filth, and a broken pane offers the only possibility of viewing this world. Not that anyone would want to, unless he or she were interested in discovering in the person of Emmeline Mosher the pain and sadness of the human condition we all experience to greater and lesser degrees.

The psychoanalyst Mark Epstein believes “[t]rauma does not just happen to a few unlucky people; it is the bedrock of our psychology.” Indeed, Trauma is drawn to Emmeline Mosher like iron filings to a magnet. She is the central figure in composer Tobias Picker’s and librettist-poet J.D. McClatchy’s transcendent opera “Emmeline,” a treasure that slid into relative obscurity two decades ago after a well received premiere at the Santa Fe Opera in 1996. One wonders how a work of such lapidary beauty and poetic authenticity could have come to such a pass, but it did. Works of art suffer trauma, too.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis brought this show to its stage on Saturday evening, and hurrah for this venture. James Robinson, the company’s artistic director and stage director of this piece, noted in the catalog that Opera Theatre has a history of dramatic rescues – “Nixon in China,” “The Death of Klinghoffer,” and “Miss Havisham's Fire” are examples he gave.

Thus, those of us in the opera house on Saturday evening experienced another resurrection. The notion of rebirth weaves itself appropriately into the tapestry of this piece, as do trauma and disaster. Emmeline (Joyce El-Khoury), almost 14 years old, at the insistence of her busybody, Bible-thumping Aunt Hannah Watkins (Meredith Arwady), is sent from home in Maine in 1841 to Lowell, Mass., to work in a textile mill. She’s promised she’ll earn as much as $1 a week, allowing her every month to send home as much of her wages as possible to be applied to the another rescue, that of the Mosher family farm.

Now is as good as anyplace to talk about Picker’s music, which, while being very much in the tumultuous mainstream of 20th-century art, avoids fingernails on the blackboard tendencies and annoying declamations and screeching. It is intricately, inseparably woven into the character and the person of Emmeline and is possessed of a rare and refined beauty.

The music often is the voice of Emmeline’s unconscious and of her soul, and it speaks for her and with her with sunny ebullience on the few occasions where such happy feelings become available. In the main, however, the music limns in sound her profound melancholy. She is a child-woman manipulated by her family and her employer, by oppressive economic and social systems and increasingly by fate, and the music makes this entirely manifest.

John Irvin as Matthew Gurney and Joyce El-Khoury as Emmeline Mosher in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ 2015 production of Emmeline.
Credit Ken Howard
John Irvin as Matthew Gurney and Joyce El-Khoury as Emmeline Mosher in "Emmeline."

In Lowell, the mill’s owner’s son-in-law takes advantage of his influence and seduces Emmeline and impregnates her. Aunt Hannah, who put Emmeline in harm’s way in the first place, arranges for maternity care for her niece and prevents her parents’ discovering her predicament. When the baby is born, Hannah arranges an adoption and gives the child away. Aunt Hannah makes certain Emmeline never sees her baby; Emmeline convinces herself it is a girl.

Aunt Hannah does not disabuse her of this belief, and Emmeline goes so far as to name the absent child Maryanne. Back in Maine after the baby was born, she runs the family’s boarding house. Amongst a group of travelers who check in is a handsome, happy-go-lucky harmonica-playing young fellow called Matthew Gurney,  a man full of joy, and eager to exchange the peripatetic life of a railroad man for a permanent home and family. Emmeline helps him to improve his reading, and he plays the harmonica for her, and they fall joyously in love, and their love, so sweet, is their eventual and colossal doom. Yet they are wed, and Matthew begins to build his bride a house.

Aunt Hannah arrives for the funeral of Emmeline’s mother’s (Felicia Moore). She recognizes Matthew and reveals he is Emmeline’s son. The rest of the opera, with the music continuing its revelatory passages, moves haltingly toward a microcosmic cataclysm that, taken to its conclusion, has universal and mythic consequences.

The blemished, beguiled and tormented Emmeline, of course, is Jocasta. Her husband, the unwitting Matthew, is Oedipus, who takes off when confronted by and scooped up into this horror. The lovers, and their story (based on a real-life catastrophe) are bound to the Oedipus myth and thus to capital “T” Tragedy.

I’ve noticed with works of serious purpose such as “Emmeline,” curtain calls or bows are considerably more than theatrical conventions or niceties. They broadcast more than the glee and the relief that come from having made it through the evening with success. In the eyes and faces and body languages of the chorus and cast, psychological information leaks out about the show, and about men and women who participate in its creation and presentation.

At the conclusion of “Emmeline” on Saturday, there was the usual hugging and kissing along with a comic move here and there as the cast came out to greet the audience. But integral to the jubilance, if you looked into the eyes of the extraordinarily singers and observed their body languages, you might discern as I did a cast on its moral muscle, with shoulders thrown back, evidencing convictions that a victory had been achieved, and a rejoicing that finally, finally this opera would receive its due, thanks to Opera Theatre’s act of artistic salvation.

While such emotion ran through the ranks of the company’s gifted chorus as well as in the attitudes of the cast, it was most evident in the quiet dignity and noble visage of composer Tobias Picker as he moved quietly to the apron of the stage to collect his considerable bravos and admiring applause.

A staff member said Saturday evening’s ovations were of a sort generally reserved for world premieres, and indeed, this second chance for Emmeline felt like such an occasion.

Although such well-deserved applause was a long time coming again for “Emmeline,” during shining moments Saturday it continued on and on, so much as to indicate the audience was making up for lost time.


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