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A Grisly, Humorous Dissection Of Morality In 'Anatomy Theatre'


Characters in soap operas die all the time. Characters in operas die all the time. But once they're dead, they usually stop singing. That's not the case in a grisly and darkly funny new work that premiered at the LA Opera. Gideon Brower reports from Los Angeles.

GIDEON BROWER, BYLINE: "Anatomy Theater" is set in the late 1700s. It's about a street walker who confesses to murder and is hanged for her crimes.


PEABODY SOUTHWELL: (As Sarah Osborne, singing) I, Sarah Osborne, having slaughtered my husband and two children...

BROWER: She's then subjected to an even greater indignity, as her internal organs are publicly removed and examined for physical evidence of the evil that drove her to kill.

SOUTHWELL: (As Sarah Osborne, singing) My heart...

BOB MCGRATH: That's really where I think you gain a lot of sympathy for her.

BROWER: Bob McGrath is the director of the piece.

MCGRATH: She was pushed out into the street where, to survive, she became a prostitute, and she got involved with a pimp. When she got to her breaking point one night, she put laudanum into his gin and smothered him.

SOUTHWELL: (As Sarah Osborne, singing) My heart, my heart.

MCGRATH: And then, she looked up, and her children were staring at her - her very young children - and she smothered them.

BROWER: For which she's hanged on a gallows in the theater lobby. That's just Scene 1 of this opera. The rest is set inside the anatomy theatre that gives the piece its name. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang co-wrote it with visual artist Mark Dion. He says it's based on public dissections that really did take place.

DAVID LANG: There would be these Christian lecturers who would go around northern Europe. And they would have these kind of carnivals where criminals would be cut open, and their organs would be examined in order to show the bourgeois onlookers that the bodies, the interiors, the organs of the people who were not trying to live happily and peacefully and nobly in society - that their organs were different from the organs of normal upstanding citizens.


MARC KUDISCH: (As Joshua Crouch, singing) Inside a man you can see the kind of life that he led.

LANG: And it seems like it's a very timely kind of issue because we're involved right now in trying to figure out how to determine who in the world is evil and how to protect ourselves from them.

BROWER: "Anatomy Theater" is actually pretty funny in a "Sweeny Todd" or "Threepenny Opera" kind of way. Take the caretaker of the dissection hall, celebrating his new cadaver.


KUDISCH: (As Joshua Crouch, singing) We have our corpse - a fresh corpse - for anatomizing.

BROWER: With the gruesome medical devices of the period.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (As characters, singing) The blowpipe.

KUDISCH: (As Joshua Crouch, singing) The blowpipe.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (As characters, singing) The probe.

KUDISCH: (As Joshua Crouch, singing) Oh, the probe.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (As characters, singing) The bellows.

KUDISCH: (As Joshua Crouch, singing) The bellows.

BROWER: Or the anatomist and his assistant looking for moral corruption in a hanged criminal's internal organs.

TIMUR: (As Ambrose Strang, singing) Sir, I have had a most intimate interrogation of the spleen and find it without malady of any kind.

BROWER: If all this sounds creepy to you, think what it's like for mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell.

SOUTHWELL: I am nude and covered in gore and being poked and prodded and pressed by my colleagues.

BROWER: As the murderous Sarah Osborne, Southwell spends much of the production being dissected.

SOUTHWELL: I hear the slosh of blood and a sponge, and I feel the cold wetness of the instruments on me. And it is absolutely grotesque and terrifying.


BROWER: Composer David Lang says what he finds most terrifying about the piece is the idea that people fear individuals or groups they don't know, but who they nonetheless believe harbor evil deep inside them.

LANG: That's really what this piece is about - people thinking, you know, that evil is something which is not a choice that people make, but it is a truth which only needs to be uncovered, and then it needs to be exterminated. And I think, personally, that's a very scary-sounding thought.


UNIDENTIFED SINGER #1: (As character, singing) There is evil.

BROWER: "Anatomy Theater" sold out its brief run in Los Angeles. There are plans to take it to New York. For NPR News, I'm Gideon Brower.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (As character, singing) In your body. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gideon Brower