Composer Iain Bell’s fourth opera, Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel, opened at English National Opera, on 30 March 2019. The story has been reworked for modern times with the focus on the Ripper’s victims rather than the notorious murderer himself. Whilst the identity of the Ripper has never been confirmed, the identity of his victims is known but up until this point they have been defined only by their tragic deaths.
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Set in a doss house in 1888, where the women were living, east London was an area of abject poverty and deprivation. Mary Kelly, who runs the doss house with her grandmother Maud, is teaching her daughter Iris to read and write to give her a chance to have a better life. But as the darkness descends and Mary watches the women in her life start to disappear, the community turn to her to find a way out of the labyrinth. Against this menacing backdrop, friendship and sisterhood flourish and the opera explores powerful themes of community and women struggling against the odds.
Putting the opera together
The cast, including Dame Josephine Barstow, Lesley Garrett, Susan Bullock, Marie McLaughlin, Janis Kelly, combine the dark subject matter with moments of vivacity. Bell’s score features music that is mercurial and explosive one moment and heart-wrenchingly beautiful the next.
The physical character of Jack the Ripper has been replaced with an unseen force called ‘the darkness’, which lurks among the slums.
‘The darkness is an amorphous miasma of things that have come together to create evil,’ librettist Emma Jenkins explains. ‘It’s represented by the orchestral layers and the repeated themes in the writing.’
Bringing the opera together has involved much collaboration. After hours of research and investigation, Emma Jenkins began working on the libretto. She had to ensure that the language was singable while at the same time being aware of syllable length. After the libretto was completed, Iain Bell composed the score. He worked closely with the singers and composed to their vocal abilities finding the sweet spots in their range. Working with Artistic Director, Daniel Kramer and Designer, Soutra Gilmour, the set design plays with the concepts of voids and darkness.
Besides the women, the other characters in the opera include a pathologist, a writer and a police commissioner as well as a chorus. ENO Music Director, Martyn Brabbins is the conductor and the 65-piece orchestra includes a cimbalon (a Hungarian instrument similar to a zither). Its shadowy sound threads throughout the piece to great effect, capturing the menacing world of east London.
Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel starts on Saturday 30 March and finishes on Friday, 12 April. There are six performances. Tickets start from £12. Discounted tickets are available for full time students and those aged 16 – 29. Time Out magazine are also offering 30% off. Click here.