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The Transformation of Jane Doe | STACY GARROP • COMPOSER

The Transformation of Jane Doe


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Photos by Sean Su for Chicago Opera Theater

DETAILS

A One-Act Opera
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Music by Stacy Garrop
Libretto and Original Story by Jerre Dye

Commissioned by Chicago Opera Theater for the Vanguard Initiative
Composed in 2019

This opera received a live concert performance by Chicago Opera Theater on 9/15/20. If you would like to give the world premiere of a staged production, click here to email Inkjar Publishing Company.

  • SYNOPSIS • TIME/PLACE
    SYNOPSIS
    It’s New Year’s Eve in Chicago, 1919. Just before the stroke of midnight, an anonymous woman leaps from the rooftop of a downtown hotel. The next morning, a young reporter named Abigail lands her first, major story, uncovering the identity of this mysterious jumper. The deeper Abigail descends into the complexity of Jane Doe’s story, the closer she comes to unearthing her own personal truth. The Transformation of Jane Doe is an opera about truth, illusion, and one woman’s journey in a rapidly changing world.

    TIME/PLACE
    The opera takes place in Chicago, January 1, 1920, with flashbacks to April of 1908 (inside the Studebaker Theater) and December 31, 1919 (outside and on top of a hotel).
  • CAST • INSTRUMENTATION
    CAST
    • ABIGAIL DABROWSKI (soprano) - early 20’s; aspiring journalist, 2nd generation Polish Chicagoan

    • JANE DOE
    (mezzo-soprano) - mid 40’s; free spirit
    and SECRETARY #1

    • NIGHT MAID
    (mezzo-soprano) - late 20’s; working Mom
    and SECRETARY #2/TICKET TAKER

    • HOTEL MANAGER
    (tenor) – mid 40’s; British, tightly wound
    and NEWSROOM WORKER/USHER

    • OSKAR DABROWSKI/YOUNG OSKAR
    (baritone) - Abigail’s Father, mid 40’s; poor health, 1st generation Polish Chicagoan
    and CHARLIE - a reporter

    • MAGICIAN (MONSIEUR FRANCOIS/EUGENE CLEGHORN)
    (bass-baritone) – late 40’s; a magician, a seasoned showman
    and DEWEY BARON - Abigail’s boss, a newspaperman, loud, abrasive

    • CHILD ABIGAIL
    (nonspeaking) - a supernumerary role; Abigail as a 9-year old
    and NEWS GIRL (nonspeaking)

    INSTRUMENTATION
    flute doubling on piccolo and alto flute
    b-flat clarinet doubling on bass clarinet
    violin
    viola
    cello
    double bass
    piano (grand piano preferred)
  • REVIEWS
    …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…

    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
  • LIBRETTIST AND COMPOSER PROGRAM NOTES
    Ever since I moved to Chicago in 2012, I’ve wanted to write something that captures the spirit and history of the city. When you head south down Lakeshore Drive the city reveals itself in some pretty spectacular ways. The Drake Hotel makes itself known quite beautifully there, nestled among the spires, old and new. This 1916 landmark is where we first began looking for a story for our opera. When I think of Chicago my imagination instantly drifts downtown, 1920s, to this dizzying epicenter of cultural, political, and social change. An obsession with The Drake kicked off jaunts from classic hotel to classic hotel in search of a good, solid, 1920s Chicago ghost story. It turns out each hotel seems to have their own endless supply, and, at the center of each, there is often a tragic suicide: a lovesick woman leaping to her death from a rooftop or open window, a Jane Doe doomed to haunt the joint for all eternity. In each story the heroine rarely has a name. We know nothing about her actual life. And if we do, her narrative lacks any real depth or detail. She’s a convenient cultural mirage, a lost headline, a misogynistic trope, just another Jane Doe. This is what placed Stacy and I on our path of exploration. Who were these women? What did they care about? What were their dreams? We wanted to give Jane Doe a name, a face, and a story with a beating heart. We wanted to honor those lives lost inside time, change, and circumstance.  

    - Jerre Dye

    Composing an opera is an amazingly intriguing challenge. How should I musically depict the characters and storyline that librettist Jerre Dye has beautifully depicted on paper? Are there a few concepts that transcend the entire story that I can utilize to tie everything together musically across the span of ninety minutes? Ultimately, I unified the opera through the use of a series of motives; the three most important motives are below.

    Jane Doe is an elusive character. Who is she? How many identities does she have? Will Abigail discover the true identity of Jane Doe? I created a short, four note motive to represent Jane Doe’s constant influence throughout the opera (for music buffs, these are always some version of A – G – B-flat – A). These are the first notes we hear sung at the beginning of the opera, and we hear them repeatedly throughout, sung by various characters and played by instruments in the chamber ensemble.

    Next, I constructed a “magic” motive. The motive contains three chords that are always descending (again, for music buffs, each is a major third lower than the previous chord). Not only do the characters sing these chords as part of the Magician’s magic show to the words "Magosh, Magoi, La Magie" (which translate to “magic” in Persian, Latin, and French), but the chords are integrated into the musical structure of the opera itself. These are the very first chords we hear at the opening of the opera, as well as the very last chords we hear at the end. While composing, I was struck more and more by the extent to which the Magician’s actions control the entire story, and how he affects characters around him, for better or for worse. It seemed appropriate to let his influence permeate the entire opera.

    Finally, our story is told both through Abigail’s ongoing investigation in the present, and a series of memories relayed in flashbacks. Whenever a flashback begins, the character who is about to reminisce sings the words, “I remember.” These words are combined with a “chime” motive (the piano plays a quick rolled chord in its upper register) to reinforce that a memory is about to begin. Some memories are longer than others; the longest occurs when Abigail reminisces about her own past. As she sings, “I remember,” we simultaneously hear the “magic” chords repeatedly falling downwards as she spirals deep into her memory, with each chord accompanied by a chime.

    -Stacy Garrop