“The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing”
Opera in Progress
*Do note, The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing is the result of a week-long workshop through COT's Vanguard Initiative. This opera is still in progress, so it will not be reviewed as a complete work.**
By Catherine Hellmann
One Monday morning in Englewood, my student Juwan remarked, ”I watched that movie, Moonlight, this weekend...man, that had gay shit in it!” I responded, ”How did you not know that?” It’s one of my favorite student quotes of all time.
During the modern work-in-progress opera The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing at Chicago Opera Theater, my forever-tolerant-up-for-seeing-any-show- boyfriend, Chris, gestured that he wanted my pen and notepad. He scrawled: “Man, this opera has gay shit in it!”
“Behave,” I scribbled back….and wondered how did he not know that? Didn’t he see The Imitation Game, which was another piece inspired by the real-life Turing’s life and work?
Since discovering Chicago Opera Theater this past fall at “Iolanta,” I have become a huge fan. They are not only a woman-run opera company, which is already just super-cool, but their unconventional, risk-taking season has been extraordinary. (I also had the privilege of seeing and reviewing The Scarlet Ibis, which was also fantastic.) As their General Director, Ashley Magnus, asserted,”Opera is a living art form.” The single performance was the first full concert premiere after a week-long workshop. The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing by composer Justine F. Chen and librettist David Simpatico “is part of Chicago Opera Theater’s Vanguard Initiative to promote the creation of new opera,” according to their press release.
It is a very powerful piece. The opera begins with British 41-year-old Alan committing suicide by cyanide poisoning. Turing was a brilliant mathematician who helped crack Nazi codes during World War II. Although he was hailed as a hero immediately after the war, he was disgraced when authorities discovered he was gay. (The word “homosexual!” was sung-whispered sotto voce by the chorus, which was very powerful). The British government gave Turing the choice of either jail time or chemical castration. He chose chemical castration. How demeaning for someone so accomplished to be devalued in the country he served because of his sexuality. Injustice does make great theater.
The score, conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya, and libretto are wonderful. (I feared the music would be that atonal stuff to sound “edgy,” but the orchestration was lovely.) I was especially impressed by the talented choir, the Bienen Contemporary Early Vocal Ensemble from Northwestern University, directed by Donald Nally. They were lined up on either side of the auditorium, creating a magical surround-sound. At one point, they created “rainfall” by simply tapping their podiums with their fingers; the effect was distinctive. How exciting for these young singers to be a part of this thrilling new work!
The soloists, particularly baritone Jonathan Michie as Turing and tenor Jonas Hacker as Alan’s friend Christopher, were exceptional. Diana Newman capably sang the role of Alan’s misunderstanding mother. In Act I, oblivious to her son’s inclinations, she gives him a fish knife as a present. (Is that an English thing? I can’t imagine giving my son a fish knife…) She reassures him that he will “get the mate on his wedding night.” Alan proceeds to clean his fingernails with the lone knife.
The second act opens with Turing in bed with a fling, Arnold Murray, who betrays him. Arnold sneers that he “likes girls,” and is “not a bloody pervert.” He robs Alan of all the cash in his wallet. When Alan calls in the burglary, he is the one found guilty of being a criminal on 12 counts of Gross Indecency. The unsympathetic police officer insists “it’s indecency of the grossest sort.” This was 1952. Incredible how recent that was.
One can’t help but wish that Turing had lived in a different era that was more tolerant (okay, not perfect, but one certainly improved from the cop’s attitude in the early 50’s).
Although this opera is not yet considered a “finished piece,” as Magnus declared, it is marvelous as-is. I hope there is another performance soon and that The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing becomes a part of the American opera canon. I also look forward to further collaboration between Justine F. Chen and David Simpatico. Make note of their names.
Catherine Hellmann has taught middle schoolers for twenty years, which means she fears nothing. If she could attend theater every single day, she would...and she tries...
The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing
February 15, 2019 @ 7:30pm
DePaul University School of Music -
Gannon Concert Hall
2330 N Halsted St, Chicago
110 minutes; One Intermission
Performed & Discussed in English
"This opera celebrates the power of memory, creativity, and the potential within us all to live fully and truly.”
