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When Mary Leaky and her team of anthropologists gathered around the campfire after a long day of fossil hunting in Ethiopia in 1973, they could hear a neighboring camp play the Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds over and over. So when it came time to name their significant fossil discovery—a key element in […]

When Mary Leaky and her team of anthropologists gathered around the campfire after a long day of fossil hunting in Ethiopia in 1973, they could hear a neighboring camp play the Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds over and over. So when it came time to name their significant fossil discovery—a key element in tracing the evolutionary development of human beings, they called the 3.2-million-year-old skeleton “Lucy.”

When Maurice Temerlin brought a two-day-old chimpanzee home to live with him, he also called it “Lucy.” Temerlin and his family were part of experiments in “cross-fostering” conducted through Oklahoma’s Institute for Primate Studies. Temerlin raised Lucy as a human being–part of the family–and soon called her his “daughter.”

Temerlin brought his Lucy home in 1964, so the shared names are pure coincidence. But in Kelly Rourke’s and John Glover’s haunting new chamber opera, receiving its world premiere this weekend courtesy of Milwaukee Opera Theatre, “Lucy” becomes a potent exploration of the divide between the human and non-human.

Temerlin wrote a book about Lucy, and the story became a celebrated episode of NPR’s Radiolab. It’s a resonant story, with a (not surpringly) tragic end, and Lucy, the chamber opera, tells it beautifully in ways that keep the big questions—and poignant emotions—front and center.

Andrew Wilkowske plays Temerlin, singing his and Lucy’s story in a series of arias that are punctuated by ersatz recitatives, spoken, tape-recorded progress reports about Lucy’s behavior. The orchestra—piano, bass clarinet, cello, violin and toy piano (the REDSHIFT Ensemble joined by music director Christopher Zemliauskas on the piano)—shares the stage with Wilkowske. And video and photographic projections (by stage director Erik Pearson) help evoke the otherworldly mixture of terror and beauty that Lucy’s story suggests.

It’s starts playfully, with slapstick stories of the adjustment period between Lucy and her human family. But it’s clear from the start that Temerlin is—let’s say—slightly over-invested in the project. Glover’s music lets Wilkowske skip playfully through anecdotes in the family’s story, but a melancholy, rhapsodic motif runs throughout the piece, the singer’s rich baritone intoning “Lu-cy, Lu-cy,” at key parts of the story.

As the mood grows darker, Glover evokes it with music that’s at once agitated and delicate. A virtuosic piano cadenza suggests Temerlin’s conflicting and shifting emotions, and a tense story about Lucy’s relationship with a family pet is infused with tension by an agitated, virtuosic cello accompaniment. The inclusion of a toy piano is a brilliant way to capture both the seeming innocence of the story, and the macabre shifts in Temerlin’s consciousness as the tale unfolds.

Glover and Rourke know that this story is really about Temerlin. The elemental question posed by the story—what defines the “human”—is filtered through the consciousness of a man who is riven with a Frankenstein-like hubris. And Wilkowske uses his voice and acting chops to subtly infuse the story with a pensive nostalgia, even while evoking the heady, in-the-moment optimism that drives the incidents of the story.

Lucy’s story is indeed about the intelligence and personality of chimpanzees. But it’s more about human nature, the urge to transcend limits and possess that which is beyond our control and understanding. As Wilkowske poignantly and beautifully sings at the end of the opera, recalling the image of Lucy moving through the forest, “Lucy, in her natural setting, is a sight of great beauty. The woods hold no fear for her….Her movements are a flowing ballet of grace and dignity.” The very human impulse to own such beauty and wildness, is the tragic root of which great stories–and operas–are made.

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