From January 7-14, the Prototype Festival presents the New York premiere of David Lang’s anatomy theater, co-produced by Beth Morrison Projects, with set design by Mark Dion, direction by Bob McGrath, conductor Christopher Rountree and the International Contemporary Ensemble, plus Bill Morrison (video), Laurie Olinder (projection), Christopher Kuhl (lighting), and Alixandra Gage Englund (costumes).
Based on actual 18th-century texts, anatomy theater follows the astonishing progression of an English murderess: from confession to execution and, ultimately, public dissection before a paying audience of fascinated onlookers. Through the miracle of opera, she sings through it all.
anatomy theater conjures a time when “specialists” traveled from town to town in pre-modern Europe, conducting public dissections of the corpses of executed criminals, seeking evidence of moral corruption in the interior of the human body. anatomy theater is a tuneful and grisly theatrical event.
Dion and Lang write:
No singers were harmed in the creation of this opera.
It seems like an odd statement to make about an entertainment, but it is definitely appropriate to make it, since our piece is so full of terrifying things. Crime and punishment, execution, dissection, the thin line that separates moralistic cruelty from dispassionate scientific inquiry — they are all there.
anatomy theater is an opera of villains. There are no lovers, no peacemakers, no heroes in shining armor coming to the rescue. All the characters in our opera are dangerous.
The subject of our opera is a gruesome one — the public dissection of the body of a murderer, in order to find the physical seat of her moral corruption. Set loosely in the early years of the 18th century, the opera mashes up some of the more shockingly pernicious ideas from the history of medicine. It should come as no surprise that the history of anatomy and the history of medicine in general – as well as the history of opera itself – is well stocked with attitudes of misogyny and contempt for the poor. anatomy theater’s libretto closely follows the ideas, methods, manners and even some of the surviving documents of early medical thought.
For much of the history of anatomical inquiry the only bodies available for dissection were those of executed convicts, and, after 1752, exclusively murderers. It was genuinely thought that the anatomy of evil people was different from that of law-abiding citizens, that their evil was written on their organs, and that specialists could identify the differences and demonstrate them publicly. This made public dissections a kind of moral carnival, in which upstanding citizens could literally look down on the flawed remains of evildoers. It is also true that the act of anatomical examination was understood clearly as an additional punishment that could be meted out beyond the death of the convict.
Female cadavers were very rare. In fact, when Vesalius, the pre-eminent anatomist of the 16th century, posed for the frontispiece piece of his “De Corporis Fabrica” (1543) he braggingly made Jan Stephen van Calcar depict him dissecting a woman’s body. In England, The Anatomy Act of 1832 put a stop to grave robbing and the illicit trade in corpses, but it allowed anatomists access to unclaimed bodies from prisons, poor houses and charity hospitals, forever linking the teaching of dissection with poverty, criminality and powerlessness.
— Mark Dion & David Lang