Ellen Craft, a new opera
nytheatre.com review by Maggie Bell
August 15, 2004
The basis for Ellen Craft, a new opera, is the fascinating true story of a fair-skinned slave woman who escaped to freedom by disguising herself as a white man in 19th century America. Sherry Boone, librettist and director of this work, spent nearly a decade researching slave stories, along with composer Sean Jeremy Palmer. Boone clearly shows her passion for this topic in her poignant depiction of Ellen’s struggle for liberty, as does Palmer in his musical composition.
Cruelty is a major theme of this opera. Through Ellen’s torture and torment, one is supposed to feel the same desperation that Ellen herself feels. Her situation is both tragic and beyond her control: she is the offspring of a white slave-owner and a black slave woman, and her light skin makes her an ambiguous figure in the harsh world of her Alabama plantation.
At the outset, Ellen’s father gives his daughter away as a birthday present to a new mistress. William Craft’s statement, “You’re going to love her” turns out to be a piece of bitter irony: she is stifled by her mistress and grows to hate her surroundings. Full of the desire to do what her mother could not, and aided by her light skin, she escapes the plantation by dressing as a white man and traveling to Pennsylvania, a free state. In a move of dazzling ingenuity, Ellen brings along her lover, Holden, claiming him as her property. Having never had her own clear identity, Ellen is a natural role-player and her bluff is convincing.
Powerful as this material is, Sherry Boone’s production has a preachy feel to it. The opera's focus on oppression and its effects offer nothing new; instead, I wanted more details about Ellen’s journey. This was a miracle for its time, and it made me want to get to know this powerful woman and her brave lover.
The staging of this opera is somewhat stilted, with all of the performers onstage at all times, watching the action. However, the music is powerful, changing with the beat of the story. It is also inventive, using sounds not normally found in classical opera, from drums to a Gospel beat. All of the cast members are fully engaged in their performances. Terrence Archie plays Ellen's father William with panache, and Donna Lynne Champlin strongly conveys the sharpness of Ellen's mistress. Linda Dorsey and Hall Beasley are full of heart in their portrayals of Ellen and Holden. You never stop believing that they are on a mission to survive. Linda Dorsey’s sings with all her might, coloring her words with every fiber of her emotions. Pretending to be a white man, she transforms into the conservative stereotype that she was exposed to all of her life.
Although not ultimately thought-provoking, Ellen Craft reveals the true miracles that can happen when people abandon fear and do what they need to improve their life.