As unlikely as it may seem, the true story of Lucy, a chimpanzee “adopted” at birth in 1964 by a human family and raised for 11 years in suburbia as a daughter, turns out to be the backbone of a compelling opera.
Composer John Glover and librettist Kelley Rourke have crafted “Lucy,” which premiered in Milwaukee in 2014, skillfully — Rourke by sidestepping the question of the moral obliviousness of the undertaking and offering a mix of objectivity, emotion and humor, and Glover by managing to flesh out the single role of Maurice Temerlin, Lucy’s “father,” with musical incarnations of the growing chimp and the physical and emotional pleasure and chaos she leaves in her trail.
“Lucy,” a presentation of the always-interesting UrbanArias, opened for a four-performance run at H Street’s Atlas Performing Arts Center on Saturday with baritone Andrew Wilkowske as Temerlin, and Wilkowske nailed it, mostly because he is as nuanced an actor as he is a singer. The score doesn’t call for vocal acrobatics or for a particularly big range and only occasionally for bursts of passion. What it needs, and what it got from Wilkowske, is subtle shades of wistfulness, impatience and wonder, all bolstered by the endurance it takes to be alone onstage for an hour.
As the opera opens, it is several decades after it became necessary for Temerlin to send Lucy away to a chimpanzee refuge in Gambia, and he opens a letter telling him that her body has been found. Through the rest of the opera, he reminisces — about her playfulness and destructiveness, her attachment to the family and to a pet kitten, their companionable drinking together and difficulties with visitors — reminiscences by turns rueful, funny and proud.
The opera is structured in episodes, each introduced by the taped voice of an objective reporter who narrates pieces of the experiment’s history. And the accompanying score, for violin, cello, bass clarinet, piano and toy piano (an instrument that appears in other Glover endeavors), is determinedly lighthearted even in moments of pandemonium. When Temerlin despairs of Lucy’s delight in defecating wherever she pleases and pleads that he is a man who loves order, the quintet breaks into a graceful waltz, and the playfulness that accompanies moments of maximum disorder is more a reflection of Lucy’s mind than of Temerlin’s. The toy piano lent a tinkly, fey, percussive voice to the ensemble, perfect for those moments when I couldn’t resist wondering what Temerlin could have been thinking when he took this on.
Robert Wood, UrbanArias’s founder, conducted with his usual clarity and sensitivity, and the excellent production was directed by Erik Pearson.
Lucy will be performed again on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.