Kentucky Opera wraps up its season this week with “A Woman in Morocco,” a contemporary opera that takes on themes of human trafficking and domestic violence.
The setting is Tangiers, Morocco, 1956. Lizzy Holmes, a young, ambitious writer, is on her first trip abroad. But as Teddy, her morally corrupt host, tells her, “a woman in Morocco is not safe.”
Composer Daron Hagen is also the stage director for this production, which was in rehearsal last week at Vault 1031 in Old Louisville. Hagen and playwright Barbara Grecki collaborated on the libretto.
“The ripping yarn is about a young woman who goes to Morocco to write about travel and trafficking, and becomes enmeshed in it, and ultimately becomes trafficked herself. It’s a film noir telling. It’s entirely convoluted so that the audience feels like a spider caught in a web,” Hagen said.
Soprano Danielle Messina, who sings the role of Lizzy, said her character is in danger from the very beginning.
“And she actually says at one point, ‘I’m writing a book filled with stories of how women live and die here.’ She even acknowledges it at the beginning of the show, that death is one of the biggest plot points,” said Messina.
“A Woman in Morocco” is Hagen’s ninth original opera, and each one has taken on a particular social issue. Hagen has tried to find the balance between art and advocacy.
“I was taught early on that art that preaches is not very effective. But if you tell them a story, you can perhaps touch their hearts and change their minds,” he said.
In order to prepare for this opera, the cast and crew participated in a workshop with Catholic Charities of Louisville and the Center for Women and Families, to learn about the issues raised. The workshop was eye-opening about issues such as human trafficking.
“It was horrifying to know what goes on sort of behind closed doors and in front of us, on Fourth Street or at Derby, or on a larger scale, at the Super Bowl and things like that,” Messina said. “And it really put into perspective what we are doing here and why this work is important.”
In addition to the subject matter, Messina said the music has stretched her as a performer.
“I think probably this is the hardest opera I’ve ever learned,” she said.
It’s a little unusual to have a composer who wears the stage director hat as well, and Messina said that she’s learned a lot during the process.
“You have to be so flexible, to say OK, which hat is he wearing and how do I do justice to the music, and do justice to the staging?”
But Hagen is confident the singers are up for the challenge. He likened an opera singer in full voice to a thoroughbred racehorse in full stride.
“It is that visceral excitement, coupled with the spine-tingling nature of a good story and dramatic situations that makes anybody want to go to the theatre in the first place. But what’s special about opera is hearing great tunes, hearing the human animal that can sing, breeze,” Hagen said.
“A Woman in Morocco” opens Tuesday night in the Victor Jory Theatre at Actors Theatre of Louisville, with additional performances on Friday night and Sunday afternoon.
Here’s more information.