“I think the biggest thing with the subject matter is that you think, ‘It’s not me, and it doesn’t relate to me.’” Joel Ivany, a stage director and the artistic director of Against the Grain Theatre, might well be speaking about how audiences today view tuberculosis in canonical operatic works of the 1800s and 1900s. Instead, he’s talking about the current opioid epidemic, which is reflected in a new work being developed by Against the Grain, Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup.
Based on the research that Ivany, along with composer Michelle DiBucci and librettist Royce Vavrek, have done over the last several years, it’s exactly those people who think they aren’t affected by the epidemic who, in fact, are. “This is a much more common, scary occurrence for a lot of people,” Ivany adds, “and so to be able to open that door is just an important first step for us.”
Ivany spoke with NS Log just before the start of a four-day workshop of Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup at National Sawdust, which will culminate in a performance on February 15 with roughly 15 minutes of new music from the chamber-opera-in-progress, as well as a panel discussion with the creative team and addiction specialist Pedro Mateu-Gelabert, PhD, of CUNY’s Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy. The opera’s title takes its name from a 19th-century opium-laced tonic that was developed for teething babies, which made addicts out of mothers and infants alike before it was banned with Prohibition—empty glass bottles are still available on eBay.
The current opioid epidemic in the United States and beyond straddles two important historical throughlines: longstanding abusive history with opioids (from morphine to OxyContin) and an equally long history of stigmatizing different pandemics, thereby ignoring the full scope of such health crises. This current crisis hasn’t gone unremarked-upon in the arts (especially with the Sackler family, founders and owners of OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma, having their names on numerous arts institutions). Against the Grain, with DiBucci and Vavrek, are hoping to bring this conversation to the next level with a work that explicitly explores addiction through a character: Meri, who becomes hooked on opioids after a routine surgery, and whose life unravels as a result. With creative team members representing both the United States and Canada, two countries experiencing multidimensional ramifications of the current epidemic, the subject matter hits home. But the goal is to ensure that it’s a piece that can feel as personal for audiences across the globe, using the inherent empathy that art fosters to take discussions past headlines and think pieces.
This, says Ivany, is why an artist residency becomes an important part of the artistic process. “It doesn’t sound so obvious, but it’s incredibly important to have time to marinate, to gestate, to be able to talk about things and to sort of set the foundation,” he explains. “And that requires space, that requires time and to not just sort of say, ‘We’re gonna attack the entire thing,’ but [instead] let’s look at this and sort of say, ‘What are we trying to do? What are we trying to accomplish? Is even doing this the right thing?’… It allows us to, I think in some ways, spend more time talking and… make sure we’re going about it the right way. And then when we revisit it, we will have had time on the experience that we had, which I think will only benefit the project more.”
Composer DiBucci echoes many of Ivany’s thoughts about this week’s workshop and where the work will go next. She also took time to speak with NS Log about the genesis of the work, the importance of taking time to do the subject justice, and the key role that workshop audiences play in this development.
OLIVIA GIOVETTI: What originally sparked the idea to do an opera about the opioid epidemic?
MICHELLE DIBUCCI: Back in 2014 – so now that it’s 2020, that’s six years ago – I started noticing articles in The New York Times that stuck out to me. The one that compelled me to start thinking about this project was I read an article about a heroin epidemic in Rutland, Vermont. My husband and I, before my daughter was born, used to go to this place in northern Vermont, and a rest stop for us would be Rutland. So I had this idea of this town, this sort of bucolic town in New England, and when I read this article, that there was a heroin epidemic there, it just sort of knocked my socks off.… I was behind the times, because it was really around 2008 that this really started to get out of hand. But by 2014, it had penetrated every state in the country.
I wanted to make this a project. I’ve always been interested in social impact work, but I didn’t quite know how to make [this subject] into a piece. That’s why it sat for a while. And it wasn’t until around 2016 that I started writing the scenario, and getting ideas of the characters and how the story should be told in a concise way, because there are so many different stories that can come out of the subject. So what was the story I felt I needed to tell, and what was the story I felt served chamber opera, not grand opera?
GIOVETTI: Was there a turning point that helped shape the idea?
DIBUCCI: There were two really important books that I read in my research. I’ve read about every book I could get my hands on—and every article, and watched every YouTube documentary. But I read two books that were most important to me: One was called In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, by a Canadian writer, Gabor Maté. Another one was by an American writer, Sam Quinones, called Dreamland.
Dreamland really concentrates on Columbus, Ohio, and the Ohio region, and In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts really concentrates on Vancouver, Canada. These were the two books that I re-read, and I actually still keep them on my nightstand, because they offered me so many character studies that really helped me develop the characters.
GIOVETTI: How did you become involved with Against the Grain?
DIBUCCI: I was at an Opera America event, and I was speaking with a woman who was on the board of directors of the Vancouver Opera. So I said, “Oh! I’ve been thinking about Vancouver for a project.” We were just making small talk, and she said, “I just worked with this director on a Jake Heggie opera, and he was amazing—the way he used technology was really fascinating.” And it was Joel Ivany.… I saw that Joel had just directed at the Columbus Opera, so there was just something in my head that went, Okay, he directed in Vancouver and he directed in Columbus… There was a synchronicity that was happening, and so I thought, I’m gonna just reach out to him.… I said, “I’m doing this project by myself right now, and I’d really love to talk to someone [about it] and something in my gut told me to reach out to you.”
