Emmeline | Opera Theatre of St. Louis (OTSL)

Emmeline 75Emmeline is real and raw and a wonderful example of American Opera.

 

 

 

 

Emmeline 500

From the moment Joyce El-Khoury sang her last note as the title character Emmeline and the lights went down the audience was on its feet to applaud one of the most poignant two and a half hours I have ever spent in the theatre.

Emmeline is a story of a young girl, almost 13, who is taken from her impoverished family by her Aunt Hannah Watkins (Meredith Arwady) and put to work in a mill. The young Emmeline catches the attention of the owner’s son-in-law, Mr. Maguire (Wayne Tigges). Emmeline believes Mr. Maguire has her best interests in mind and is lead down the path of temptation only to end up pregnant and without a job. Aunt Hannah takes her in and arranges for a nice Christian family to take the child before Emmeline has a chance to see him or her. Twenty years later Emmeline is back home running the boarding house for her family and watching over her sick mother. Emmeline has never married, harboring the loss of her child, but she ends up falling for a young boarder Matthew Gurney (John Irvine). Before the two can fully get to know each other they get married and Emmeline’s mother dies. Aunt Hannah meets Matthew at the funeral and Emmeline’s life is, once again, turned upside down.

El-Khoury plays each stage of Emmeline perfectly; from the shy and innocent child, to the young mother trying desperately to do what’s right, to the older and guarded Emmeline who unexpectedly falls in love and then to woman who loses everything. To go through that many emotions as an actor is emotionally draining, but it’s a journey El-Khoury didn’t take alone, she brought the whole audience with her to the bitter end.

While El-Khoury’s acting was spot-on, some of the supporting actor’s movements appeared staged and not quite natural—most notably Nicole Haslett as Sophie. Her voice was quite beautiful and conveyed emotions very well, but her motions felt forced and brought me out of the story more than once. The music lost me once or twice in the beginning as well, it sounded overly complicated and discordant in the beginning. As the opera progressed either my mind found some organization in the earlier perceived cacophony or the composer, Tobias Picker,  realized his earlier mistakes and corrected them.  At the end, the music blended in so well I almost forgot it was there, which is the mark of a great composer.

I would not suggest Emmeline to the young, overly sensitive, or those new to the opera. The subject matter is a tough pill to swallow. Perhaps the reason it rang so true in the hearts of the audience is because it is based on true events. These things happened to poor and immigrant girls who were just looking to make a better life for themselves and their families. Thankfully, we as a society have moved past shunning young women who made mistakes, but it is a part of our history that should never be forgotten. Emmeline is real and raw and a wonderful example of American Opera. | Becca Doran

Emmeline will be performed at OTSL on June 19, 21, 25, and 27. For ticket information, visit http://www.opera-stl.org/season-tickets/emmeline/.

Photo Credit: Ken Howard

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