CARMILLA the 1872 novella/short story by
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, was progenitor of the vampire genre in literature.
"Carmilla," the 1970 chamber opera with script and direction
by Wilford Leach and music by Ben Johnston, performed by The E.T.C. Company
of La MaMa, was the progenitor of multi-media in theater. With a nod to
these two "firsts" and to share its seminal production with
a new generation of theatergoers, La MaMa will re-mount its famed "Carmilla,"
featuring most of the original company, with musical direction by Zizi
Mueller, from April 10 to 27 in its Annex Theater. Ellen Stewart will
direct the original staging by Wilford Leach.
True to Le Fanu's story, the piece gives us an angelic, fair-haired
young girl named Laura who comes face to face with a mysterious, raven-haired
girl named Carmilla when the latter arrives at her door, injured from
a carriage accident. The two women are 18, but recognize each other from
a sensuous, vampiresque dream Laura had at age six. Projected titles introduce
you to incidents from Laura's life. Wilford Leach's libretto, written
in a prosy, conversational tone, inches the girls through shadowy realms
of terror and infatuation. A stationary setting with background projections
lends an eerie aesthetic. It is bathed in Jack Coddington's beautiful
film--a slow suffusion of desperate, dreadful, sometimes libidinous images--which
serves as a window into their minds. During one of Carmella's many tours,
the L.A. Times (Dan Sullivan) called the work "an exquisite study
of love as defined by the spider."
The work was written, rehearsed, orchestrated and premiered during a
six week period in the fall of 1970. The composer, Ben Johnston, was in
Urbana, IL for the entire period so that music and new script installments
were exchanged by airmail every three days. It was written to be part
of a La MaMa tour to Europe that was to start at the Theatre Vueux-Colombie
in Paris. Originally, a different piece had been planned but Nancy Helkin,
who had been trained as a dancer, had to have a knee operation. So it
became necessary to have a piece in which at least one of the leading
characters could remain seated throughout. Composer Ben Johnston, now
revered as a major American classical composer, was already well-known
when he was commissioned for the score in 1970 by the E.T.C. Company of
Tish Dace reported in the Village Voice in 1976 that Wilford Leach had
grown up in Virginia without being exposed to live theater (except radio
plays) before he began writing for it. This is perhaps why he had such
an original vision as to introduce a major role for multimedia in "Carmilla."
The production was so intricately entwined with Jack Coddington's visuals
that Mel Gussow inquired in his original New York Times review whether
it was a an opera, a musical or a film. But Gussow proclaimed the production
"fantastic," citing "the totality of its design, indelibility
of style, and precision of performance." This kind of praise was
echoed by other critics at home and abroad. "Carmilla" was soon
performed in nearly every major Western theater capital, including the
1972 Spoleto Festival. The score was recorded by the E.T.C. Company on
Vanguard (SD-79322) and Wilford Leach became widely accepted as a genius.
"Carmilla" was revived at La MaMa in 1976 and 1986, both times
with most of its small company intact.
By 1976, Allen Hughes' review in the New York Times confirmed the growing
critical consensus that the piece really was an opera, characterizing
it as a "concentrated psychological thriller set to music that can
change from sweet to searing to from rock to Dies Irae in an instant."
Gerald Rabkin wrote in the Soho Weekly News that the score ranged "from
Gregorian chant to Arabian wail to rock ballad to Stravinskian percussiveness
to a capella lyricism," all being of a piece and sounding even better
on the second hearing. On the 1986 production, the Times (John Rockwell)
wrote, "the spell still holds" and Newsday (Aileen Jacobson)
added, "Like the serpentine arms that came out from that partly alive
settee, the musical play reached out, wrapping its audience in an aura
of mystery, an atmosphere dense with voluptuous imagery and dangerous
The current production is a reunion of almost the entire original company
from 1970, with Ellen Stewart re-creating Wilford Leach's stagings and
John Kelly taking over the role of the Mountebank. Wallace Shawn, who
has also played that role, will return at some point in the run for a
guest performance. Lyric soprano Margaret Benczak returns as Laura and
mezzo/pop singer Nancy Heikin returns as Carmilla. Singers Donald Arrington
(Father), Audrey Lavine (Mysterious Woman) and Camille Tibaldeo (Mlle.
De La Fontaine) also return from the original company. Conductor Zizi
Mueller returns as musical director and Jack Coddington will again be
in charge of film and projections. David Adams, Jun Maeda and Tim Schellenbaum
step in as lighting, set, and sound supervisors (Maeda was master carpenter
in '86), making this production team a fusion of the E.T.C. Company and
La MaMa's Great Jones Repertory. The musicians are Michael Sirotto (keyboards),
Bill Ruyle (percussion), Zizi Mueller (flute), Richard Cohen (clarinet),
Greg Hesselink (cello) and Matt Aiken (percussion).
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873) was a Dubliner and grand-nephew
of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. He was editor of the literary
review, Dublin University Magazine, where his novella, "Carmilla,"
first appeared in his collection of stories, "In a Glass Darkly."
One of the most significant tales in vampire genre literature, "Carmilla"
influenced other writers, notably Bram Stoker, author of "Dracula"(1897).
Le Fanu also influenced the development of the ghost story. A best-selling
author for more than twenty years, he drifted into almost a century of
obscurity, despite the admiration of Henry James and Dorothy Sayers. (There
were decades when the literary establishment held supernatural horror
fiction in disdain.) Today, Le Fanu's popularity has been rekindled amid
the modern passion for the imagery and tales of Gothic literature.
Wilford Leach, who died in 1987, is also well-known for his other noteable
productions at La MaMa including Yeats' "Only Jealousy of Emer"
and his own plays, "Gertrude or Would She Be Pleased" and "C.O.R.F.A.X.,"
and for two NYSF/Broadway productions, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood"
and "The Pirates of Penzance."
The World Wide Web has numerous resources on Le Fanu, but a particularly
good one, with the complete text of "Carmilla," can be found
This production is funded in part by the National Endowment for the
(photo above Margaret Benczak as Laura & Nancy
Heikin as Carmilla - photographed by Jerry Vezzuzo)
The Band - left to right: Michael Sirotta, Zizi Mueller,
Bill Ruyle, Matt Aiken, Richard Cohen & Greg Hesselink