A PRETTY LITTLE ROOM: Alice Mitchell at Bolivar Asylum: An Opera Scene

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story by Vincent Astor

This story is an epilogue to the one previously published in Focus Mid-South magazine, Alice & Freda, by Vincent Astor

In a city rich with history and eccentric characters, operatic material is everywhere. The Opera 901 Showcase premiering in April will feature some of that material in a series of original operas (all set in Memphis) commissioned by Opera Memphis. Each follows a different set of characters: from fixtures in Memphis’ collective consciousness to obscure incidents that beg the question, “Did that really happen in Memphis?”

The third part of the series is about a young woman, Alice Mitchell, who is committed to an asylum for the murder of Freda Ward, with whom she admitted having a romantic relationship. She rages at men and the words they have used to describe her, and remembers the events of the murder. Finally she sings of her hoped-for future in the afterlife, with the girl she could not possess in this life. The actual events took place in 1892 and were sensational enough to be covered by several newspapers outside of Memphis.

The dual inspirations for this opera were the short story The Yellow Wallpaper by American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the book Alice and Freda Forever by Alexis Coe. The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story first published in January 1892 in The New England Magazine, the same year and month as the murder. It concerns a woman’s descent into madness and is regarded as an important early work of American feminist literature.

One of the challenges in writing the libretto was how to make an audience feel sympathy, or at least empathy, toward a murderess. In the opera, Alice hears the lurid terms used in her trial to describe her and her feelings. Also, a story completely about women and their feelings toward one another becomes, after Alice’s arrest, dominated by men. These men manipulate the testimony and the press to get the verdict of “present insanity” that they want, then commit Alice to “a pretty little room” at Bolivar.

These opera scenes were each commissioned to be 15-20 minutes long, use one or two singers and one to four instruments (a solo piano was not permitted). This compact structure makes them accessible and easy to perform by a large variety of groups. Each could stand alone or be expanded to a full opera. Each scene is a different genre of music. The composers were all new to operatic composition.

Michael Sakir will conduct; director of Opera Memphis Ned Canty will serve as stage director. The librettos are by Jerre Dye and Marco Pave. The composers are Robert G. Patterson, Marco Pave, Kamala Sankaram and Sam Shoup. The scenes will be performed in English at Playhouse on the Square Saturday, April 7 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, April 14 at 5 p.m.