John Glover & Kelley Rourke: Lucy
New Focus Recordings

Though it's not uncommon for opera to take as its subject matter romantic tragedy, Lucy is anything but common, though it is a love story, and one of Shakespearean proportions. It's a cautionary tale, too, that encourages one to reflect on animal rights issues and consider the damage that can be done to our animal brethren in the name of research, even when intentions are honourable. Lucy, you see, is the name of a real-life chimpanzee who was raised by Maurice and Jane Temerlin in suburban Oklahoma during the ‘60s as part of a long-term study about human-and-primate interactions. What makes the story even more remarkable is that Lucy lived with the Temerlins for more than a decade, whereas most such “cross-fostering” arrangements tended to last but a year.

The story's tragic dimension derives not only from the unnatural life Lucy was forced to experience as a participant in the experiment but from its end: years after being moved from the Temerlin home to a sanctuary facility in Gambia, Lucy's body was found in 1987 with her hands and skin removed, the implication being that she was easy prey for poachers when her immediate response to a human after having lived with the family for so many years would have been to approach rather than flee. That Lucy is ultimately a love story more than anything else is evident throughout but becomes especially clear during “Completely at home” when baritone Andrew Wilkowske as Maurice Temerlin lovingly describes Lucy as a “sight of great beauty”; implied throughout the work is the idea that he genuinely came to regard her as his “daughter.”

Using modest vocal and instrumental resources, composer John Glover and librettist Kelley Rourke have fashioned a remarkable treatment of the saga in song cycle form. Wilkowske delivers an emotionally stirring performance in the sole singing part and receives sensitive support on this 2014 Milwaukee Opera Theatre live recording from pianist Christopher Zemliauskas and Red Shift Ensemble members Andie Springer (violin), Jeff Anderle (clarinet), Rose Bellini (cello), and Kate Campbell (toy piano); though all of the instrumentalists acquit themselves splendidly, Campbell's toy piano produces a striking tonal colour that complements the subject matter perfectly. And don't be surprised if “Lucy,” a two-note motif sung with heartfelt longing by Wilkowske, remains with you long after the recording's over.

Impressive also is the work's narrative form. It begins with Maurice in his study playing a tape that reports on the 1987 death of Lucy, which he then interrupts to replace with another tape that begins in 1966 when the chimpanzee joined the Temerlins. As the opera advances, mini-arias alternate with timeline reports delivered dispassionately by Sarah Sokolovic in the role of researcher; the device proves effective in the way it advances the story towards its tragic end and brings clarity to the study's progress. For the episodes recalled in the songs, Rourke used Maurice's 1975 book Lucy: Growing Up Human and the incidents recalled therein as a key resource. At the risk of oversimplifying, the musical character takes its cue from the libretto with a particularly raucous or poignant incident mirrored in corresponding manner by Glover. The reminiscences are by turns touching, impassioned, agitated, and even hilarious. A particularly memorable instance of the latter occurs during “An Organized World” when Wilkowske sings in his most snootily indignant voice “I prefer an organized world in which feces are deposited in the proper place,” even going so far as to ornament his delivery with a baroque-like trill.

Mention also should be made of New Focus Recordings' physical presentation of the work. In addition to bios and historical background on both the opera and originating study, the booklet contains the libretto, and the recording supplements the opera proper with two bonus tracks, the first an interview with Robert Ingersol, a primatologist who knew Lucy, and the second a collection of interview snippets about the opera's creation by the principal players.

In having the contours of two heads snugly align and in showing the sinews beneath their respective skins to be similar, Jenny Kampmeier's cover illustration suggests that the divide separating humans and chimpanzees is smaller than generally thought. Yet Lucy sends a dramatically different message in asserting that no matter how much we might think a chimpanzee has in common with a human, it's ultimately a unique creature whose integrity is violated when the attempt is made to alter its natural self. That Lucy should have acted like some delinquent teen and attempted to tear the Temerlins' furniture apart or attack a visitor's cat is only natural, and the expectation that she should have acted otherwise seems misguided.

As if designed to illustrate the point, “Using her signs” recounts an incident that involved Lucy, having torn every leaf from the family's banana tree and scattering its soil across the floor, responding to Maurice's raised hand with a smile and a signed “I'm Lucy” (at this stage in her development, she had learned ASL), the implication being that for her such behaviour wasn't maliciously motivated but the most natural thing in the world. Given such incongruities, it gradually became obvious to all concerned that her real home could never be the Oklahoma suburbs, but by then it was, in a sense, too late, even though considerable efforts were made to acclimatize her to the Gambian environment. That such an unusual story should end up being so moving is a compliment to everyone involved but perhaps Glover, Rourke, and Wilkowske most of all.

May 2017