FOR SOLO VOICES, WOMEN’S CHOIR, AND ENSEMBLE
Raymond J. Lustig and Matthew Doherty
“powerfully resonant…gripping” — New York Music Daily
“alternately austere and lustrous…otherworldly” — Lucid Culture
SEMMELWEIS is a new opera-theater work inspired by the tragic story of nineteenth-century Hungarian obstetrician Ignác 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. Dr. Semmelweis had been the first to see an unthinkable truth: that the deadly disease was passing from the bodies of the dead to healthy mothers on the unwashed hands of the doctors themselves.
SEMMELWEIS explores the theme that everything we think we know can be overturned violently, and asks what is it like to be the first to see into a terrible blind spot and perceive a truth too awful to believe? To be an “outsider”—a “foreign” doctor, Hungarian, but living and working in Vienna’s top hospital in a xenophobic era—and to fear that no one heard you, that the answer may die with you? To hold an earth-shattering insight, and yet be haunted by all the mothers that would not be saved.
Though the year 2018 will mark the 200th birth year of Ignác Semmelweis, our world seems still not to have absorbed the powerful lessons of this story. There has never been a more urgent moment in history to reflect on the mystery of insight, the tension between truth and hubris, our cultural myopia, and the clear truth that we, as individuals and as a society, need our “outsiders,” our fresh and brave ideas, literally to survive.
SEMMELWEIS is a 75-minute 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 is scored for women’s vocal ensemble (8 voices minimum, SSS MMM AA), one male soloist (bass-baritone), and four instrumentalists (piano/organ, violin, accordion, 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).
Most of the musical and dramatic weight of the work is on the chorus of women, who represent different women haunting Semmelweis’s failing mind (patients, mothers, midwives, nurses, his wife). The work has a mostly seamless feel, woven from instrumental or un-texted choral music that allow the song-like arias to stand out. The staging is 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 Ignác 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 to be very relevant in the fever’s transmission patter? 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.