‘Lucy’ explores infamous human nature experiment

Matthew Reddin, Staff writere

Dr. Maurice Temerlin didn’t think he was doing anything wrong when he brought his adopted daughter Lucy home from Africa in the 1960s. He and his wife simply hoped to raise her like any other child, alongside their young son. And so they did, spending the next decade teaching her manners, helping her learn to speak and watching her flip through magazines and care for her cat.

But there’s underlying drama in this domestic tale: Lucy was a chimpanzee, never meant to sleep on a king-size bed — and not always the better for doing it.

Milwaukee Opera Theatre details the humor and pathos of this real-life tale with the world premiere of Lucy, an opera designed for one character — Temerlin, sung by Andrew Wilkowske. The narrative is rooted in observations Temerlin recorded in his memoir, although their accuracy is filtered through his emotions and thus not entirely reliable.

MOT artistic director Jill Anna Ponasik says the 60-minute opera is set entirely in Temerlin’s office. It begins moments after he’s learned tragic news about Lucy from the research assistant who’s monitored her since she was returned to Africa and slowly integrated into chimp society.

The news compels Temerlin to reflect on Lucy’s story, beginning with her introduction into Temerlin’s family as a day-old chimpanzee and chronologically examining her life from that point forward.

It’s a life both fascinating and repugnant. Temerlin and his wife were the only ape researchers who kept a chimpanzee in their home through adolescence and into adulthood (chimps’ lifespans are about 50 years). It wasn’t always easy raising Lucy, and the family decided to return her to the wild after about 11 years. But Ponasik says Temerlin’s writings don’t reflect much of that conflict. “In the memoir, he very unambiguously describes those times as the happiest years of his life,” she says.

The ambitious opera doesn’t have immediate Milwaukee ties, but arrived through a connection Ponasik formed with Wilkowske several years ago, when they were both involved in a production of The Rivals at Skylight Music Theatre. He was already in the process of working on Lucy (then called Our Basic Nature) with composer John Glover and librettist Kelley Rourke. He and Ponasik brainstormed ways MOT could help get the project to the finish line.

They got sidetracked on the way by a different project: Guns ‘n’ Rosenkavalier. The art song/rock song recital was something Wilkowske and Glover had wanted to stage since meeting at Glimmerglass — a summer-season opera company in New York — years before, and when Wilkowske mentioned it by chance, Ponasik realized it was a better fit for MOT’s resources at the time. They performed GnR here in 2013, and cemented their creative bond in the process.

That bond has been an asset in coordinating Lucy. The opera’s earliest version, workshopped in 2010 before Ponasik was involved, was easier to work on, because all the involved parties lived in New York. But since then they’ve separated geographically, making workshops in Minneapolis and New York earlier this year difficult to schedule. In Milwaukee, they’ll have five days to rehearse before opening night.

But Ponasik isn’t worried. While their task is daunting, the creative team is gifted enough to make it work, she says.

Lucy’s music is largely contemporary opera, but includes a few pseudo-Romantic arias. Those tend to come early on, as Temerlin reflects on happier times. Later, Ponasik says, the opera presents the drama and angst of living with a chimpanzee, and the music, becomes “angry” and “angular.”

But Ponasik says the latter half of the story cuts to its heart: the tension between Temerlin’s cruel experiment and his well-meaning optimism. Glover and Rourke’s opera never truly reconciles the conflict, instead presenting Temerlin’s thoughts and emotions without moral commentary.

“You see him as a really flawed antihero, and it’s impossible, I think, for a contemporary audience not to look at his experiments with scorn and even some horror,” Ponasik says. “But at the time, for him and other researchers, it was a very open-hearted, joyful project to take on. They really felt they were providing a better life for Lucy.”

Now, it’s up to audiences to judge Temerlin — and his story as told by Glover, Rourke and Wilkowske. 

On stage

Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s premiere production of Lucy runs at Tenth Street Theatre, 628 N. 10th St. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 7 and 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Nov. 9. Tickets are $28 and can be purchased at 800-838-3006 or milwaukeeoperatheatre.org.

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