Intelligent and Moving, ’10 Days in a Madhouse’ Exemplifies the Power of Opera

Rene Orth and Hannah Moscovitch’s superb retelling of the story of Nellie Bly’s time in the Women's Lunatic Asylum upends opera tropes in a compelling story about women, madness and performance.

In a smartly conceived, tightly written and beautifully sung ninety minutes, Rene Orth and librettist Hannah Moscovitch riff on the story of Nellie Bly, a pioneering reporter who went undercover in the New York City Mental Hospital’s Women’s Lunatic Asylum on what is now Roosevelt Island for ten days in 1887. Her resulting book, from which the opera takes its title, details the horrors of neglect and abuse suffered by the women who were held there, including rotten food, freezing temperatures and acts of mental and physical torture committed by doctors and nurses. Bly didn’t only spread awareness of the plight of these women and raise funds for their benefit; she pioneered a new style of journalism.

Will Liverman as Dr. Blackwell with Kiera Duffy’s Nellie. Dominic M Mercier

Orth and Moscovitch’s version of Bly’s tale is fascinated with the construction and performance of madness.  Whose behavior and speech get read as “mad”? How do institutions “make” madness, by diagnosing it and by, perhaps, inducing it? What does it mean to feign madness, and once done, can the feigner be understood as sane again? Told in reverse chronological order, even the audience is never entirely sure what is true insanity and what is false. Bly may have gotten into the asylum by playing mad, but it may be more difficult than she imagines to get out with her own mind intact; anyone can go mad, from neglect, hunger and being constantly disbelieved.

Orth’s score, here conducted by Daniela Candillari, is refreshingly varied and densely constructed, with a firm grasp of melody and a welcome balance of electronic and acoustic instruments, classical techniques and extended ones. Her voice writing is powerful; Orth resists the urge to rob her singers of melody, instead giving them moments of stunning lyricism that feel both modern and memorable. Scored for string ensemble, piano, drum kit and electronics, 10 Days runs the gamut of contemporary classical idiom and neoclassical styles that recalls not only late-nineteenth-century waltzes but also French chanson, hymns and gospel accents—with dubstep drops. Orth’s achievement is in how she weaves them all together with very few threads left hanging.

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Moscovitch gave her fantastic material to work with, to be sure; her softly scorching libretto was unaffected, perfectly paced and beautifully suggestive. It prompts serious questions about the nature of madness, the duty of care and women’s histories, but neither preaches nor stands at smug distance from that history. Moscovitch smartly makes sure to balance the focus on Bly, whose achievements and bravery deserve the spotlight, with a focus on the women who were not able to escape their circumstances or write their own stories in the way that Bly could. This extends outward to smaller roles. Her characters feel complex and lived in; even the abusive Dr. Blackwell felt like a human monster instead of a cardboard villain. This, combined with baritone Will Liverman’s underhandedly threatening portrayal, made the bad doctor all the more terrifying for feeling real.

Soprano Kiera Duffy as Nellie Bly. Dominic M Mercier

Joanna Settle’s striking, simple direction and Andrew Lieberman’s set, which consisted of a large black cylinder (atop which the orchestra was positioned) made for an equally powerful visual experience. The central cylinder took up the majority of the stage. Cut through by two corridors that evoked a maze of asylum hallways, it allowed actors to run around and through it, emerging in unexpected places. Nellie’s final aria placed her up with the orchestra atop the cylinder and emphasized the distance between the reporter and her subjects, and the distance we keep between most public spaces and the mentally ill.

Soprano Kiera Duffy, as Nellie, displayed a crystalline, multifaceted sound and wonderfully flexible technique, moving effortlessly between a solid ground of bel canto into extended techniques. Her scenes with the sterling-voiced Liverman (who sounded absolutely splendid throughout) were especially strong—we saw a tense battle of wills between two people who held very different types of power over one another. With her fellow inmates, however, she displayed a blend of curiosity and sympathy that told us all we needed to know about Bly as a reporter and as a human being. Her final plea for this treatment to stop was stirring.

Raehann Bryce-Davis as Lizzie and Kiera Duffy as Nellie Bly. Dominic M Mercier

Raehann Bryce-Davis, who for my money is one of the best mezzo-sopranos of this generation, was spellbinding as Bly’s fellow inmate and eventual friend Lizzie, her voice near to bursting with warmth and radiance underwritten by raw power. Her open, expressive face and voice, combined with Orth and Moscovitch’s sensitive and generous writing, wrenched audible sobs from the room after her climactic final aria.

Soprano (and dancer!) Lauren Pearl made for a compellingly cruel nurse, mostly silent and foreboding until a late scene unleashed an impressive and nicely balanced lyric sound.

10 Days in a Madhouse is a rare piece: a contemporary opera whose subject, story, music and execution are both intelligent and moving. Rarest of all in an era overstuffed with biographical operas, 10 Days succeeds in justifying its own genre. Not all lives are suited to operatic tellings, nor are all writers and directors capable of putting the operatic form and its histories to such good use.

Nineteenth-century operas are full of mad scenes and death scenes in which the spectacle of sexualized female madness as conceived by male librettists and composers is packaged for audience consumption. 10 Days not only inverts this trope by being written, composed, conducted and directed by women artists but also interrogates how madness is often performed by staging multiple performances of madness.

The opera is particularly interested in moments where madness is self-consciously performed and moments in which a sane statement is made suspect, simply because the person speaking is a woman in a madhouse and the listener is a male doctor. The metatextual valence, wherein the audience knows we’re watching a performer playing a Nellie Bly who is herself playing a mad character, actually contributes to the text’s meaning by recontextualizing not only the tropes of madness of the opera stage but the experience of watching historical operatic depictions of madness. This is an achievement indeed because it re-emphasizes how powerful opera can be in good hands.

Intelligent and Moving, ’10 Days in a Madhouse’ Exemplifies the Power of Opera