Concert to Come: Landlocked Opera Presents the World Premiere of ‘The Murderess’

Serial killer Jane Toppan (1854-1938) inspired Landlocked Opera’s world premiere of “The Murderess.”

The story of “Jolly Jane,” a real-life nurse turned serial killer in the late 19th-century Boston, inspired this new “true crime” opera

True crime is a popular genre in podcasts, non-fiction and documentaries. It’s an intriguing genre that also plays into opera’s penchant for drama and suspense.

In July, Landlocked Opera presents the world premiere of “The Murderess,” an original “true crime” opera based on the character of “Jolly Jane,” a real-life nurse turned serial killer in late 19th-century Boston named Jane Toppan.

Christina Casey Ray (photo by Charles Bruce III)

“Stories like this deserve to be told from the perspective that can be captured in such a deeply meaningful way that operatic performers can really deliver,” said Christina Casey Ray, general director and co-founder of Landlocked. Founded in 2019, Landlocked has presented more than 10 programs with the mission of making opera accessible to the community.

This is the first opera by Lawrence-based composer Allison McIntosh and librettist/playwright Trip Venturella, who is based in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.

“It fits perfectly with our mission of creating opportunities for artists,” said Casey Ray. “We were also particularly excited to premiere a work by a female, LGBTQ composer, someone with a voice that has been historically quieted.”

McIntosh became familiar with Landlocked Opera while working on her doctorate in composition at the University of Kansas, where she studied with celebrated composer Ingrid Stölzel. “I absolutely love that they emphasize making opera accessible for everyone and creating opportunities for early-career singers,” McIntosh said. In Lawrence, she also met Venturella, who was living there while his now-wife studied voice at KU.

Trip Venturella, librettist/playwright, “The Murderess” (Landlocked Opera)

This work came out of a discussion with friends, tossing around potential story ideas. “This seemed like a great subject,” said McIntosh. “Many operas are based on historical events, with complicated and often tragic characters. Jane Toppan had a traumatic childhood, became a nurse, and then killed her patients.”

Venturella first learned about Toppan while living in Boston. Coincidentally, McIntosh was also living in Boston at the time, studying at the New England Conservatory, though they didn’t meet until they were in Kansas. “It was in part our connection to the city that made the story so appealing,” said Venturella.

“I thought this would be a complex and interesting main character for an opera,” said McIntosh. It should be noted that the chamber opera is loosely based on Toppan’s acts, used as a springboard for themes of “feminism and medical autonomy.”

Allison McIntosh, composer, “The Murderess” (Landlocked Opera)

“Too few operas put women at the center of the story in a meaningful way,” Venturella said. “Toppan’s story was inspiring in this context because you’re dealing with such shocking acts . . . it’s an inversion of how the world is supposed to work and the way women are ‘supposed’ to behave. Our opera is an inversion of that inversion.”

McIntosh has written many works for voice, but not the full-blown operatic treatment. Venturella, similarly, has written plays before, but not this style of storytelling. It took them about nine months to complete the opera, from summer 2020 to late spring 2021.

“I was interested in writing a story that was ‘opera-first,’” said Venturella. Many operas are based on other works, like plays and novels. Here, he and McIntosh had the chance to create an entirely original work.

“It’s such an interesting medium,” said McIntosh, “because the music is still the star of the show, but you also have a story unfolding at the same time.”

“I love working with Allie . . . she will find elements of the story and ‘voice’ them through music in a way I never expected,” said Venturella.

The story, set in Boston in 1899, revolves around Minnie, a wealthy, elderly woman (based on one of Toppan’s real-life victims), her maid, Julianne, and nurse, Jane. Julianne is suspicious of Jane, who she accuses of attempting to poison Minnie. It’s an examination of loyalty, empathy and moral relativism.

Jonathan Ray, artistic director, Landlocked Opera (Landlocked Opera)

But the opera has more than one twist, and not all is as it appears at first glance.

“We wanted to turn expectations on their head, inverting the story of Jane Toppan, but also have the audience ask themselves what they would do in similar circumstances. I believe art should bring up moral dilemmas, and it’s my goal to create work that doesn’t condemn characters when they make choices we couldn’t imagine,” said Venturella. “I’m trusting the audience to engage with these moral dilemmas and consider their own convictions.”

To provide more opportunities for vocalists, the roles are mostly double cast. The cast includes Emily Venturella and Amelia Lufkin as Julianne, Katarina Galagaza and Dani Major as Jane, Kelly Morel and Joanna Ehlers as Minnie, and P. Rob Brown as Charlie, the pharmacist.

The performances will be presented at Simpson House.However, the company is shifting their focus to Columbia, Missouri, where Casey Ray and her husband, Jonathan Ray, the company’s artistic director, have positions at University of Missouri and Central Methodist University, respectively.

“It has so far proven to be an excellent move for us personally and professionally,” said Casey Ray. “There are no other opera companies in Columbia. Landlocked is filling a major hole in the arts community here.”

While a loss for Kansas City audiences, Landlocked Opera’s move is a net gain, spreading their mission of accessible opera with relevant stories across the state.

Landlocked Opera presents “The Murderess” at 7 p.m. July 15 and 2 p.m. July 16 at Simpson House, 4509 Walnut St. For tickets and more information, www.landlockedopera.org.

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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