Jacqueline is a new opera by librettist Royce Vavrek and composer Luna Pearl Woolf. It will premiere at Tapestry next month. It deals with the life and career of cellist Jacqueline du Pré. Du Pré was a celebrity in her own life time. She made her Wigmore Hall debut at age 16 in 1961 and quickly established herself as one of the all time greatest exponents of her instrument with a rather special relationship with the Elgar concerto. Marriage to Daniel Barenboim, conversion to Judaism and “membership” in the rather remarkable circle of musical Jews in New York followed. Her physical ability to play the cello though began to decline in 1971 and a formal diagnosis of multiple sclerosis was made in 1973. She lived for another 14 years but never played again in public.
How does one tell such a story as an opera? Especially since many key players are still alive. Yesterday I sat down with Marnie Breckenridge, who will create the role of Jacqueline, to find out. The creators of the opera decided to focus on the relationship between du Pré and her instrument. They are the only two characters who appear. Besides Marnie there will Matt Haimowitz on cello and he doesn’t sing or speak so in many ways the piece is a monodrama like, say, La voix humaine. Michael Mori directs.
Like many contemporary pieces, it’s evolved through two and a half years of workshops and both Matt and Marnie have been involved from an early stage. One of the things that has come about is the evolution for Marnie of a “cello like” singing style in places; sort of sliding from one note to the next (she demonstrated this most charmingly but it’s hard to do in words!). This is in the context of music that is distinctly modern in style though lyrical and riffing off the Brahms and Elgar concerti which were so much associated with du Pré. I’m really looking forward to hearing what that sounds like. It’s an unusual and intriguing project.
Marnie brings to this an interesting mix of bel canto and baroque lyric coloratura experience and depth in contemporary music. Curiously she’s been involved in operas by both Peter Eötvös and Osvaldo Golijov both of whose paths have crossed mine recently.
I think this is a story we can all identify with. It’s about an intense relationship. It’s about what might have been. It’s about coming to terms with what the world throws at us. Appropriately for such an intimate story it’s being presented in the relatively cosy (260 seat) Betty Oliphant Theatre from February 19th to 23rd. Tickets available here.
Photo of Marnie by Ricardo Birnbaum.