A Chamber Opera in Two Acts

Music composed by Melissa Shiflett to a libretto by Nancy Fales Garrett

Based on Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, a case history by Sigmund Freud 



Listen to Arias from DORA:

Dora dreams that her house is on fire, and that her father
refuses to save her mother's jewel case.

Dora tries to convince her father that Herr K tried to seduce her.

Dora dreams of an ancient golden city and of her father's death.
Dora ends her analysis after telling Freud this second

Arias sung by soprano Maggie Finnegan accompanied by Melissa Shiflett on piano

Excerpts from "Dora", performed on May 6, 1999 at the first annual VOX Festival Showcase of  the NYC Opera:


DORA, Workshop Performance, West Kortright Center,
East Meredith, NY (1990)


DORA at Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University,
Baltimore, MD (2009)


DORA,  Workshop Performance
by the American Chamber Opera Company,
at Liederkranz Club, New York, NY  (1997)


     DORA, World Premiere
by the American  Chamber Opera Company
at LaMaMa, New  York. NY (2002)


 Commentary and Reviews for DORA


-- Oskar Eustis, Public Theater, February, 2018 

Your DORA, while of course upsetting and visceral, is such an exquisite look at such a crucial moment in the long history of silencing women. The way you weave Dora’s (and Anna’s) story through the violence and dismissiveness of powerful men is done with such elegance, without ever pulling any punches. Magnificent work!

-- Susan Loesser, author of A MOST REMARKABLE FELLA: Frank Loesser and the Guys and Dolls in His Life, 9/12/04 :

DORA is an extremely sensual, sexual, dark opera.   The story is shocking, and the frank language is unsparing.  Modern and at the same time melodious, the score and libretto are beautifully integrated.   The characters are drawn sharply and clearly, and each character has a unique, musical and literary flavor.   Dora’s music is particularly poignant and beautiful, in sharp contrast to the men’s music, which is appropriately heavy and cruel sounding.   This contemporary opera has engaged and haunted me, and each time I listen to it, I hear more.

--  Roger Cunningham, Encompass, New Opera Theatre, NYC, 4/12/02:

The story and the lyrics held together and kept me involved in the entire action.   The score was right on target, very well orchestrated and the lyrics allowed the characters to sing.  The words were singable and were properly set to music.   I have produced over 30 new American operas, from page to stage as they say, and DORA is about as close to perfection as one can get. I just really, really respect your work.


 -- Bruce-Michael Gelbert,, 4/8/02:

DORA, an opera composed by Melissa Shiflett to a libretto by Nancy Fales Garrett about a patient of Sigmund Freud’s, and given concert and workshop hearings during the 1990’s, is treated to a full-fledged production at the La MaMa annex during the early part of April, thanks to the joint efforts of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club and the American Chamber Opera Company.   A lyrical work focusing on three families, DORA boasts such set pieces as florid and dramatic arias, piquant ensembles, waltzes and other dances and brought Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” with its own memorable ensembles and complex liaisons, more than once to mind.   With the death of a child near the end, though, DORA moves into “The Turn of the Screw” and “The Medium” territory.   Conductor Douglas Anderson, guiding the small orchestra, and librettist Garrett, as stage director, presided over a fine cast, made up of no fewer than four leading sopranos, two tenors, a baritone, and two children.


-- Bill Everdell, author of The First Moderns, from The Saint Ann’s Review, 9/02:

Recreated on the modernist, angled and nearly bare stage at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club with nine singers in Kate Herman’s authentic-looking late nineteenth-century costumes, DORA, the opera, seemed as compressed as a Greek tragedy, beautifully reflecting the strait-lacing and shortness of breath in private bourgeois life at the beginning of the last century…Dora was not played as a tragedy.   If anything it came across as a sardonic slice of life, full of witty and startling juxtapositions of incompatible value systems, a comedy not in the sense that its ending was happy, but only in the sense that its class was not the nobility.   Catharsis or resolution it had none, neither god-given nor man-made.   At its beginning and end was only an aria in a minor key, “The Mind is a Curious Country,” sung by Freud.   Melissa Shiflett’s music made it both modern and lyrical, combining American modernist melodies with fin-de-siecle Viennese forms (gypsy tunes, Schrammelquartets, waltzes and Landler), and Fales Garrett’s words made considerable poetry with colloquial diction; but it was the complex and exciting interaction of music and book that made Dora so extraordinarily beautiful.   The action of the opera was not so much Freud’s analysis as it was the multiple relationships, dramatically shown, between Dora and her four seducers, one of whom potentially, of course, was Freud, sung in the romantic tenor register.


