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BLO’s ‘Mr. Burke & Mr. Hare’ Digs Deep Into the Darker Side of History For Its Inspiration

Mr. Burke & Mr. Hare

By Doug Hall, Contributing Writer, November 1, 2017

As traditionally dark and tragic as opera can be, there’s a new addition to the repertoire—with an irreverent twist—in Boston Lyric Opera’s upcoming production of The Nefarious, Immoral But Highly Profitable Enterprise of Mr. Burke & Mr. Hare premiering on November 8th. With a hint to the dark side, BLO’s advance publicity boasts that “The people of Edinburgh are not dying quickly enough.” Without exaggeration, the audience will be regaled with details of a dozen or more murderous acts as the cold-blooded plot brewed by the creative collaboration of music composed by Julian Grant and librettist Mark Campbell explores the criminal-side of human nature.

In what became a true sensational episode in Edinburgh, Scotland in the 1820s, a murder for profit scheme was hatched by two enterprising working-class men. Simply put, Mr. Burke and Mr. Hare followed the laws of supply and demand, taking advantage of the growing need for “cadavers” in the burgeoning growth of anatomy lecture halls, that required human bodies for student demonstration of anatomy by dissection. As stated by Lacey Upton in BLO’s Fall issue of CODA, composer Julian Grant and librettist Mark Campbell, tell a tale that “walks the line between the dark and the vaudevillian, the macabre and the entertaining.” Add a good dose of fun for operatic performers who can step away, for a moment, from classic opera convention, and you have great theatrics with punch lines both devastatingly hilarious and horrible.

Julian Grant (composer) and Mark Campbell (librettist)

(l. to r.) Julian Grant (composer) and Mark Campbell (librettist); photo: Liza Voll.

The composer, Julian Grant, was born in London, and has written many operas “of all shapes and sizes,” which have been performed by the English National Opera, The Royal Opera, Almeida Opera, Mecklenburg Opera, and Tate-à-Tate. Librettist Mark Campbell’s work is at the forefront of the current contemporary opera scene, having written more than 16 opera librettos, the best known being Silent Night  which received the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Music. Through an accomplished and talented collaboration between composer and librettist, involving many years of “back-and-forth refinement of events and direction” – both were committed to making a theatrical “vision”, that “walks the line between the dark and the vaudevillian, the macabre and the entertaining.”

Jesse Blumberg (Burke) and Craig Colclough (Hare)

(l. to r.) Jesse Blumberg (Burke) and Craig Colclough (Hare); photo: Liza Voll.

To carry off these character’s murderous scheme, returning BLO baritone Jesse Blumberg (as William Burke) and making his BLO debut, bass-baritone Craig Colclough (as William Hare) step into their respective roles with glee and opportunistic enthusiasm. As pointed out by both performers, opera doesn’t often offer such completely comedic villainous roles. In a recent interview, with both Mr. Blumberg and Mr. Colclough, they spoke about taking advantage of the moment, “I find it (in his role as Hare) hilarious and fun to play psychotic and evil people,” Mr. Colclough exclaimed, “because when in life do you get to play out such extremes!” Burke as  played by Mr. Blumberg, adds the contrast as a willing accomplice and “patsy” with some soul searching, but mostly “spontaneously reacting and not thinking ahead,” with all the deadly consequences of their actions in this murderous enterprise. All in all, these two formidable title characters will clearly offer plenty of morose fun to go around.

An additional treat for opera lovers will be the performance of the internationally renowned and acclaimed tenor William Burden playing Dr. Knox, a renown surgeon in this burgeoning field of anatomy schools, who is able to conveniently look the other way as Burke and Hare readily keep him supplied with “fresh” bodies. Mr. Colclough speaks to the mindset of Dr. Knox as representing a structure of “intellectuals in society so focused on science that they move away from morality.” Thus Dr. Knox is portrayed by Burden as giving a nod and a wink in a Machiavellian way, that the end (advances in medicine) justifies the means (the murder of poor “lower class” “marginal human beings) and thereby a conscience that is “moving away from reality.”

As an additional surprise twist, the victims come forth and speak to the audience themselves, adding a chilling edge to the staging – and also a reminder that in fact during this turn-of-the-century period of history in England and Scotland, grave-robbing was, as macabre as it is to reflect on, very prevalent. Body snatching was epidemic during this period of anatomical “advancing science,” as Mr. Colclough adds, “so much so that people would hire body guards to protect the recently deceased loved ones.”

To speak for the injustice of the victims, look for a stand-out performance by legendary soprano Marie McLaughlin as the victim Abigail Simpson. McLaughlin has enjoyed more than three decades of performing internationally, collaborating with Leonard Bernstein, Giuseppe Snoopily and Daniel Barenboim, and has sung with the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera, and Opera National de Paris.

The opera hits its mark, as co-creator librettist Campbell exclaims, “What I felt succeeded most in terms of the text are lines that are brutally funny and kind of cruel. And what I thought succeeded most in the music is its incredible intensity and theatricality.” Be sure to catch this latest offering by the Boston Lyric Opera, or there may be ‘grave’ consequences!




There will be a pre-opening discussion entitled: Making A Killing: The Creators of Burke & Hare Talk New Opera at the Museum of Fine Arts on Sunday, November 5 at 2:00pm with Julian Grant (composer) and Mark Campbell (librettist). For more information and to purchase tickets click here.

The Nefarious, Immoral But Highly Profitable Enterprise of Mr. Burke & Mr. Hare will be presented by the Boston Lyric Opera at The Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, Boston on November 8, 9 and 12, 2017; there are talkbacks with the artistic and creative personnel after each performance. For more information and to purchase tickets click here.

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Cover: Cast members of Boston Lyric Opera’s ‘The Nefarious, Immoral But Highly Profitable Enterprise of Mr. Burke & Mr. Hare;’ photo: Liza Voll.


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