Opera goes activist: Carla Lucero’s ‘Wuornos’

WuornosSuddenly opera is enjoying a Renaissance among young composers and audiences. Once the art form seemed nearly moribund, an anachronistic form of musical theater in which bloated singers sang bloated roles in overworked, worn-out old warhorses. Now, in a daring departure from the stodgy past, composer and librettist Carla Lucero – one of the very few women composers in the history of opera – has created the politically and socially charged opera Wuornos – a full-scale opera to be premiered Friday at Yerba Buena Center as part of the National Queer Arts Festival. The ambitious production tackles head-on the issue of men committing violence against women in America. It zeros in on one particular woman – convicted serial murderer Eileen Wuornos, a prostitute who worked along Florida highways and who now awaits her fate on death row – who her defenders say was provoked to the point of striking back hard, not just once, but seven times.

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Already, the sociological line Lucero is taking in the Wuornos case is clear. Serial murderess Aileen Wuornos is a product of her rotten environment. We dare not judge her without judging the society that put her in the position of having to kill – repeatedly – in self defense. So her defenders, including Lucero, insist.
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This is not the usual stuff of opera. Think of Verdi’s Aïda, with its splendid setting in ancient Egypt and plot involving an Ethiopian slave and the commander of the Egyptian army; or Bizet’s Carmen, which occurs in Spain of yore, entangling a gypsy cigarette girl with a corporal and a handsome matador; or Puccini’s Tosca, in which a devout Italian girl crosses paths with an escaped political prisoner and a savage police chief, and ends up dispatching the cop with a knife. Again and again around the world, these magnificent museum pieces have played to audiences that, far from welcoming innovation, insist upon upholding tradition.

This is the modern age, however, and the operatic nerve seems to have been struck in a number of young composers who insist on taking liberties that shock the blue bloods but warm the cockles of New Music enthusiasts. The results, so far, are encouraging: witness the recent smash success of Erling Wold’s Queer, a chamber opera based on the William Burroughs novel.

Carla_Lucero
Carla Lucero

Now comes Carla Lucero, a lesbian forging new ground in an artistic territory heretofore dominated by men. Before she relocated to the Bay Area, where she had the good fortune to become AIRspace artist-in-residence at the Jon Sims Center for the Arts (then under the direction of Lauren Hewitt, now the producer of Wuornos), Lucero lived and composed in L.A., working with Collage Dance Theater, scoring for films and videos, and studying Music Composition at the California Institute of the Arts. She’s young, and hugely ambitious, and hugely talented, and a host of equally talented, ambitious people have lined up to support her in her endeavor, including acclaimed soprano Kristin Norderval in the lead role as Wuornos, musical director Mary Chun, who conducts the Opera Ensemble of SF, and director Joseph Graves, a veteran of more than 36 shows in this country and in Great Britain.

Hooking up with the Jon Sims Center changed Lucero’s life, and will likely have ripple effects in the opera world for some time to come. Her opera could even make waves, but whether that happens depends on how many people are willing to give her a chance to present her case, and what kind of mood they’re in. One thing is certain: the opera must fly on its artistic merits. If it relies too heavily on its social message to make an impact, it may be doomed to early retirement. The balance to be struck is one of high-minded social activism versus art for its own sake. In today’s capitalist world, art with a conscience doesn’t sell particularly well. The right balance can be achieved, but it will take uncommon effort – the kind that comes from the will of a woman determined to use opera to tell a tragic story.

In the Wuornos prologue, Aileen Wuornos (Norderval) retrieves a gun from its hiding place and says: “If I am damned, who is forgiven?”

The question is one Lucero has pondered and seems to want to answer, and the result, judging from the opera’s synopsis (www.wuornos.org/synopsis1.html), is something of a morality play, with Wuornos as the tragic innocent.

As the curtain opens on Act I, Wuornos stands upon a balcony, watching a media circus take place as reporters talk excitedly among themselves about murdered men found in the woods off a Florida highway. She taunts them, though they can’t hear her, then recalls her horrible childhood:

“A flashback reveals Aileen’s teenage mother and abusive father in their home. Her mother is desperate. She makes the decision to escape, fleeing to the home of her parents (Aileen’s grandparents). Aileen’s grandmother is an alcoholic and her grandfather is disturbingly distant. Aileen’s mother convinces her reluctant parents to take the baby Aileen.”

Already, the sociological line Lucero is taking in the Wuornos case is clear. Serial murderess Aileen Wuornos is a product of her rotten environment. We dare not judge her without judging the society that put her in the position of having to kill – repeatedly – in self defense. So her defenders, including Lucero, insist.

aileen_wuornos
Aileen Wuornos

Who, in fact, is Aileen Wuornos? Some of the answer can be found in the many newspaper accounts of Wuornos’ crime spree and subsequent trial and imprisonment. The most visual/visceral way to get into the heart of the story is to view Nick Broomfield’s fascinating, well-made but hopelessly biased 1992 documentary, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer. Looking at the wild array of loony characters in Wuornos’ life – including the lesbian lover who betrayed her, the hippie lawyer who prodded her to plead guilty, and the “nice” Christian lady who adopted the imprisoned Wuornos – you can’t help but feel sympathy for the Aileen, and see your way to forgiving her for doing in seven tricks who done her wrong. Clearly she was hanging with a wacky and dangerous crowd, in the context of which her own murderous instincts seem forgivable. After all, she didn’t choose her rotten life, it was chosen for her.

In the build-up for Wuornos, including well-received sneak-peaks during the past year, many lesbians in San Francisco have begun discussing Wuornos, both the woman and the political and social issues underlying the opera.

In one meeting at the Women’s Building, two or three dozen women viewed the Broomfield documentary, then formed a circle with their chairs to speak their minds.

Soon they were discussing the merits of using “psychodrama” as a way for women inmates to tell their stories as a way of saving their own lives. Medea Project director and talented performer Rhodessa Jones was there. So was Norma Hotaling, founder and director of SAGE (Standing Against Global Exploitation), a nonprofit organization in San Francisco which helps ex-prostitutes heal traumas and live healthy lives. The moderator put out questions about Wuornos, and the women responded with enormous passion and compassion for the woman’s suffering, and anger at those who forced her hand.

At the same time, they raised questions about the opera – not about its quality, which received wildly enthusiastic raves from those who had seen it in previews, but about its authenticity.

Whose story is it? Is it the true story of Aileen Wuornos, or Lucero’s conception of Wuornos.

Of course it’s the latter, and Lucero has put together a compelling libretto that promises a great operatic opening night. But does the real Aileen Wuornos, in her cell on death row, even know the opera is taking place?

Lucero replies she wrote twice asking Wuornos’ blessing, but received no response. Instead, she relied for her impressions in large part on personal letters from Wuornos that came into her possession from an intermediary.

“What struck me was the child-like innocence,” Lucero told the women in the circle, adding that the eventual hardness in Wuornos took over as a protective measure.

“I’ve been more than responsible with the story,” said Lucero, then reiterated, just for good measure: “Having the letters confirmed my perception of her character, her child-like innocence.”

And that, dear opera lovers, is how larger-than-life characters are born.

 

 

This article originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter’s special Pride issue, June 21, 2001.