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
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.
-- 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
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
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, weblogs.baltimoresun.com/2009
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
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
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
Makes all the
rest of our families look NORMAL!(?)
Music is superb, voices are great, staging is
Production History of DORA
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.
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.
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.
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
Freud’s mother, and
Marie the servant girl
and Freud’s father
Girl-Soprano (or young soubrette
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.
doubling Alto Flute
Oboe, doubling English horn
in B-flat, doubling Bass clarinet
Horns in F
one or two players:
Triangle, Suspended Cymbal,
Cow Bell, Gong,
Temple Blocks, Maracas,
Snare Drum, Bass Drum
– amplified Acoustic Guitar
(2) (or String Quintet)