We loved reading this detailed and thoughtful review from New England Conservatory student Tyler—so we decided to share it in full! Our thanks to all of the students and educators who take part in our Final Dress Rehearsal program—it's an honor to share the music with you.
Boston Lyric Opera’s newest production, a world premiere of Julian Grant and Mark Campbell’s murderous opera, The Nefarious, Immoral but Highly Profitable Enterprise of Mr. Burke & Mr. Hare, is an hour and a half of gripping musical storytelling. Mr. Grant and Mr. Campbell’s first collaboration together has certainly proved “highly profitable”—especially for audiences, who showed great appreciation for this modern operatic classic.
Burke & Hare is concise, topping off at only an hour and a half. While many opera connoisseurs will note the brevity (especially those accustomed to a more Wagnerian tradition), Campbell and Grant have crafted a story and score that develops with ease and comfort over this condensed time period without ever feeling rushed. The opening moments of the opera are captivating, with hushed and intense vocals reminiscent of the Prologue to Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. The five victims, who act as the chorus in this chamber style opera, open the piece in a whispered commentary on the times, eerily staring into the audience with sunken eyes. This thematic idea of “the fresher the better” is woven into the opera, and returns at the end to tie the whole piece together, one of the many interwoven lines seen repeatedly through both the textual and musical writing of the creators.
BLO’s production certainly does the show justice, and the chamber orchestra holds up well in the Cyclorama, but what makes the opera shine is truly the brilliance of the writing. Campbell’s libretto is smooth, elegant, and thoughtful. There’s not a word of unnecessary text nor an incoherent sentence found anywhere in the work, and the thoroughness of the writing is remarkable. But what truly brings the opera to life is Julian Grant’s stunning score. The musical characterization through melodic writing as well as orchestration makes each victim, as well as the perpetrators, easily recognizable on music alone, such that if you were to shut your eyes and listen only to the orchestra, you’d still be able to follow the tale of Burke and Hare. Each character is distinctly painted, and musical Easter eggs, like the lopsided dance for the lame Daft Jamie, or the melismatic writing of the long-winded Dr. Knox, are sprinkled perfectly and frequently through the work, bringing the characters to life. Grant has even managed to create musical symbolism that ties the beginning to the end, making this new work feel more cohesive than many new operas.
The score is modern and darkly twisted without ever being inaccessible, a feat for many modern composers, but even more so for opera. In a time when attendance is down and patrons are dying, a score that’s modern and yet comprehensible is of critical importance, and Grant does just this with remarkable ease. Pleasing to the ears and yet musically shocking in all the right places, while still managing to draw in the audience, Grant’s writing is truly a sound to behold.
What brings this new opera to the next level, beyond the face value of a good story, is the subconscious commentary on the human condition. The effect of greed on average men, as well as the struggle with the conscience in questionable situations, is one of high prevalence in our society. Though never direct, the opera manages to make the most of its characters to show the audience that these horrors within the production they see onstage are in some way within themselves too; a message we all need to learn in these times.
A perfect opera for opera-goers new and old—a modern classic!
New England Conservatory, 2021
BA candidate in Music Composition and Vocal Performance