-- Roger Brunyate, Artistic Director, The Peabody Chamber Opera, Peabody Conservatory of The Johns Hopkins Institute, 6/09:

I have known of the existence of DORA since soon after its inception. As the artistic director of a conservatory opera program that looks to do at least one contemporary piece each year—many of them in a midtown Baltimore theatre that prides itself on adventurous programming — I am always on the lookout for chamber operas on challenging subjects, and especially those that offer varied roles for women. At the time I first contacted Melissa Shiflett, I don’t believe the opera had even been given a concert performance. Indeed, I think I looked at it on three or four separate occasions, reluctantly putting it aside because it did not match the vocal or instrumental forces I had available at that time. But in the season of 2008–09, the stars must have been in alignment, giving me the privilege of presenting the second staged production of a work that deserves to be done many times more.

I should also say that I was both attracted to the strong sexual themes in the opera and alarmed by them. Attracted because Theatre Project, Baltimore, our host space, has a reputation for edgy and provocative programming. Attracted also because younger performers can often bring an immediacy to physical relationships on the stage. But alarmed because, as a professor working with students, I did not wish to push them beyond their comfort zone. The sexual pathology of many of the characters in the opera is (fortunately) beyond the experience of most of us, and I wanted to keep it that way. I had no wish to become like Sigmund Freud himself who, in the view of Nancy Fales Garrett and Melissa Shiflett, pushed Dora into pathologies that went far beyond the admittedly egregious behavior of the adults around her.

 But the amazing thing was that, as we worked on the opera, the sensational elements gradually became incorporated into the truth of the whole, and no longer stood out. When we started, for example, the overlapping adulterous liaisons seemed decadent, outré, even perverted. But the more we got into the characters, the more we discovered a vein of sorrow that went far beyond mere self-indulgence. For instance, when we finally saw the last-act love scene between Herr Bauer and Frau K as a lament for lives stolen from them by circumstance, the insight radiated back to all the scenes that preceded it, allowing the performers to approach their characters with understanding and even some sympathy.

 Not that this meant playing down the more outrageous elements in the piece; far from it. There are some surprising gear-shifts in style, as when Dora is first seen with her father visiting their neighbors the Ks, and the cross-currents of desire are expressed first in a pulsing ensemble and then in a raucous waltz. Such moments are among the musical highlights of the opera, but I think I had been hearing them as divertissements, set pieces to lighten the texture. But I soon discovered that if we played them with full enjoyment of their strangeness, they would not only emerge as central to the basic storytelling, but also reveal something important about the characters involved. Often I would think of some staging idea (as for the duet between the two fathers in Act II, or the quintet that follows) that I hesitated to put into practice because it was too outrageous, only to find when we got to the stage, it seemed the most natural thing in the world!

We were fortunate in having a very low budget and a restricted space in which to perform. As a result, we had no way of reproducing the many changes of locale called for in the score. Somewhere along the line, I hit on the idea of staging the whole opera in Freud’s study, giving him a large desk on wheels that could be used as a couch, or bed, or operating table, or furniture item in the other scenes. I also suspended a number of nude female mannequins above and around the space. By thus disclaiming any attempt at physical realism, I was able to focus instead upon the inner reality of the characters. Equally important, I was able to show much of the action in the other scenes in terms of Freud’s interpretation or invention—a perspective that was reinforced by bringing him onstage as an observer during the scenes of Dora’s seduction.

When all the brilliantly sensational elements have fallen into place, you are left with a quiet inner truth that quite frankly both surprised and delighted me. I was fully prepared to see Freud as the villain of the piece, as the authors at one point had seemed to do. But (perhaps because I was lucky in the guest artist engaged to play the role), I found myself seeing him with sympathy, as the victim of his own theories, as much bewildered by what he does not understand as excited by what he does. And Dora herself, after being so long the victim, emerges with a quiet strength that never ceases to amaze me. The aria in which she recounts her second dream—close in detail but utterly different in tone from the version that appears in Freud’s book—is one of the most beautiful pieces of poetry and music that I can think of in contemporary opera. Suddenly we had opera putting aside all the things that it is notorious for—spectacle, sensation, and high drama—  and doing what it does uniquely well: taking us into the soul of a fellow human being. It was a moment that validated the whole undertaking and made it so eminently worthwhile.

 -- Mark A. Lackey, composer, marklackey.

Saturday’s cast gave DORA an excellent performance, with superlative singing and fine acting through the story’s considerable emotional range.   The orchestra likewise provided estimable support in their reading of the conservative tonal score.   Expert vocal writing showed the singers to effect in solo arias and ensemble numbers, with the sextet “What Do Women Want?” an especially well-constructed example.   The use of violin harmonics beneath the disturbing revelations of the K’s children was a notable touch of effective orchestration.


-- Tim Smith,

The composer’s knack for instrumental coloring is highly admirable.   The orchestration, neatly accented by guitar and subtle percussion, gives DORA its most consistently rewarding element…Roger Brunyate directed the action fluidly, making use of just a couple of props and gaining atmosphere from Douglas Nielson’s lighting design.

