The Elephant Man - librettist note, January 2012

LIBRETTIST NOTE I approached the commission from NorrlandsOperan to write an opera based on the life of Joseph Merrick with some trepidation. Many artists have sought to create art out of his short, yet remarkable life: David Lean’s film, Pomerance’s play and Petitgirard’s opera, to name just a few. What then could I possibly add to the growing number of interpretations of the Elephant Man? There is something compelling about this story of gross disfigurement. We remain fascinated by disability for at some point in our lives, sooner or later, for a short or a long period, we all will be disabled in some way. Ergo: Those with disabilities are the unwelcome reminders of our own frailty and mortality. But was this enough of a theme to base an opera on? Self doubt is another word for writer’s block and so I did what writers do when faced with this dilemma: I read everything I could on Victorian England and the Elephant Man. My research took an entirely unexpected turn when I came across the following: “During the time of the Whitechapel murders ... locals were sure that Joseph Merrick was sneaking out of the hospital grounds at night and killing local ‘unfortunates’”. The Elephant Man suspected of being Jack the Ripper? This fanciful idea was quickly rejected but I was intrigued by the reaction of the “locals” who in their fear had made, what must have been to them an obvious assumption, the man who looks like a monster must be a monster. I turned my attention to the Whitechapel murders and found the literature never ending and overwhelming. I was on the point of shutting that Pandora’s Box when I discovered Charles Van Unseen’s The Fox & the Flies – The Criminal Empire of the Whitechapel Murderer. Van Unseen, a leading South African historian, builds a convincing argument that Joseph Silver, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, suffering from syphilis, resident in Whitechapel between 1879 and 1888, could well be the person infamously known as Jack the Ripper. As I read about this particular Joseph I made some startling discoveries. Aside from the name they shared, these two men, Joseph Merrick and Joseph Silver, were in their early twenties, both were abandoned by their mothers, had absent fathers, were forced by poverty to live in London, obsessed with the idea of sex and beautiful women, lived in Whitechapel at the same time, (inexplicably on the same block - Merrick in London Hospital, Silver directly behind the hospital), both desired, above all to be a gentleman and were highly particular about their outward appearance. But the similarity which fascinated me the most was that both of these men suffered from a congenital disorder - one physical, the other mental - that would eventually be the cause of their death. Writers are often inspired but this was truly an epiphany: an opera about two very different men, one, a monster within and the other, a monster without. This idea is hardly original. (I refer to Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mister Hyde which was inspired by the double standard he saw in the life of the professional classes in Victorian England. Stevenson lived in a world where men led an outwardly respectable life yet such men could live as debauched a life as they chose, but so long as they maintained the semblance of respectability they would still prosper within this society.) Yet in every opera I love there is always that moment where reality is replaced by musical possibilities, imaginative and mystical, and I was haunted with the idea of exploring their journey and bringing these two men face to face. I was fortunate that Knell Englund, Managing Director of NorrlandsOperan, and the composer, Carl Unander-Scharin, were excited by the new idea. And I owe them both my 4gratitude for bringing this piece to life. Carl has been the most inventive composer I have ever worked with and his music has mined layers of the text I did not know existed. His interest in the project took us on an unforgetable Jack the Ripper walking tour in London and a poignant visit to the museum in London Hospital dedicated to its famous patient. He shared with me a quote from Dame Madge Kendall’s memoirs, containing some passages about her visits to Joseph Merrick, “The extraordinary thing, is that out of his distorted frame came the most musical voice.” This led to the creation of The Throat III, a custom built interactive instrument, which was the most sublime solution to how Joseph Merrick might sound when he sang. I invite you to walk through the streets of old Whitechapel and into the lives of two very different Joes, two men who might give us insight into the brutality and depravity, the humility and gentleness, we are all capable of. Michael Williams 23 January 2012