Director Joanna Settle wants you to know that 10 Days in a Madhouse is not just an opera. It is an “announcement … almost a dare,” heralding “bravery and bold work—and women making that bold work.” The new opera by composer Rene Orth and librettist Hannah Moscovitch dares us to look closely at the texture of our history, to acknowledge its frayed ends and its discolorations. It dares us to confront the suffering that echoes through our history and into our present, suffering that the privileged among us have been lucky enough never to even be threatened by, let alone subjected to. Most of all, it dares us to listen to the voices of these dark histories, the voices we have tried to silence by employing, among other tactics, that most dismissive and invalidating accusation:
For the duration of 10 Days, we are firmly entrenched in the warped world of the Blackwell’s Island asylum for women, where a creepy doctor (Will Liverman) keeps his patients ill-fed, freezing, and thoroughly gaslighted into questioning their own sanity. We begin at the end: Instead of opening with Famous Journalist Nellie Bly feigning mental illness to expose institutional horrors, we meet her first as Nellie Brown (Kiera Duffy), a patient being put through the same daily terrors as her fellow non-Pulitzer-associated inmates. This is a smart choice by the creative team; because Nellie begins in the same position as a typical patient, we never see her as superior to the other women of Blackwell’s. Their suffering is her suffering, which means it’s also ours.
To stop us shying away from these horrors, Settle mounts the opera on a mostly bare stage. A beige hallway cuts through center stage, but it’s only about the width of a generous umpire’s strike zone, so most of the audience (including yours truly) can’t see what’s going on in there. Lucky for us, I don’t think it matters. The real action takes place on the unadorned boards of the stage, where footlights throw great, grotesque shadows onto the sooty gray walls. We think of the shadows cast by the ghosts of our history. At times, the lights turn toward the audience. What sort of shadow do we cast?
Like the staging, the music by Rene Orth wants to show how our actions reverberate into the future, scarring it with the repercussions of our unatoned-for sins. A 12-piece chamber ensemble supplies the music from a platform high above the stage, rather than in the pit below. This makes the music seem more like God, reigning over the action and wrapping us in its all-knowing embrace, than like a typical instrumental accompaniment. Electronic sounds often interrupt the classical instruments, representing the tension between the everyday world of acoustic sounds and the chaotic noise of the psyche, amplified and distorted by trauma and terror. Orth’s score manages to make these electronics integral to the soundscape of the opera. Rather than bells and whistles, the synthetic music and sounds in 10 Days hold the action together, adding layers of emotion and insight to each scene.
The electronics also serve the performers’ voices, which already have plenty of force on their own. Much of the libretto concerns Nellie’s imagined friendship with Lizzie (Raehann Bryce-Davis), a fellow patient-prisoner. Lizzie has recently lost a child; naturally, her extreme grief was labeled mental illness and here she is at Blackwell’s. As Bryce-Davis wrings a towering aria from Lizzie’s terrible tale, a thick reverb effect is added to the vocal, so that her wails echo into the atmosphere, forming dark clouds that loom over the present and future. The reverberations almost become characters in themselves. Like the women of Blackwell’s, we begin to hear voices: voices from the past, voices of those who suffered and died at the hands of our hateful, corrupt institutions. They confront us: How are you going to fix this?
Sometimes the music is at odds with itself, creating a controlled dissonance that unsettles us, keeping us always on a knife’s edge as Orth polishes her blade. Strings and chorus voices drift in and out of tune, warbling as if the notes are seasick. Occasionally, the orchestra seems to be playing two or maybe three different tunes at once, with disparate textures and time signatures clashing against one another. (I was reminded more than once of the third movement of Mahler’s First, in which a funeral march collides head-on with a jaunty klezmer combo.) That the performers are able to keep this chaos contained is a testament both to Orth’s compositional genius and to the skill and precision of the orchestra and chorus.
The music doesn’t set the table for the vocalists so much as it responds to them. As the women of the asylum wail their laments, trumpets and strings echo their cries in an exaggerated manner. This call-and-response adds depth to the narrative tapestry. Again, Orth uses her skills of orchestration to help these women’s voices resonate, to take Moscovitch’s aching libretto and construct a whole world out of her words.
In the hands of the 10 Days creative team, opera becomes the most immediate, devastating, thrilling art form available to us. It takes us deep inside the manmade terrors of our history and somehow brings us back to the surface feeling hopeful and emboldened. That’s not to say complacent. “This is not a time for quiet art,” says director Settle. And 10 Days in a Madhouse is anything but quiet.
[Opera Philadelphia at the Wilma Theater, 265 S . Broad St.] September 21-30, 2023; https://www.operaphila.org/whats-on/in-theaters-2023-2024/10-days-in-a-madhouse/