…Chicagoans Garrop and Dye have created an unusual, alluring piece based on an original story deeply woven into this city’s history and character. It was so thick with surprise, dramatic twists and layers of meaning that even a straightforward concert performance made clear the opera’s inherent value.
Originally, “Jane Doe” was to have premiered in the spring, but the production had to be postponed due to the pandemic. In presenting the piece in stripped-down form, Chicago Opera Theater chose to call this a “first performance” rather than a world premiere. That descriptor will be saved for a time when another company presents a fully staged production, according to a COT representative. But notwithstanding an ending that wasn’t quite as persuasive as the rest of the opera, “Jane Doe” proved so immediately attractive and ripe with potential that COT ought to consider presenting the piece again, in full form, when our theaters reopen.
The opera’s premise is pure Chicago. Set here on New Year’s Eve of 1919, the story concerns a nascent newspaper reporter who yearns to get off the obituary desk, where she clearly has been relegated because of her gender. When a tip comes in that a woman has jumped off a downtown hotel rooftop, the reporter – Abigail Dabrowski – persuades her editor to let her cover the story.
It all feels very Roaring ’20s and “Front Page,” an era when newspaper scribes hustled to land scoops for the next edition, and women like Abigail were granted scant opportunities to do so. And yet Abigail’s palpable excitement at chasing the story, though fun to watch, is but an attractive veneer surrounding a much deeper tale.
To reveal the nature of Abigail’s discoveries would be to spoil for readers the second two-thirds of the opera, which pivot on revelation. Suffice it to say that Garrop and Dye allow the viewer to piece together Abigail’s back story slowly but inexorably, just as she does. We in the audience are as startled as she is, in other words, by what she finds out about the suicide she’s covering and, ultimately, about herself, her future and the nature and importance of feminism.
Garrop, one of Chicago’s most keenly sensitive composers, has penned a score that revels in long legato lines but never to cloying effect. Quite the contrary, Garrop keeps the musical material in flux. So though the opera opens with ribbons of melody as Abigail dreams about a critical moment in her youth, it soon shifts to Jazz Age bustle when she’s in the newsroom, then moves on to Sondheimesque flavorings, elegiac arias and more.
Dye has written an ingeniously structured libretto, methodically divulging key pieces of information but also unexpected levels of emotional depth. As the piece unfolds, we learn not only that Abigail is haunted but how and why.
COT music director Lidiya Yankovskaya gathered a fine cast, with soprano Samantha Schmid urgent in voice and compelling in gesture as Abigail; mezzo-soprano Morgan Middleton vocally sensuous as Jane Doe; mezzo-soprano Leah Dexter fiercely expressive as the night maid; and Curtis Bannister, John Mathieu and Keanon Kyles effective in multiple supporting roles.
Conductor Yankovskaya drew a wide range of color from a chamber ensemble and kept the music pressing ever forward, surely the best way to present an opera when the score alone must carry the story.
- Howard Reich, music critic, Chicago Tribune
September 16, 2020
…Chicago composer Stacy Garrop has created a splendid score. Her compositional vocabulary is accessible yet never predictable or formulaic. Her originality is delightful and with a very small pit ensemble (four strings, two winds, and piano) she is able to create a full and compelling sound.
This opera might be called a drama or a mystery, but is probably best described as a ghost story. Garrop’s music envelopes you in mystery and magic. The story is centered on Abigail, a reporter given the task of writing about a Jane Doe who jumps to her death from the top of the Drake Hotel on New Year’s Eve, 1919. Abigail herself is haunted by an event in her past.
Garrop’s music is gloriously haunting, but never hokey or spooky, never stereotyped carnival fare. The sound is bracing, lyrical, complex, and even occasionally light-hearted. It features some early jazz influences so thoroughly communicated in her own musical vernacular that you never feel as if it were simply tacked on for effect. Scene changes, even in this concert version, are very clear, with Garrop’s score shifting moods and sense of place (as one example, the scene in the newspaper office is stuffed with tabloid energy). She even has clear musical cues when characters move from the present to remember Jane Doe in the past.
There is also much to praise in Jerre Dye’s libretto. It is not until the opera is over that you realize that Dye has skillfully crafted a story that in one sense ends where it began and in another sense resolves in a complete change in the course of Abigail’s life.
Dye sets the story in Chicago, New Year’s Day of 1920, and makes the city itself a character. As the opera progresses, the heroine and the city begin to fuse, with Abigail emerging as gritty and sublime as the city she inhabits. Historical facts relevant to our own time make cameo appearances: Abigail’s father has been physically debilitated by the Spanish Flu, and the 19th Amendment (votes for women) gets a mention. Dye pays attention to detail and symbolism, for example having the suicide victim reported as dressed in white, evoking both a ghost as well as a suffragette…
The story revolves around a major plot twist which becomes obvious some time before it is revealed. This is not a flaw, but rather a clever way of drawing you deeper into the story, keen to observe more of Dye’s breadcrumb path of clues. And the librettist does not end the opera on his clever denouement, as lesser writers might, instead pushing forward with a thrilling and optimistic declaration by Abigail, who is not demoralized over what she has learned, but spurred on to bigger things, even in a time when women had to fight for every opportunity.
Lidiya Yankovskaya, music director of Chicago Opera Theater, conducted the opera with skill, drawing out the drama, the mystery, and the power of the music. She ensured it was well paced, and she was always sensitive to the singers, never allowing her muscular chamber ensemble to overpower them…
…Stacy Garrop is an experienced composer who had never previously written an opera. “The Transformation of Jane Doe” is the first fruit of COT’s Vanguard Initiative, a program that mentors composers in opera writing. COT must surely be delighted with this first result, beautiful and forceful, and ready for its world premiere, which I hope happens soon.
- M.L. Rantala, music critic, Hyde Park Herald
September 21, 2020