Opera Theatre's 'Emmeline' Is An Edge-Of-Your-Seat Stunner

By Krystin Arneson
In Culture

“Emmeline” does not mess around. When it debuted in Santa Fe in 1996, it was hailed as one of the greatest American operas ever, and certainly, globally, as one of the best operas of the late 20th century. Now produced by the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, the stage design is spot-on in its austere moodiness—silhouettes and trees against the grey bleakness of an Andrew Wyeth sky—and the characters are so beautifully expressed and embodied by music and libretto that you can see shades of people you know in them. For better or for worse, Aunt Hannah is definitely someone’s Aunt Hannah.

Emmaline and Matthew, photo by Ken Howard, courtesy of OTSL.

Emmeline and Matthew, photo by Ken Howard, courtesy of OTSL.

[Spoilers ahead!]

But the story is as dark as the setting: If you want a happy ending, go see “Barber of Seville.” This is the gloomy textile-mill era in early industrial American history, where young girls would head east to Lowell, Massachusetts, and work in sweatshop conditions for money to send home. The protagonist, Emmeline, is one such girl, a daddy’s-favorite sent away by Aunt Hannah at not-quite-14 to spin some fabric to help pay back debt on her parents’ farm in Maine.

In a performance heavily laden with biblical references—in the dour tone of religion of that era—the ever-present tree on the stage functions as a symbol of the tree in the Garden of Eden, and this is where things get Oedipal-posh telenovela. The son-in-law (Maguire) of the mill owner takes advantage of Emmeline by playing on her loneliness for her father. It’s an odd scene that gets the skin crawling: a flirtatious chase around the tree set to romantic music—romantic until you remember that, oh yeah, she’s 13 and he’s in his 30s. The game suddenly becomes childish and all sorts of creepy.

The cringe factor is upped when it turns out Maguire got Emmeline pregnant. He bribes her to keep her mouth shut and go home, where Aunt Hannah arranges for the baby (“born in sin,” as she constantly reminds Emmeline mid-labor pangs) to be adopted. Over the years, she lets Emmeline believe that it’s a girl.

Emmeline works the family’s boarding house, singing a lot about this child and rejecting suitors, until a handsome man named Matthew from Kansas saunters in and steals her heart. All is well, and they marry—Emmeline 34, him claiming to be 26—to the disapproval of every gossip in town.

Just when you think Emmeline’s got it made, her mom dies and Aunt Hannah comes into town for the funeral. She approves of Emmeline’s studly new hubs, and asks his name and then about his parents and background. And that’s when the wool hits the mill because…


Cue dramatic music. Suddenly, with a drop in your stomach, you think of their courtship behavior: Her teaching him to read as he sits by her chair (a passage about the Garden of Eden no less, #justsayin), the motherly touches, their hide-and-seek flirting around the tree trunk. It was ALL LEADING TO THIS.

Everyone’s worlds end, and Emmeline, totally broken, continues to live in the town (a proto-feminist turn on “Oedipus'” end of Jocasta killing herself) until she dies of starvation in a cabin during a blizzard.

The most fascinating part: It’s based on a true story.

Enough about the plot: Joyce El-Khoury, the Lebanese-Canadian soprano who plays Emmeline, gave a stunning performance that took not only the libretto and music to soaring heights, but was invested with so much of herself. On the stage for every single scene—single-handedly carrying the opera for two and a half hours, a huge feat for the best of opera singers—her embodiment of the tragic protagonist was so complete that at the end, drained, she was able to muster up smiles only as the full cast took their bows. It’s a testament to her skill that she was willing to give herself so much to the performance (one article notes that tears are shed backstage at times by the cast, so much is required of them emotionally).

The score is beautiful as well and excellently conducted. The Protestant austerity of the setting is transposed into the music, foregoing the stereotypical bombast one associates with opera for heartfelt fiddles and harmonica. America is somewhat new to opera, compared to Europe, and the score and libretto brought out, somehow, the heart of the resilient, determined American character that Emmeline—for all her suffering—embodies so thoroughly.

It’s a shame this opera has stayed dormant so long: Congratulations to the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and its splendid cast and crew for reviving a gem that truly deserves a place in the mainstream canon.

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