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SEMMELWEIS – a music-theater work

(c) Budapest Operetta Theater / Bartók Plusz Opera Festival
(c) Budapest Operetta Theater / Bartók Plusz Opera Festival
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We are delighted that Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis will not be forgotten in the musical world either, and that the story of our namesake will thus be told in a new way.

SEMMELWEIS is a musical work with lyrics by Matthew Doherty and music composed by Raymond J. Lustig. SEMMELWEIS can be streamed from 2 May to 31 May – details can be found here.

It is a new 75-minute music-theater work inspired by the tragic story of nineteenth-century Hungarian obstetrician Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865), who discovered the cure for a devastating epidemic but could not convince the world of the simple solution, and died alone in an asylum. Dr. Semmelweis had been the first to see an unthinkable truth: that the deadly disease was passing from the bodies of the dead to healthy mothers on the unwashed hands of the doctors themselves.

SEMMELWEIS explores the theme that everything we think we know can be overturned violently, and asks what is it like to be the first to see into a terrible blind spot and perceive a truth too awful to believe? To be an “outsider”—a “foreign” doctor, Hungarian, but living and working in Vienna’s top hospital in a xenophobic era—and to fear that no one heard you, that the answer may die with you? To hold an earth-shattering insight, and yet be haunted by all the mothers that would not be saved.

Though the year 2018 marked the 200th birth year of Ignaz Semmelweis, our world seems still not to have absorbed the powerful lessons of this story. There has never been a more urgent moment in history to reflect on the mystery of insight, the tension between truth and hubris, our cultural myopia, and the clear truth that we, as individuals and as a society, need our “outsiders,” our fresh and brave ideas, literally to survive.

SEMMELWEIS is a 75-minute continuous song cycle, abstracted from direct plot or historical documentary. The “story” is symbol-driven and tightly integrated with movement, staging, lighting, projection, and voiceover design to convey the essential narrative outline. It is scored for women’s vocal ensemble (8 voices minimum, SSS MMM AA), one male soloist (baritone), and seven instrumentalists (piano/organ, percussion, and string quintet), as well as specially designed music boxes and tuned bells played onstage by all soloists and chorus (additional onstage instruments may be used at the director’s discretion, including singing mediation bowls, accordions, and other simple percussion).

Most of the musical and dramatic weight of the work is on the chorus of women, who represent different women haunting Semmelweis’s failing mind (patients, mothers, midwives, nurses, his wife). The work has a mostly seamless feel, woven from instrumental or un-texted choral music that allow the song-like arias to stand out. The staging is abstract and suitable for contemporary performing arts spaces or music theater venues, as well as small-to-medium opera houses.

Here you can stream the show (Stream Launching May 2, 2020 at 1 PM ET and is available until May 31, 2020):

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