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Singing bloody murder! ‘Anatomy Theater’ opera looks at the heart of a killer

Trust him, he’s a doctor: A dissectionist explains through song how the bones of a murderer reflect his evil character.
for Brooklyn Paper
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They’ll be singing over her dead body!

A gruesome opera inspired by 17th and 18th-century medical textbooks will make its bloody Brooklyn debut this weekend. The show “Anatomy Theater,” opening at Bric Arts Media on Jan. 7 as part of the city-wide Prototype Festival, follows Victorian murderess Sarah Osborn, who killed her husband and two children, from her trial to her public dissection, giving a voice to Osborn, her executioner, and to the man who literally took her apart.

The creators of the opera, Pulitzer-winning composer David Lang and conceptual artist Mark Dion, drew on variety of historic texts, including the confessions of prisoners on death row, biographies of anatomists, and old biology studies.

“Once we got all the texts for the viewpoints together it felt very natural to make these competing viewpoints come out of the mouths of characters,” explained Lang.

While researching, the pair discovered that dissections during the Age of Enlightenment were not necessarily done for scientific research. Instead, the examinations were done in public, where a lecturer could make an example of these deceased criminals — pointing out any physical irregularity as proof of their moral depravity.

“These criminals were poor, they were outcast, they were uneducated, they were powerless,” said Lang. “It was comforting to think that evil was innate in them, that you could prove their inferiority physically, and that their inferiority was immutable.”

Staging a show derived from medical texts came with a set of challenges as complicated as the human circulatory system. Lang is no stranger to unusual staging — his last Brooklyn production “the loser,” featured a singer suspended in an empty theater — but he and Dion struggled with how much gore to feature in the production. Should the blood be shown literally, or symbolically? Ultimately, said Lang, they decided to do both.

“It is both pretty bloody and pretty metaphoric, all at the same time,” said Lang.

Though the show is based off of archaic texts, the opera’s theme of fear is still relevant, said Lang, because the emotion motivates so many current troubles.

“Fear can make people believe many strange things: stop-and-frisk, internment camps, religious registries, loyalty oaths, mass incarceration. These are all ideas that our 18th-century audience would have recognized,” he said.

“Anatomy Theater” at Bric Arts Media [647 Fulton St. at Rockwell Place in Fort Greene, (718) 683–5600, www.bricartsmedia.org]. Jan. 7–14 at 8 pm. $30.

Posted 12:00 am, January 5, 2017
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