Noe Valley Voice June 2001

Local Sendoff for Wuornos:
Opera by a Woman Composer about a Lesbian Serial Killer

By Betsy Bannerman

Dr. Betty Sullivan has held fundraising events in her house on Hoffman Avenue before. But this one was unique. It wasn't just her tall, beautiful home -- built in 1904 and creatively added to over the years. It wasn't just the elegant buffet -- bowtie pasta, caviar and sour cream on radish slices, smoked turkey, and little cupcakes whose white frosting was etched with choc-olate musical notes. It wasn't just the crowd, either -- about 35 people, mostly women in couples. It was why they had gathered to begin with: to celebrate the premiere of a major new opera written by a woman.

Thirty-six-year-old Bay Area composer/librettist Carla Lucero began writing her opera five years ago ("I was compelled; the story touched me deeply"). Still, she had only a prayer of seeing it produced. Operas by women, especially operas not commissioned by major companies, rarely win backing; the last time New York's Metropolitan Opera staged an opera by a woman was in 1903. But now her two-act labor of love, Wuornos, is set to receive its world premiere on June 22­24 at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Lucero spoke briefly to the guests in Dr. Sullivan's living room. She joined her Noe Valley host in thanking the audience for attending this last fundraiser before the artists went into final rehearsal. Then Wuornos cast members Sylvia Bloom and Krista Wigle lit the room on fire, singing two arias from the opera. "I've heard everything in my head," said Lucero, "but to have live human beings singing my words is a dream come true." After that, there was no stopping the checkbooks. "We're from the Carole Migden School of Fundraising," joked Supervisor Mark Leno. "Lock the doors!"

He shouldn't have worried. Wuornos is generating plenty of excitement in edgy San Francisco. The opera documents the life of Aileen Wuornos, dubbed "America's first female serial killer," a woman who is currently on death row in Florida for having killed seven men. Her story features child abuse, unwed pregnancy, prostitution, crime, murder, love, betrayal -- "all the classic elements of traditional opera," says Lucero.

There is much controversy surrounding Wuornos' arrest, trial, and conviction. But most observers agree her early life was a recipe for disaster: Aileen Wuornos was abandoned as an infant by her young, single mother (her father later hung himself in jail), was raised by reluctant grandparents, was emotionally, physically, and sexually abused, and was kicked out of the house after delivering a baby at age 14. She became a prostitute, briefly married an abusive older man, engaged in petty crime, at one point attempted suicide, and at age 30 found love in a lesbian biker bar. The couple remained together for four years, supported by Wuornos' prostitution, principally conducted on the highways of central Florida.

Between late 1989 and late 1990, Wuor-nos killed seven middle-aged white "johns," at least some of them in self-defense, although the facts are murky. She was arrested and taken into custody at a bar called the Last Resort. Her girlfriend, fearful of being arrested herself, collaborated with police to get Wuornos to confess.

There followed a bizarre media circus, complete with alleged police corruption, an unfair trial, and the adoption of Wuornos by a born-again Christian. Several books and films have already come out about Wuornos. However, she is currently refusing all contact with the outside world (including Lucero, who wrote her several times). At present, she appears to be simply preparing to die.

The opera relishes all these twists and turns. "On the one hand, it's a horrible story about a woman who was betrayed from infancy," Lucero says. "But it's also one of the most beautiful love stories I've ever heard. Aileen loved another woman so much she sacrificed her own life. Of course, it's also totally dysfunctional, but most good love stories, in opera especially, are the most dysfunctional things you can imagine."

Carla Lucero, of Spanish and East Indian heritage, grew up in Manhattan Beach, Calif. "I always wanted to be a composer," Lucero says, "but as a child I didn't think it was a career option for women." She is the only one in her immediate family who became a full-time musician, although her mother sang in the church choir and her brother is currently a deejay in San Francisco. Her father introduced Carla to opera at an early age, and she remained drawn to it. "There are so many layers to uncover in order to appreciate the art form wholly," she says. "It's also completely over the top. It's out there, it's melodramatic."

At the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, Calif., Lucero studied all forms of music and eventually received her B.F.A. in music composition. While living in L.A., she performed and wrote music and lyrics for the band Mozaic, then moved on to compose a number of award-winning scores for dance companies, films, and videos.

She says writing for these mediums is very different from opera. "Writing an opera is unlike any other musical experience I've had. It's much more involved, because the music participates in the telling of the story and the action, rather than just playing a supporting role as it does in film."

In 1995, she moved to the Bay Area. While teaching music full-time in the public schools in Redwood City, she began workshopping her drafts of Wuornos.

