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Notes from the Workshop

The collaboration between composer Allen Shearer and librettist Claudia Stevens on an adaptation of Middlemarch began when Claudia, while soaking in the bathtub, thought up a humorous scene involving the two sisters Dorothea and Celia and their clueless uncle. It would become the opening scene of Middlemarch in Spring. The format and structure for the complete two-hour opera in six scenes followed rapidly, but Claudia’s libretto would undergo continual revision as the music evolved, and Allen spent nearly four years composing and revising the music, scored for six singers and a chamber orchestra of eleven players.

enameled-cast-iron-bath-tub-on-legs-132211The six scenes, three in each act, are: “The Brookes,” “Honeymoon,” “The Key to All Mythologies,” “Codicil,” “Political,” and “What Everything Costs.” They project the arc of the story of Dorothea Brooke, leaving out the parallel narrative of Dr. Lydgate and his egotistical wife Rosamond. Claudia and Allen agreed that the Dorothea story stood well on its own, and could convey the novel’s broad themes.

Composer and librettist, who are husband and wife, worked closely together at every stage of the work’s development, brainstorming over breakfast, living as intimately with the characters as with each other. Often they felt themselves taking on the personalities of their own dramatic creations–the platitude-spouting Uncle Brooke, Casaubon, the dour intellectual, Sir James blustering, Celia chattering, Will Ladislaw protesting. Dorothea’s character stands alone, unique in literature and in the opera.

Many women, Claudia among them, identify with this remarkable being, suffering through her mistakes, failures and disappointments, cheering her on at the end. Did she triumph or was she a noble failure? The jury is still out. Either way, Dorothea is always vivid as she acquires the awareness that energizes her in the moment of choice.

Middlemarch has been called ‘the greatest novel in English,’ and its setting as an opera is long overdue. Allen and Claudia began this rather daunting task by first creating a number of scenes for performance in workshop settings. In 2011 and 2012 they presented portions of the evolving work on the Berkeley new music series Sonic Harvest, of which they are both contributing directors. These scenes called for small groups of singers and instruments. Allen, also an operatic baritone, bravely took on two of the roles, first Mr. Brooke and then Edward Casaubon.

Claudia drew on her long involvement in theater to adapt this complex novel for the stage. For two decades she has been writing scripts for music theater and opera, including over twenty cutting-edge musical monologue plays crafted for her own solo performance. Much of the text of her libretto is original. Claudia also is a nineteenth century junkie, having read every novel by Dickens and George Eliot (except Romola) more than once, and often four or five times. So she felt ready to adapt the language and sensibilities of George Eliot’s novel, and its socio-political context, with a text that is fresh and accessible for a contemporary audience.