5 things you didn’t know about ENO’s Jack the Ripper opera
29 Mar 2019 - 10:50 BY The Arts Society
English National Opera’s world premiere of the Jack the Ripper story places his victims’ voices centre stage. Featuring a cast including Lesley Garrett, Dame Josephine Barstow and Susan Bullock, composer Iain Bell’s work Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel exudes suspense, heartache and terror. We go backstage to find out more.
Courtesy of ENO
It reworks the Jack the Ripper story for modern times
Since the 19th century, the figure of Jack the Ripper has been sensationalised, even glamourised – yet the identities of his female victims have been overlooked. For years, Iain Bell has been struck by the plight of these forgotten women – defined only by their death – and wanted to reclaim their stories. ‘I wanted to give them their identity, dignity and humanity back,’ he explains. The opera’s messages are especially relevant today, drawing parallels with the #MeToo movement – a campaign that highlights the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault worldwide.
The murderer never appears
The physical character of Jack the Ripper has been replaced with an unseen force called ‘the darkness’, which lurks among the slums. ‘The darkness is an amorphous miasma of things that have come together to create evil,’ librettist Emma Jenkins explains. ‘It’s represented by the orchestral layers and the repeated themes in the writing.’ The set design plays with the ideas of claustrophobia and voids, resembling a contained black box filled with doors, slits and slots. ‘It’s a space that can reconfigure itself,’ says designer Soutra Gilmour. ‘It could look like a street, a workhouse or a prison.’
The roles have been written for the lead singers
One of Bell’s favourite moments in the work is a quintet for the five principal women. Before composing the piece, Bell worked closely with the singers to understand their vocal abilities. ‘I anatomised their voices: working out what they could do and finding the sweet spots in their voice,’ he explains. ‘It’s like tapestry-making, – and it’s fun having to puzzle these different voices around one another.’ The victims’ backstories have also been developed, drawing upon information from their autopsy reports and accounts of women living in similar circumstances. ‘We wanted to give these women rich lives,’ Bell says. ‘It was important that we made friendships exist, not just among these women, but among women in London.’
It features unusual instruments
To capture the world of Victorian London, the opera features an instrument called a cimbalom (similar to a zither). ‘It has an antique, shadowy sound that threads throughout the piece,’ Bell says. ‘The sound creates a sense of an inky, nocturnal blackness.’ In 1888 – the year of the Ripper’s murders – east London was an overcrowded, impoverished area. Sprawling slums, poor sanitation and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor provided ripe conditions for a killer to emerge. By locating the women’s stories within the community of Victorian London, the opera opens up discussions about patriarchal dominations and women’s struggles.
It champions mature voices
From Janis Kelly to Marie McLaughlin, the production celebrates the talents of mature singers, many of who have a long association with ENO. ‘Many of the Ripper’s victims were older women, including my character, Catherine Eddowes,’ soprano Lesley Garrett explains. Apart from the principal women, the opera’s characters include a pathologist, a writer and a police commissioner, alongside a chorus and a 65-piece orchestra. ‘The opera exposes the hardships faced by 19th-century women and their determination to defeat this terrible curse,’ Garrett says. ‘I’m looking forward to bringing Catherine’s voice to life.’
Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel; 30 March–12 April; London Coliseum; eno.org
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