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Who was the real Jack the Ripper? Walter Sickert? Lewis Carroll? Prince Albert? There are hundreds of suspects, but the makers of ENO’s new opera couldn’t care less about the name on the Victorian serial killer’s birth certificate. As composer Iain Bell explains, ‘We thought it was deeply unjust that these women were defined by the way they died. We wanted to shine some light on the way they lived.’
Libretto writer Emma Jenkins adds that ‘The minute we decided to remove Jack from the story, a lot of opportunities rose up.’ She’s dived into the history of 1888 Whitechapel to discover streets that were racked by hunger, homelessness and pollution. As she explains, ‘Even before the murders, a number of writers were saying: surely something is going to emerge from this midden, something evil. And sure enough, it did.’
There’s not much info about the five women who died, beyond their names and grisly autopsy photos. So Jenkins has created an imagined narrative that weaves in snippets of their real words: like those of Mary Ann Nichols, who said, ‘See what a jolly bonnet I’ve got now,’ before setting out to work on the night she died.
And Bell’s music is all about combining their voices into one gorgeous whole. English National Opera’s production has assembled a supergroup of female opera singers, including Lesley Garrett and the 78-year-old ‘Follies’ star Dame Josephine Barstow. At the mention of her name, everyone (me included) gets a bit gushy. Jenkins says that ‘she is age goals... When I’m 78, I want to be her!’ Barstow mixes vocal perfection with the kind of acting chops you don’t always get in opera. ‘Jack the Ripper’ will be a perfect showcase for her, because, as Bell explains, it offers its cast meaty parts: ‘They’ve all embraced it. There aren’t many opera roles for women of mature ages that aren’t nursemaids or harridans.’
The women sing a score that’s shot through with bells, and the eerie strains of harp-like instrument the cimbalom. Bell says it ‘creates this really rusty, rotten sound. The notes take quite a while to disappear so they make a fog that lingers in the air. To me, that’s Victorian London’.
ENO has had a bit of a renaissance of late, and its new boss Daniel Kramer is courting forward-looking artists and audiences by making shows at edgy London venues such as Gate Theatre and Wilton’s Music Hall. To Bell, it’s long overdue: ‘There’s never been a more liberating time to be a composer. Musically, we can go where our hearts take us.’ He’s hoping a fresh generation of opera fans will follow him through Whitechapel’s darkest, eeriest, most terror-stalked streets.
‘Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel’ is at the London Coliseum. Sat Mar 30-Apr 12.