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'Anatomy Theater': a new opera that explores the nature of evil

by Gideon Brower | The Frame

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"Anatomy Theater" is based on public dissection in the late 1700s. Christian lecturers would have carnivals where criminals would be cut open in order to show that their organs were different from the organs of normal, upstanding citizens. LA Opera

People die in opera all the time. But once they’re dead, they usually stop singing. That’s not the case in “Anatomy Theater,” an opera that takes the inquiry into the nature of evil to a visceral level.

The piece was produced by Beth Morrison Projects for the LA Opera. With a libretto co-written by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang and visual artist Mark Dion, the piece is set in the late 1700s. It centers on a streetwalker who confesses to murder and is hanged for her crimes. She’s then subjected to an even greater indignity, as her internal organs are publicly removed and examined for physical evidence of the evil that drove her to kill. 

Lang says the work is based on public dissections that really did take place.

LANG: There would be these Christian lecturers who would go around Northern Europe and they would have these kind of carnivals where criminals would be cut open and their organs would be examined in order to show the bourgeois onlookers that the bodies, the interiors, the organs of the people who were not trying to live happily and peacefully and nobly in society, that their organs were different from the organs of normal, upstanding citizens.

"Anatomy Theater" centers on a streetwalker who confesses to murder and is hanged for her crimes. Then, her internal organs are publicly removed and examined for physical evidence of the evil that drove her to kill.
"Anatomy Theater" centers on a streetwalker who confesses to murder and is hanged for her crimes. Then, her internal organs are publicly removed and examined for physical evidence of the evil that drove her to kill. LA Opera

As dark as the piece is, there’s also humor in things like the caretaker of the dissection hall’s pride in his fine new cadaver and the gruesome medical devices of the period. And the vain attempt of the anatomist and his assistant to find evidence of moral corruption in a variety of unblemished internal organs. At one point, the assistant sings, “Sir, I have had a most intimate interrogation of the spleen!”

As unsettling as all this might be for the audience, imagine what it’s like for mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell.

SOUTHWELL: I am nude and covered in gore and being poked and prodded and pressed by my colleagues.

As the murderous Sarah Osborne, Southwell spends much of the production naked and deceased. She says it’s hard enough playing dead — but being dissected is even worse.

SOUTHWELL: I hear the slosh of blood and a sponge and I feel the cold wetness of the instruments on me and it is absolutely grotesque and terrifying. 

Playing the role of the murderous Sarah Osborne, Peabody Southwell spends much of the production naked and deceased.
Playing the role of the murderous Sarah Osborne, Peabody Southwell spends much of the production naked and deceased. LA Opera

Lang says what he finds most terrifying about the piece isn’t the blood and gore, but the idea that people can be made to fear individuals or groups they don’t know, who they nonetheless believe harbor evil deep inside them. 

LANG: That’s really what this piece is about. People thinking that evil is something that is not a choice that people make, but it is a truth that only needs to be uncovered, and then it needs to be exterminated. And I think personally that’s a very scary sounding thought.

Directed by Bob McGrath, the macabre and darkly funny new work from L.A. Opera has its world premiere at REDCAT at Walt Disney Concert Hall from June 16-20.

Note that this production comes with a parental advisory: This production features nudity, violence, mature themes and adult language. Not recommend for children.

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