'An American Tragedy' on the Opera Stage The story of Chester Gillette and the murder of Grace Brown in a remote lake in the Adirondack Mountains is the centerpiece of Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy. This was the O.J. Simpson trial of its day. An opera version of the story premieres in New York Friday.
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'An American Tragedy' on the Opera Stage

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'An American Tragedy' on the Opera Stage

'An American Tragedy' on the Opera Stage

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Tonight in New York City, the Metropolitan Opera will premiere a new work based on Theodore Dreiser's classic novel "An American Tragedy." Dreiser's novel was inspired by a true story. In the summer of 1906, a young man named Chester Gillette took his pregnant girlfriend boating on a lake in New York's Adirondack Mountains. The next day Grace Brown's body was found floating in a secluded cove. Chester Gillette tried to flee, but was captured and tried for murder. The case sparked a media frenzy and made headlines around the world. As North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports, over the last century it's become a part of American mythology.

(Soundbite of opera house preparations)

BRIAN MANN reporting:

Midafternoon, the Metropolitan Opera's great hall thrums with musicians, singers, stagehands and costumes.

Unidentified Woman #1: Where do they have costumes...

MANN: Composer Tobias Picker stands apart tugging at his unruly black and gray beard, scrutinizing his score for the thousandth time.

Mr. TOBIAS PICKER (Composer): I'm very rarely sitting in the rehearsals. I'm usually either standing, pounding my fist or calling out notes.

MANN: Days before the premiere of "American Tragedy," Picker is still wrestling with music that he's spent years trying to shape. He still can't decide between three different endings.

Mr. PICKER: I have never before been so close to the opening night and not decided how the opera ends.

MANN: Picker's raw material is one of the classics of American literature: Theodore Dreiser's dense, thorny novel about ambition and desire and murder.

(Soundbite of "An American Tragedy")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) I'm sorry. I didn't mean to...

MANN: On stage, a handsome young man enters a lavish drawing room. He looks frightened and out of place, but also eager.

(Soundbite of "An American Tragedy")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Easy to get lost around here.

MANN: Buried in these layers of storytelling and music is a real crime. Chester Gillette was 23 years old, the ambitious nephew of a wealthy industrialist. His part in the opera is sung by baritone Nathan Gunn.

Mr. NATHAN GUNN (Baritone): He sees all the people that have all the things that he desires. He gets a glimpse of that. Even though he's so close to it--I mean, they touch hands. But he never gets it.

MANN: The obstacle was a secret romance. Gillette's girlfriend, Grace Brown, was 19 years old. She was a farm girl who worked in the Gillette family skirt factory. When she got pregnant, Gillette took her to a remote lake in New York's Adirondack Mountains. He rode her out in a small skiff.

Mr. MAJOR BOWES: This was all just a natural shoreline, and so we had a pretty private place.

MANN: Major Bowes has lived on Big Moose Lake since the 1940s. He knew the men who found Grace's body floating in this lonely cove. White pines and granite boulders crowd the shore. There are no houses. No one's sure exactly what happened here.

Mr. BOWES: Nowadays he probably wouldn't even be indicted. No witnesses. And it was very possible he didn't do it, as it shows in the "A Place in the Sun." That movie showed he didn't do it.

MANN: "A Place in the Sun" is one of two Hollywood films about the murder. It won six Oscars in 1951. The scene on the lake is played by Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters. Clift sits holding the oars, rigid with resentment. Winters huddles in the bow angry and frightened.

(Soundbite of "A Place in the Sun")

Ms. SHELLEY WINTERS: (As Grace Brown) Maybe you wish I was dead. Is that it? Do you wish that I was dead?

Mr. MONTGOMERY CLIFT: (As Chester Gillette) No, I didn't.

MANN: Prosecutors claim that Chester Gillette slashed at Grace Brown with one of the oars and threw her overboard. Much of the physical evidence was mishandled. But prosecutors proved that Gillette traveled to Big Moose Lake under a false name. He brought his suitcase onto the skiff and fled through the woods to a nearby village. Later he tried to deny that he knew Grace Brown. Dreiser biographer Richard Lingeman says the case became a part of local folklore.

Mr. RICHARD LINGEMAN (Biographer): There was songs about it and poems about it and then the poor girl who was killed, the poor factory girl, and a young man who was--just cast her aside.

MANN: Historian Craig Brandon says the murder and the trial that followed quickly became something more--a worldwide media sensation.

Mr. CRAIG BRANDON (Historian): It's a sort of archetypal case, like the Scott Peterson case where it involves sex and pregnancy and those kind of things that sort of resonate for some reason in people's psyche.

MANN: The case still might have faded into local obscurity, but during the trial prosecutors read from Grace Brown's love letters.

Ms. JENNIFER DONNELLY (Author, "A Northern Light"): (Reading) This is the last letter I can write, dear. You will never know what you have made me suffer. I miss you and I want to see you, but I wish I could die. Sometimes I think if I could tell Mama, but I can't.

MANN: Jennifer Donnelly says these letters captivated her. She grew up near Big Moose Lake listening to ghost stories about the murder. She wrote a novel about Grace called "A Northern Light" published last year.

Ms. DONNELLY: It's not very often that we get to hear from the dead after they've been killed, and you do get to hear from Grace. You hear this young, 19-year-old woman who was bright and funny and self-deprecating and spirited.

MANN: Historian Craig Brandon says the letters infuriated the jury and sealed Gillette's conviction. They also made Grace into a tragic heroine.

Mr. BRANDON: Once they were read and they were reprinted in newspapers all around the world, people began to look at this as much different, that this was the voice of this poor girl reaching out from the grave to tell her story.

MANN: But part of the reason this story has endured is its ambiguity. Locals still remember Gillette as a villain. The crime was so notorious that after his execution, Gillette was buried at a secret funeral in an unmarked grave. But in many of the novels and plays and films over the last century, the tragic figure isn't Grace Brown. It's Chester Gillette.

(Soundbite of vintage programming)

Unidentified Announcer: This is the unforgettable story of a boy from nowhere, fighting desperately for his place in the sun, torn between the conflicting passions that shaped his destiny.

MANN: Because no one can know what really happened out on the lake, different authors and artists have put the story to different use. Biographer Richard Lingeman says Dreiser was the first to recast the young man as a victim of class, of social pressures beyond his control.

Mr. LINGEMAN: He said it was a very American crime because it was a crime of ambition, it was a crime driven by a desire for wealth and social status, and this was part of the American system.

(Soundbite of "An American Tragedy")

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible)

MANN: In Tobias Picker's opera, Chester Gillette is still surrounded by beautiful things and beautiful people all just beyond his reach.

Mr. PICKER: It's really about the divisions in America and the things that divide us as Americans and as human beings, and the tragedy of unrequited love.

MANN: By tonight, Picker will have found an ending for his opera. Bringing the threads together has been hard and sometimes baffling, he says, but Picker is eager to add another layer, a musical catharsis, he calls it, to an American story that has echoed again and again. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.


BLOCK: I'm Melissa Block.

SIEGEL: And I'm Robert Siegel. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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