Chicago Opera Theater joins American Lyric Theater to bring this new opera to life as part of the Vanguard Initiative. After a week of workshops, COT presents a full concert performance of Justine F. Chen and David Simpatico’s intense and beautiful new work.
Featuring the Bienen School of Music Contemporary and Early Vocal Ensemble of Northwestern University, tenor Jonas Hacker (Lyric Opera’s Fellow Travelers), and baritone Jonathan Michie in the title role, don’t miss your chance to see this one-of-a-kind concert.
As part of Chicago Opera Theater’s Vanguard Initiative to promote the creation of new opera, COT joins American Lyric Theater to present a full concert performance of “The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing” by composer Justine F. Chen and librettist David Simpatico. The opera delves deep into the mind of the groundbreaking coder often credited to be the father of modern computer science. Turing’s work during World War II designing a machine to break the code utilized by the Nazi’s Enigma Machine is estimated to have saved millions of lives. A homosexual, he was charged with gross indecency in the 1950’s and is believed to have committed suicide because of his persecution. Featuring the Bienen Contemporary and Early Vocal Ensemble of Northwestern University, baritone Jonathan Michie in the title role, tenor Jonas Hacker (Lyric Opera’s “Fellow Travelers”) and conducting by COT’s Orli and Bill Staley Music Director Lidiya Yankovskaya, the performance will take place at 7:30 p.m. on February 15, 2019 at the DePaul School of Music’s Gannon Concert Hall (2330 N Halsted St.).
In addition to Michie and Hacker, the cast includes Diana Newman as Sara Turing, Vince Wallace as Fred Clayton/Judge, Elise Quagliata as Joan Clark, Arnold Geis as Steve Todd/Arnold Murray and David Salsbery Fry as Don Bailey/Bobby/Prosecutor.
About Justine Chen
Composer and violinist Justine F. Chen has been the recipient of many prestigious awards and commissions, including New York City Opera, New York City Ballet, The Juilliard School, American Composers Orchestra and New York Festival of Song. Justine has won grants from BMI, ASCAP, the Frances Goelet Charitable Lead Trust, Opera America and the American Composers Forum through their Jerome Fund for New Music. In 2010, she joined American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program as a resident artist. She earned her DMA, MM, and BM from Juilliard in violin and composition, and specializes in contemporary music performance.
About David Simpatico
David Simpatico’s work has been presented at major theatres around the globe, including London’s Hammersmith Apollo, Williamstown Theatre Festival and the New York Shakespeare Festival. Highlights include the stage adaptations of Disney’s “High School Musical” 1 and 2; “Whida Peru,” with a score by Josh Schmidt; and “The Screams of Kitty Genovese,” a rock-opera with a score by Will Todd. David also wrote the libretto for Pulitzer Prize-winner Aaron J. Kernis’ millennium symphony, “Garden Of Light.” David Simpatico joined American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program as a resident artist in 2010. David attended at Northwestern University and received his Masters of Creative Writing at Southern New Hampshire University.
About Chicago Opera Theater
Chicago Opera Theater (COT) is a nationally recognized opera company based in Chicago, now in its 45th season. COT expands the tradition of opera as a living art form, with an emphasis on Chicago premieres, including new contemporary operas for a 21st century audience.
In addition to its programmed mainstage season, COT is devoted to the development and production of new opera in the United States through the Vanguard Initiative, launched in the Spring of 2018. The Vanguard Initiative mentors emerging opera composers, invests time and talent in new opera at various stages of the creative process and presents the Living Opera Series to showcase new and developing work.
Since its founding in 1973 by Alan Stone, COT has staged more than 125 operas, including over 65 Chicago premieres and more than 35 operas by American composers.
COT is led by Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson General Director Douglas R. Clayton and Orli and Bill Staley Music Director Lidiya Yankovskaya. As of fall 2018, Maestro Yankovskaya is the only woman with the title Music Director at any of the top 50 opera companies in the United States. COT currently performs at the Studebaker Theater (Michigan & Congress) and the Harris Theater for Music & Dance (Michigan & Randolph).
For more information on the Chicago Opera Theater and its programs please visit chicagooperatheater.org.