And he responded warmly and said, “This is a subject that deeply interests me, and I do think it would make an amazing opera,” and agreeing with me that addiction in general has not been dealt with in opera.… Other than Porgy and Bess, neither of us could think of an opera that actually dives into addiction, or has a character that’s really addicted.
GIOVETTI: In working with Joel and Against the Grain as well as librettist Royce Vavrek, how did the story develop with more voices coming in?
DIBUCCI: [There’s] the idea of a dysfunctional social system that is ill-equipped in many cities to deal with this epidemic, and sort of the judgment against addicts: Should they be punished, or should they be pitied, or what the heck is it? And then, also, the embarrassment of people that are connected to addicts. [It was] the same way as when I was very young with people being unable to talk about members of families that had AIDS. Now, we speak very openly about AIDS, and there’s all this stuff to help people that contract HIV. But people are still unwilling to see opioid addiction as a disease, and what happens to someone’s brain once they are hooked.
Royce and I don’t want to create caricatures of people. I’ve had the privilege to meet with former heroin addicts who have been really forthcoming about their time on the street, about prostitution. And so just trying to, from the people that I’ve met and the research I’ve done, make a composite character that’s real and living and breathing.… Addicts are liars. This will be set up. [But] we will discover at the end that she was abused a child, and that she has this chorus of low self-esteem that follows her around. And the only way to get them to shut up is by being high. The lack of self-esteem and trauma as a child, that’s so connected to addicts that can’t recover.
There’s lots of people, in the millions now, that are having problems with opioids in America. But what I’ve been following is, who can’t recover? And it’s often people that suffered trauma as children.
GIOVETTI: It sounds like a delicate balance, presenting a real character with all of their faults, but also presenting them in a way that the audience feels empathy towards them. And, as a New Yorker, it’s easy to see the effects of the epidemic at home as well. Has working on this piece deepened your own empathy?
DIBUCCI: Oh, absolutely. Just last night, I walked into the subway at 42nd Street, and there were two guys sitting there, and I thought, Those guys just shot up. I don’t feel at all capable of speaking to an addict on the street, but my heart broke seeing these two men laying there. It was freezing last night, and they didn’t have coats on, and they were just zoned out at the bottom of the steps on the subway. And that’s why Meri, the character of Meri, I have to love her. I have to love her deeply, even though she’s gonna do terrible things to the people that love her.
GIOVETTI: How does Meri’s childhood trauma play into that empathy?
DIBUCCI: [Addiction is] not an easy fix. It takes years to get the dopamine to work properly, where people start to experience the little joys that we have, the little things that make us happy, to get their brains to get back to normal. And if a trauma isn’t dealt with… The big one is childhood trauma. And it’s latent, because the young person knows how to deal with it in life, or they learn how to deal with it. And then when they’re exposed to the drug, which is a prescription drug because of surgery, it numbs their physical pain from the surgery, but it numbs the emotional pain that they’ve carried their entire life.
GIOVETTI: It’s a really nuanced look at the character.
DIBUCCI: Being a college student in the 1980s when AIDS hit, it was whispered about. And then friends of friends started getting really sick, and then people I knew started getting sick. And it brings that back for me, even though AIDS and opioid addiction are different—I’m talking more about society not wanting to talk about it, or not wanting to admit that you know someone. Being afraid to be around those people, thinking that there are certain types of people that get it: “It’s drug users and promiscuous gay men that did this.” And so it’s the same thing with what you want to say about drug addicts: “Throw them out, throw them in jail.” … It’s gonna be difficult to do this work in places like, for example, Columbus Opera, where the epidemic is so sick and affecting so many people. People may not be ready to look at it. So I’m aware of that, as well.
GIOVETTI: What’s unique about this evening at Sawdust is that, as part of Against the Grain’s residency, it’s going to be a small look at the piece that focuses on workshopping two key moments and discussing it with the audience and a panel of experts as opposed to presenting a finished work. Can you speak to the value in that context as a composer?
DIBUCCI: Having this opportunity to have feedback as we’re developing it, as the notes are hot on the page, is such a privilege for new work. I know Paola [Prestini] knows this like the back of her hand, but the reason that so many new operas sometimes fail is that all the energy is put into the new opera and then it’s opening night.
Unlike the theater, where playwrights have a series of workshops and readings, and they get to hear the work and they get to go back and they get to reflect… opera was basically, the composer got the commission, the librettist wrote the libretto, the composer set it, and then it got rehearsed and premiered. So I welcome this type of slightly slower progression to getting the work up. I only think that’s gonna help us in having a more successful and lasting opera on our hands. Like I said, with just a delicate subject matter, I’ve been thinking about this for years—it’s not something that now I feel I need to rush.
Against the Grain Theatre presents a preview of Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup and a related discussion at National Sawdust on Feb. 15 at 7:30pm; nationalsawdust.org
Olivia Giovetti has written for the Washington Post, Lit Hub, Electric Literature, The Millions, NPR, and VAN. She’s formerly served on staff at Time Out New York and WNYC, and her writing has also been heard onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Next Wave Festival.
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