Arts opera review

The greedy, horrific, but fairly moving tale of Mr. Burke and Mr. Hare’s victims

The world premiere of this dark comedy opera did not disappoint with its new take on an old legend

8338 daft jamie photo liza voll
Poor of wallet but rich in spirit, street performer Daft Jamie (Michael Slattery) laments the fate of the destitute, homeless and otherwise disenfranchised people of Edinburgh.
Courtesy of Liza Voll Photography for Boston Lyric Opera

The Nefarious, Immoral, But Highly Profitable Enterprise of Mr. Burke & Mr. Hare
Music by Julian Grant
Libretto by Mark Campbell
Commissioned by Music-Theatre Group with the support of Boston Lyric Opera
Cyclorama at Boston Center for the Arts

“The people of Edinburgh aren’t…dying…QUICKLY ENOUGH!”

Here cry the despairing voices of the schools of anatomy. The cadavers are running low, so study is restricted. Gravedigging is illegal, and only those who die as criminals or as otherwise properly indicated by the state are allowed to be sold for science, so supply is limited.

Then, welcome Mr. Burke (Jesse Blumberg) and Mr. Hare (Craig Colclough) to the scene. Two no-good chaps looking for a way to make some quick coin, they live in Tanner’s Close, a lodging house. Here, poor Donald (David Cushing) dies of a battle wound and Mr. Burke and Mr. Hare decide to ship his body off to Surgeon’s Square, where their first profit is made. After enjoying in the temporary richness of Donald’s body, Hare realizes the profits that could be made by targeting the dispensable of their community, whether it be the starved, the poor, or the woefully ill. All are easily forgotten. He convinces a reluctant Burke to join in on his bright idea while their wives, unashamedly wanting to live a spoiled life of luxury, gleefully help them.

This is the premise of Julian Grant and Mark Campbell’s mouthful of an opera, The Nefarious, Immoral, But Highly Profitable Enterprise of Mr. Burke & Mr. Hare. They take inspiration from the actual Burke and Hare murders, which took place in 1828 Edinburgh. Another intriguing part of their opera is the fact that the theater is shaped specifically to mimic that of an anatomy classroom. It brings a more intimate yet sterile feel to the environment of the opera. Everything is pristine, white, and clean despite the damning blood on everyone’s hands.

Now imagine the victims of Burke and Hare’s murders recalling the events leading up to their own hapless ends. Imagine them lamenting about the terrible life they had or the horrid fate that befell them while they stand on the very surgeon’s table they’re subjected to in death. This is what Grant and Campbell accomplish with pitiful character development and bone-chilling or heart-wrenching orchestral accompaniment. Each deathly apparition confronts the audience as what they were supposed to be treated like in their living life: a human; unfortunately, under Burke and Hare’s greedy hands, they are merely pigs to slaughter and sell to the butcher.

Through all of the macabre implications of the opera, many interesting and relevant themes are brought up in Burke & Hare. Dr. Knox (William Burden) brings up the question of favoring the greater good or the individual good. Dr. Ferguson (David McFerrin) is the questionable moral compass that tries to vie for the good of the individuals before being quieted by Dr. Knox’s call for the banishment of ignorance and the advancement of good ol’ health care. Meanwhile, Hare is the embodiment of greed. The tinkling of coins makes him deaf to the humanity of his victims, but Burke is not so lucky to share in on Hare’s lack of empathy.

The opera gradually escalates to the manic zone of moral discomfort you’d expect from a story focusing on people being murdered for the sake of profit. Campbell provides no comfort in rationalizing Burke and Hare’s motives aside from the obvious one of greed and instead focuses on the lamentable repercussions caused by their reckless murders. The content of each musical number works well to push the story forward and rear the dark cloud that forms in the heart of Edinburgh. I especially liked the act titled “The Others,” in which Burke and Hare’s killings begin to pile up in a frantic count. The chalkboard used to detail victims’ names becomes a frame of scribbles with the occasional “£10” accent, and the sparse use of particular instruments reflects the growing mood of despair.

However, the life of the opera isn’t solely found in just the writing. Each featured artist and singer involved with the opera brings compelling characters to the stage and really drags the audience into the gritty reality of the history. The soul of the story is found in the way each artist carries themselves and the husk of their characters, whether it drags them into regrettable self-hate or a myriad occurrence of self-reassurances for one’s security.

When you turn a blind eye to the easily forgotten, “someday, [they] may not be there.” But cry not, for you may not let them be completely forgotten when this innovative opera hopefully returns to Boston someday.