When composer Melissa Dunphy started construction on her new house, she had no idea she would dig up the inspiration for an opera. But upon excavating the foundation of the site, a defunct magic theater in Philadelphia, she discovered two toilet pits from the 1700s filled with hundreds of ceramic pieces, animal bones, and artifacts from before the Revolutionary War—some of national significance.
And when the intrigued composer began tracking the history of the site, she discovered a dark secret: in 1880, newspapers reported the death of a mysterious woman, discovered hung upside down on the fence. At the time, authorities dismissed her death as an accident, describing her as a “dissipated woman” and supposing that she tried to climb the fence, got herself tangled up in her own petticoats, and strangled herself. “Which is, like, ridiculous,” says Dunphy, who collaborated with her friend, playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger, to reimagine this woman's story.
On January 27 through 29, Oberlin audiences will have the first glimpse of their retelling in Alice Tierney. This production is the Oberlin Opera Commissioning Program’s first world premiere, supported through the generosity of Elizabeth and Justus ’71 Schlichting. Performances will take place at 8:00 p.m. on January 27 and 28, and at 6:30 p.m. on January 29, in Finney Chapel. The opera is about one hour long. Seating is limited and reservations are required, however admission is free.
Alice Tierney is what Dunphy describes as an “archeology opera.” It explores the ways we tell stories about the past, and how those stories are informed by our personal histories. The opera follows four archaeologists who are excavating the site of Alice Tierney’s death. They each develop a different version of her— each played by a different soprano.
Goldfinger and Dunphy immediately saw the dramatic and operatic nature of Alice: a destitute woman who lived in a boarding house—illegally operated as a brothel—and met a tragic death. But Dunphy relates, “There are a lot of operas about 19th-century sex workers who die tragic deaths. I didn’t want to just fit into that trope.” Goldfinger adds, “Over the past few years, we've become more engaged with how we tell stories and whose stories get told. We hope that our work on Alice brings a fresh, contemporary view to these important eternal questions.”
And Alice excavates musical history as well, using different musical styles to mirror these historical views. One of the archaeologists, Quinn, is a feminist pop-anthem lover—and the music of her Alice grooves accordingly, with the help of a drum kit (one of the composer’s favorite additions to the orchestra). In contrast to Quinn is John, another archeologist whose version of Alice is more of a stereotype, is accompanied by a caricature of 19th-century parlor music. Dunphy describes her approach as blending “pop music from the two eras, the 1880s and 2023,” reframing the narratives surrounding classical music to excavate the ways ordinary people both saw and heard throughout the ages.
The moniker of an “archeology opera” is appropriate in more ways than one. As the first work developed from the ground up in Oberlin’s contemporary opera initiative, the production of Alice has let students get their hands dirty.
Composer Benjamin Martin ’22 had the chance to conduct workshops over the past three years, and is returning to Oberlin to conduct the performances of Alice. Martin is thankful for the rare opportunity he received as an undergraduate: “The directors let me sort of litter the floor with mistakes, which is a valuable experience as a growing conductor.” In addition, many of the opera’s principal singers workshopped their roles as the opera was being written, developing their characters throughout their time at Oberlin.
James O'Leary, professor of music history, stresses how unique an opportunity this is: "With the generous grant given to us by Justus and Elizabeth Schlichting, Oberlin has been able to assume a place in the opera ecosystem that few institutions are able to match. Oberlin can now incubate new works, giving writers and composers resources to carry out a development process over three years. Given how expensive it is to mount operas professionally, such workshops are vital to the genre, and Oberlin can now position itself to be a strong player in the broader field."
Assistant Professor of Opera Theater Christopher Mirto echoes how enlivening it is to develop new works. “My commitment is to always bring the writers to the room so we remember that opera is alive and it can be changed and shifted. It’s an experience of the work being tactile, something we can really dig into.”
Apparently, great work is always a process of excavation.
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