Published in KPBS On Air Magazine March 2003

They’re cousins in an arranged marriage. They live with his domineering mother, who treats her daughter-in-law like a servant. The mama’s boy husband is weak and sickly. The suffocated, unsatisfied wife falls in love with her husband’s best friend, a handsome, lusty artist. Ah, yes, it’s Paris, 1864. And, one day, during a boat ride on the river, the lovers throw the husband overboard. After a time, they marry, but their passion has been tainted by guilt, remorse and mutual blame. The ghost of the dead man terrorizes their wedding night. They can no longer tolerate each other, and their story ends in tragic death.

Sounds like the stuff of opera, doesn’t it? That’s just what Tobias Picker thought. The New York-based composer felt compelled to make an opera of   “Thérèse Raquin.”

“The book exudes opera from every page,” he said of Émile Zola’s first novel (1867), the ground-breaking, naturalistic “Thérèse Raquin.” “It has all the elements of tragic opera: high emotional intensity, theatricality, and a compelling storyline, rife with symbolism.”

All of the actions can be seen as universal and metaphorical,” says Picker. “Most people who want out of a marriage don’t murder their spouse. This story shows what happens if you act on your impulses. If you read ‘murder’ as rejection, abandonment or the death of love, the story becomes fascinating on many deeper levels.”

“Thérèse Raquin” is a cautionary tale, a melodrama and a ghost story.

“We’re all haunted by ghosts,” Picker admits. “We all have love stories and melodrama in our lives. These are universal situations and feelings. People hurt each other all the time. This is not just about some 19th century French people. It’s about life and ordinary people and poverty of many different kinds. Any good operatic narrative is something that everyone can identify with.”

The opera is a co-production of the Dallas Opera, where it premiered in 2001, L’Opéra de Montréal (French language premiere) and the San Diego Opera, hosting the West coast English premiere. The piece has been revised twice since Dallas.

“In the book, there’s a brighter side to the relationship between Thérèse and her husband Camille,” says Picker. “That’s gone. He seemed too nice before; people couldn’t understand why Thérèse wouldn’t want to be married to him.” Other changes involved characterization, staging, costumes and text (the libretto is by Gene Scheer), so Picker is calling this “the new, improved ‘Thérèse Raquin.'” Herbert Kellner, a veteran of Lyric Opera of Chicago, will stage the production originally created by innovative director Francesca Zambello.

Making her San Diego Opera debut in the title role is American mezzo-soprano Kirstin Chávez. Thérèse’s lover, Laurent, will be sung by Christopher Maltman, whom the London Guardian called “Britain’s hottest young baritone.” American tenor Gordon Gietz reprises the role of Camille he originated in Dallas, and legendary British soprano Dame Josephine Barstow is Madame Raquin.

In all operas, the music amplifies the emotions. “From the very moment it begins,” says the composer, “there’s an undertone of something wrong; you know this is a dysfunctional family. In the end, it’s an opera about a group of dysfunctional people.”

The music is lyrical in the first act, as Picker draws us into the illicit affair. Then, as the love turns to hatred, the second act takes on a more dissonant tone, with angular vocal lines.

Ian Campbell, San Diego Opera’s General Director, is passionate about bringing new operas to town, but he knows that purists are often reluctant to embrace new work. “Don’t say ‘It isn’t Puccini or Wagner,'” he advises. “Look at what it is — which is wonderful.”

The composer certainly has an impressive pedigree. Picker was a musical prodigy who performed at the Met at age 9. By 11, he attended Juilliard (preparatory division), where he later pursued graduate study before moving on to Princeton to work with experimental composer Milton Babbitt. He’s won numerous awards and fellowships and has created more than 70 musical works, from string quartets to symphonies. Matthew Gurevitsch of the Wall Street Journal called Picker “our finest composer for the lyric stage.”

This is his third opera. The first, “Emmeline,” based on the best-seller by Judith Rossner, was hailed by The New York Times as one of the ten most significant musical events of 1998. It was telecast on PBS’ Great Performances. Picker’s second opera was “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” based on the children’s tale by Roald Dahl. He’s currently working on an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy,” scheduled to open at the Metropolitan Opera in 2005.

Meanwhile, everyone at San Diego Opera is buzzing about “Thérèse Raquin.” As Nicolas Reveles, the Director of Education and Outreach puts it, “It’s explosive material, poetic and haunting, a work filled with lyricism, passion and excitement — three things we demand of great opera. It’s an opera you’ll never forget.”

“Thérèse Raquin” plays March 22, 25, 28 30 at the Civic Theatre; 619-232-7636).

©2003 Patté Productions Inc.