Lucero had first read about Aileen Wuornos in a 1991 Vanity Fair article. She thought the theme of cyclical violence -- victims breeding the next generation of victims, and the dangerous consequences of unhealed lives -- deserved serious, not just media, attention. "A lot of women, especially women who have been abused and have a self-destructive life-style like prostitution, don't have opportunities for healing," Lucero says. "They haven't had access to therapy. They don't have any outlet, any coping mechanism."

One of the things Lucero found intriguing about Wuornos was that, except for the suicide attempt, she did not turn her rage inward, like many women do, but instead lashed out, which is more like what men do when threatened. And while Lucero certainly does not condone murder, she understands Wuornos' situation. She hopes that in some small way the opera will help Aileen Wuornos "get the representation and consideration from the justice system which I believe she deserves."

Lucero's music reflects the ambiguity of these issues. Music director Mary Chun describes her style as "Strauss harmonies with a 21st-century kink." The opera also shows Romantic and Neoclassical influences, and has echoes of Gilbert and Sullivan, Leonard Bernstein, and Christian hymns.

Each character in Wuornos has a specific melodic theme, and these emerge at different times, to remind the audience of a character's motive or to foreshadow a future event. Often several themes are layered together in a scene, rising and receding as the drama progresses. Lucero says she tried to follow natural speech patterns and inflections when writing melodic lines.

A 34-piece orchestra plays the music, but only Aileen's character is represented by a particular instrument, the viola, chosen for its similarity in timbre and range to the human voice. There is also a sort of Greek chorus doubling as the media and the jury. Their members are often present on stage, judging, blaming, and name-calling. "They are basically the voice of society," the composer says.

Lucero is modest about the fact that she wrote both the music and the words. "I think wearing both hats made this piece easier to create," she says. Easier or not, the job required a grueling schedule: "I go to bed at midnight and set my alarm for 5 a.m."

To make sure she achieved her creative vision, Lucero handpicked Chun, "my first female mentor," to be Wuornos' music director, normally a male-dominated position. Chun has conducted all over the world, including for the San Francisco Opera. She is currently the music director and conductor of the Opera Ensemble of San Francisco.

Lucero also chose Joseph Graves to direct. "We wanted an all-girl team," she teases, "but we kept coming back to art. We wanted the highest caliber of talent." Graves has had a long career in Great Britain and America, as an actor, writer, and director, and is known for his work with both traditional and innovative projects.

Lauren Hewitt is the energetic producer of Wuornos. She founded AIRspace (Artists in Residence) at the south-of-Market Jon Sims Center, and invited Lucero to enter the program. Last year, the center solicited and won on Lucero's behalf a $35,000 grant, the first big grant the work received. The Jon Sims Center now serves as the opera's producing organization.

The operating budget for Wuornos is $300,000. Many foundations, including the San Francisco Arts Commission, the California Arts Council, and the Zellerbach Family Fund, have supported the project, as have local corporate sponsors, and their employees, thanks to the efforts of executive producer (and former French horn player) Nancy Corporon.

House parties like the one in Dr. Sullivan's living room have raised some $60,000. "Clearly, there has been a deep involvement and commitment from the community," says Sims Center director Charles Wilmoth. He also anticipates that about a quarter of needed income will come from ticket sales.

Lucero believes Wuornos will find a wide audience. It will certainly attract the gay and lesbian community, and is, in fact, being presented as part of Gay Pride Weekend. It will also be welcomed by opera aficionados, for the high quality of its music and the uniqueness of its libretto. She admits the opera would receive an R rating if it were a film, but hopes that the fact that it is sung in English will increase its accessibility.

"Aileen Wuornos' story is a relatively current event," she says, "with themes that are controversial, yet commonplace. There is so much we can learn from her. You can't just sweep things like this under the rug anymore and say, 'Oh, that was weird.'" Lucero's primary goal is education: "I want people to leave the opera really thinking about the cycle of violence."

Asked if she felt her opera was ultimately uplifting, despite its shattering content, Lucero answered, "Definitely. Wuornos is very much about a woman holding onto that one thread of hope as her life unravels. In the midst of chaos and despair, Aileen always believed that love and goodness were just around the corner."

As the last haunting notes from sopranos Wigle and Bloom floated to the ceiling of the Hoffman Avenue living room, there was a brief, jaw-dropping hush. Then sustained applause and the rustle of checkbooks.

It looks as though success for Wuornos may be just around the corner as well.

For ticket information, call Yerba Buena Center for the Arts at 415-978-2787.