FOR SOLO VOICES, WOMEN’S CHOIR, AND ENSEMBLE
Raymond J. Lustig and Matthew Doherty
Semmelweis is a new opera-theater work by composer Raymond J. Lustig and writer Matthew Doherty inspired by the tragic story of nineteenth-century obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865), who discovered the cure for a devastating epidemic but could not convince the world of the simple solution, and died alone in an asylum. The work takes as its starting point the inner psyche of Dr. Semmelweis as he pursues the answer, then descends into despair and madness, haunted by the thousands of mothers he has not been able to save. It extends this tension to the theme that everything we think we know can be overturned violently, that today’s “truths” may someday soon be completely upended, and that which upends it will eventually itself be upended. The upcoming 200th anniversary of Semmelweis’s birth (2018) presents a powerful moment to reflect on the mystery of insight, on our collective wisdom, the push and pull between genius and hubris, and this winding, messy course of human progress.
Semmelweis is an 80-to-90-minute work to be performed as a continuous song cycle, abstracted from direct plot or historical documentary. The “story” is symbol-driven and tightly integrated with movement, staging, lighting, projection, and voiceover design to convey the essential narrative outline. It will be scored for 3 soloists, women’s chorus (8 voices minimum), violin, accordion, keyboards (piano, organ, celeste), double bass, electronic sound elements, and onstage instruments played by the members of the chorus (music boxes, accordions, bells, singing bowls, and other simple percussion).
Much of the musical and dramatic weight of the work will be on the chorus, who represent different women haunting Semmelweis’s failing mind (patients, mothers, midwives, nurses, his wife). The piece strives for a mostly seamless feel, woven from instrumental or un-texted choral music that allow the song-like arias to stand out. The staging will be abstract and suitable for contemporary performing arts spaces or music theater venues, as well as small-to-medium opera houses.
The SEMMELWEIS project owes its inception to American Opera Projects‘s Composers and the Voice residency. Several early workshop prototypes were staged with AOP‘s generous support at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn, HERE Arts in New York City, the New York Academy of Medicine, and South Oxford Space, Brooklyn, and selected for a special AOP workshop with eminent director Jonathan Miller. Additional support comes from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Ensemble Studio Theater, Musiktheater Wien, and Dr. Warren Widmann.
Interested presenters and supporters please contact
Some Historical Background
Vienna, ca. 1848 Hungarian-born obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis, working at Europe’s premier hospital the Vienna Algemeine Krankenhaus, is drawing upon every experience of his life as he struggles to find the solution to one of history’s most devastating childbed fever epidemics, which is killing mothers at a horrific rate. But convincing the world of his simple solution will be a battle not just against the rigid Viennese status quo, but against his deepest demons.
Working on the front lines of the deadly fever—and with decades to go before Lister, Pasteur, and Koch formulated the germ theory of disease—Ignaz Semmelweis, struggles in darkness to understand the strange pattern of disease transmission he is observing. Why are his brilliant doctors losing more women than the midwives next door? Why does physical proximity to sick patients not seem to be a more relevant factor in transmitting the fever? The tragic death of his dear friend and colleague Jakob Kolletschka provides a valuable clue, but he must search far and wide, to reach deep into his mind, into his past and the stories of others, to memories strange and sometimes painful, to see the disturbing answer—that it is the doctors themselves who are transmitting the fever, their healing hands carrying unknown particles from autopsied corpses into the bodies of healthy women. Without an explanation for these mysterious particles, he is powerless to convince the medical establishment of this terrible truth. Each new death begins to seem a murder, and the ghosts of the dead women haunt him to madness.