Beyond its attention-grabbing title, The Rape of Lucretia, is not your typical chamber opera. Written by Benjamin Britten and first performed in 1946, the opera centers around the mythic rape of Lucretia, a Roman noblewoman. Notably, the libretto is performed in English, making it the rare opera that most Americans can easily understand. It’s a particularity like that which makes The Rape of Lucretia that much more of a match for LoftOpera—the sea-changing, Brooklyn-based non-profit organization that stages classic opera productions in casual spaces for cheap—which debuts Britten’s unsettling tale tonight in Gowanus. Before the cast’s final dress rehearsal last night, I checked in with Lucretia (Kristin Gornstein), who was on her way to get caffeinated in Park Slope.
“As opera singers, we are really taught—and I believe all operas are really addressing—some serious broad themes about humanity,” says Gornstein, when I ask her about the opera’s weighty subject matter. “And this one especially is a kind of perfect storm.”
In the opera, Roman generals return home early from duty and catch their wives being unfaithful—with the exception of one woman, Lucretia, who is patiently waiting for her husband, Collatinus. This enrages the brutes, and one—the king’s son—rapes Lucretia, an action which results in her suicide and leaves her grieving husband’s ally pledging a rebellion against the king.
“What I keep asking myself—and honestly I don’t have an answer—is why Britten chose this story, just after World War in England, and all over Europe,” Gornstein begins. “People had lost family members, and basically half the population was wiped out, and he’s asking the question, Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do we suffer?”
Gornstein lives in Flatbush and is from Indiana. Very slowly—starting with a high school chorus teacher who suggested she take private vocal lessons—she made her way toward opera. Last year, through a mutual friend, she was connected to LoftOpera, which was staging The Barber of Seville, a comedy, and was looking for someone to play the female lead, Rosina. Gornstein was it.
Comparatively, that experience was somewhat lighter. “With this one you have to go home and have a cup of tea and shake it off,” Gornstein explains.
The libretto includes a moralizing male and female Christian chorus, who are invisible to the actors on stage, and inhabited by only one person. “There is this beautiful scene where three women, Lucretia and her two maids are around the house, just waiting, and the female chorus is there, and the audience knows it, and they’re singing ‘Time Treads Upon the Hands of Women.'” It’s Gornstein’s favorite part, one in which, she says, she has to force herself to stay in the moment, and deliver.
“[LoftOpera is] doing something new and different and, as far as opera goes in New York, you want to be a part of that, you know?” says Gornstein. With every production, something new and different evolves, she explains. “It’s unknown what it’s going to be like in a couple of days, because something unexpected always happens.”
The Rape of Lucretia 501 Union Street, 8pm. Shows run through December 12, tickets here.