The Yellow Wallpaper

Yesterday I went to see Roosevelt University’s performance of The Yellow Wallpaper, a 1989 chamber opera by Ronald Perera. Expecting modern atonal music and a vague story I couldn’t have been in a more wrong direction.

Brian Hotchkin, a good friend who played the baritone role of John the husband, and a low student (!) ticket price of $6 were initially the only reasons for me to be there. Afterwards I would have gladly admitted that I would have wanted to see it even if it would have cost me four times as much.

The Yellow Wallpaper is based on a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, written in 1892 and set in New England in 1899. Charlotte, John’s wife who is suffering from postpartum depression, has been ordered bed rest and a complete lack of mental stimulation, as the couple spends three months in a summer house. John’s sister, an old spinster, helps in the caring for Charlotte. The role of Charlotte was performed by an excellent soprano—I can’t remember her name unfortunately—who acted out her role with much conviction. John was a superbly fitting role for my friend Brian Hotchkin.

The Boston Globe previously described the opera better than I could:

“Perera’s music is well-made, tuneful, gratifying to voices and resourcefully orchestrated for 14 players. The opera is ingeniously organized, from the point of view of color, variety, thematic interrelationship and development.”

The gradual decline—because the treatment is making her worse—of Charlotte’s mental health is portrayed rather terrifyingly by the women behind the wallpaper; it’s not often that a live performance without many special effects can give you the creeps.

The final scene is perfectly silent, as Charlotte and John leave the summer house and the baby’s nurse stumbles upon Charlotte’s diary. The young wife’s struggle comes to life once again for a brief moment.

The story made a strong social statement in the end of the 19th century and through this opera it certainly still does. Tom Cruise would have something to learn here.