Claire Nowak

Monkey Business

Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s Lucy is an opera about a psychologist who adopts a chimpanzee.

By - Oct 29th, 2014 11:45 am
John Glover and Kelley Rourke working out a new climax for the opera. Photo by Erik Pearson.

John Glover and Kelley Rourke working out a new climax for the opera. Photo by Erik Pearson.

Lucy was a chimpanzee, adopted in the 1960s by a psychologist, Dr. Maurice Temerlin and his wife. They raised her like a daughter, and taught her sign language, basic hygiene skills and even an appreciation for cocktails. The chimp became famous, even appearing on the cover of Life Magazine.

This is the story that inspired composer John Glover and lyricist Kelly Rourke to create an opera, which will receive its premiere next week by Milwaukee Opera Theatre. The opera provides a retrospective look at Temerlin’s experiment and his relationship with the chimp he names Lucy. The “father” reflects on the joy he experienced at milestones in her life: dressing herself, using silverware at dinner, the small accomplishments that elicit pride in every parent.

But he also grapples with the choice he made in raising her. Did he make the right decision? Was his parenting effective, or even ethical? Temerlin and his wife Jane adopted Lucy in 1964, but after nearly 12 years, they moved her to a rehabilitation center in Gambia. She eventually assimilated back into her natural habitat, but was killed several years later, likely by poachers.

The one-man opera features Temerlin (baritone Andrew Wilkowske) reminiscing and takes the form of a memory-opera, similar to Tennessee Williams’ memory-play, The Glass Menagerie.

“You’re watching (Temerlin) try to recreate and understand what happened in his life with Lucy and trying to wrestle with justifying the decisions he made, which may have been questionable,” composer John Glover says.

The score tries to capture the many different emotions Temerlin was going through, so it’s more than just “a guy singing about raising a chimp,” as Glover puts it. The music makes quick changes, sometimes in response to Tamerlin’s eccentric personality, sometimes in response to the emotions generated by a scientific experiment.

“It was an experiment that was very much clouded by deep emotions because he also identifies Lucy as his actual daughter and a member of his family,” Glover notes.

The inspiration for this work came to Glover while listening to Lucy’s story on RadioLab.Hearing an actor read parts of Temerlin’s memoir motivated him to turn those sentiments into a one-man show he had been trying to create for the talented Wilkowske.

“It’s a very complicated story, which stirs up complicated emotions about what he did and was it the right or wrong thing to do,” Glover says. “It dealt with issues of parenting, our relationship with animals, our concepts of our own places in the world. It just seemed to stir up all these different … perspectives and personalities, something that could be really interesting to work on in a show.”

2010 reading of Lucy at The Green Space in Brooklyn. Photo by Erik Pearson.

2010 reading of Lucy at The Green Space in Brooklyn. Photo by Erik Pearson.

Wilkowske coincidently heard the same broadcast and supported Glover’s idea. They brought librettist Kelley Rourke on board – for her first original libretto – and began workshopping the show in New York and Minneapolis. Director and projection designer Erik Pearson also joined the team.

The production eventually took the backseat to Guns N’ Rosenkavalier, a rock song/art song recital Glover and Wilkowske produced with Milwaukee Opera Theatre. After that show’s success, MOT artistic director Jill Anna Ponasik asked the creative team what they wanted the next collaboration to be. The answer was Lucy.

“By producing the premiere of Lucy,” Ponasik notes, “we’re committing our resources to a team we admire and respect on a project very dear to their hearts, and we’re contributing to the growing body of work that can be considered American Opera.”

While the main concern for the production team was creating an energized, dramatic intensity that keeps the story moving, another emphasis was to avoid passing judgment on Temerlin’s experiment.

“There’s a challenge to the audience, wrestling with the fact that there may not be a resolution,” Glover says.

No live chimpanzees will be present at any performance, but the spirit of Lucy will be there at every moment of the opera.

7:30 p.m. Nov. 7 and 8, and 2 p.m. Nov. 9 at Tenth Street Theatre. Tickets are $28 and are available online or by calling 1-800-838-3006.

MYSO 2014 Playathon

The Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra opens its season with an entire day’s worth of music. On Sunday between 10:30 a.m. and 5:45 p.m., each MYSO group will showcase its musical specialties throughout Bayshore Town Center. Performances will last 20-30 minutes, followed by a brief intermission before the next group begins. The large ensembles, including the new Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra and seven string orchestras, will perform in the Rotunda; jazz, calypso and other ensembles will be in the Great Hall/Food Court area. This is the only annual event that brings together all members of the orchestra.

10:45 a.m. – 5:45 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 2 at Bayshore Town Center. Admission is free.

0 thoughts on “Classical: Monkey Business”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Is trying to raise a chimpanzee to be like a human – politically correct? We try to raise our dogs to be like humans but never actually expect them to become human like (and they can’t speak to us), and they don’t. Probably a much higher expectation is put on a chimpanzee….. Interesting material for an opera.

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