-- Dorothy L. Rosenthal, MD, FIAC, Professor of Pathology, Oncology and Gynecology/Obstetrics, Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions 

Bill (Bill Nerenberg—director of Peabody Presents at the Peabody Institute) and I attended The Peabody Chamber Opera production of DORA at Theatre Project of Baltimore last night.   Neither of us felt like going out, but are we glad we did.   This is a new opera with a young and very professional cast, a live orchestra of Peabody students, and the direction of the very skilled Roger Brunyate.   In total, this production proves that you don’t have to have a mammoth budget with live elephants in order to have first class opera.

The story is a very famous one, Freud’s first patient, a young woman, who is suffering from hysteria.  The two families involved from Victorian Vienna redefine dysfunctional.   Makes all the rest of our families look NORMAL!(?)   Music is superb, voices are great, staging is imaginative.


Production History of DORA

DORA is a non-commissioned work, the sole and exclusive property of its collaborators, composer Melissa Shiflett and librettist Nancy Fales Garrett.  Nevertheless, it has received some support along the way. 

The initial research in Vienna was funded by a New York State Foundation for the Arts playwriting fellowship which Ms. Fales Garrett received in 1989.  Excerpts from DORA, then a work-in-progress, were first performed in a Friends of Music concert recital in Stamford, New York that year.  This event was funded by a NYSCA Decentralization Grant. 

The completed opera with piano score was performed in a concert recital at the West Kortright Centre in East Meredith, New York in their 1990 performance season.  As a result of the enthusiastic reception accorded this performance, the collaborators were invited to present DORA, again in concert recital, again with the piano score, as a benefit performance for St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn, New York in 1991. 

In 1992, when Ms. Shiflett began to orchestrate the work, she received a Diverse Forms Artist Grant (funded by the NEA, Rockefeller and Jerome Foundations) to allow her to continue with and complete the orchestration. 

Excerpts from DORA were presented at the Golden Fleece Ltd. Square One Series, in New York City, in 1993. 

When the orchestration was completed in 1997, the American Chamber Opera Company staged a workshop production with chamber orchestra at the Liederkrantz Club in New York City.  This event was supported in part by a Meet the Composer grant and a Margaret Fairbank Jory Copying Assistance grant from the American Music Center. 

In 1988, Dona D. Vaughn directed excerpts from DORA at the annual Opera Workshop at the Manhattan School of Music. 

The collaborators were honored to have excerpts from DORA performed by the New York City Opera orchestra and vocalists on City Opera’s first annual Showcasing American Composer (now VOX) series at the Miller Theatre at Columbia University in 1999.  A private donor who had attended that concert gave the collaborators a sum of money which allowed them to become actively involved in co-producing DORA with the American Chamber Opera Company. 

On October, 28, 2001, the New York Freudian Society Foundation held a benefit for DORA at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue to help fund the premier of the opera in 2002. 

DORA received its world premier in a fully-staged production with orchestra at the La MaMa Theatre Annex, in New York City, on April 4th, 2002. It was produced by La MaMa E.T.C. in association with the American Chamber Opera Company, and ran for a total of eight performances.  The production was directed by Ms. Fales Garrett who was happy to be returning to La MaMa where she began her career as a playwright and director. It was conducted by Douglas Anderson. 

DORA was given its second full production by The Peabody Chamber Opera, April 23-26, 2009 at the Theatre Project in Baltimore, Maryland, with stage director Roger Brunyate, and conductor Karin Hendrickson.  


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Music composed by Melissa Shiflett to a Libretto by Nancy Fales Garrett

Based on Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, a case history by Sigmund Freud

A two act, two hour chamber opera for nine singers and fourteen instrumentalists.  (The number of strings can be augmented)

List of Characters


Anna Freud,
Freud’s mother, and
Marie the servant girl


Herr Bauer 


and Freud’s father  




 Frau Bauer


 Frau K


 Herr K



  Girl-Soprano (or young soubrette soprano)

Heinrich and
Freud as a child

  Boy-Soprano (or young soubrette soprano)


Setting: In Vienna, and at a lake in the Austrian countryside, around 1900.

DORA is an opera based on Sigmund Freud’s Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, the study of a young girl who developed hysterical symptoms in an effort to extricate herself from the sexual “danse macabre” being performed by her father, his mistress, and the mistress’s husband. Freud unmasked the etiology of Dora’s illness, but did not support her resistance. For this reason, she broke off her analysis, becoming the only one of Freud’s patients who disobeyed him.



Flute, doubling Alto Flute

Oboe, doubling English horn

Clarinet in B-flat, doubling Bass clarinet


Two Horns in F

Percussion, one or two players: 
Glockenspiel, Vibraphone, Chimes 
Triangle, Suspended Cymbal, 
Cow Bell, Gong, Temple Blocks, Maracas, Snare Drum, Bass Drum

Piano, doubling Celesta

Guitar – amplified Acoustic Guitar

Violin I (8)
Violin II (6)
Viola (5) 
Violoncello (4)
Contrabass (2) (or String Quintet)



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