The Lady of Satis House: an operatic monodrama by Jacques Cohen

“Miss Havisham is essentially an operatic character!” says composer-conductor Jacques Cohen, when we meet to discuss the recording of his operatic monodrama for soprano and string quartet, The Lady of Satis House, which will be released on the Meridian label next month.  He adds, “It’s no surprise at all when she enters the stage singing – it’s entirely right.” 

Indeed, Miss Havisham, the wealthy spinster from Charles Dickens’s 1861 novel, Great Expectations, doesn’t seem very far removed from those other ‘mad women’ whose self-destructive passions have inspired operatic composers to the heights of histrionic musical melodrama.  She has become a spectral figure, haunting readers’ imagination.  Jilted at the altar, she wears her wedding dress for the rest of her life and plots revenge against the male sex but becomes the author of her own tragedy.  The power of her reaction to betrayal grips both Pip, the novel’s narrator, and the reader. 

Great Expectations is the most adapted of Dickens’s novels, and in films, on television, in the theatre and on the page, Miss Havisham has become the iconic ‘madwoman in the attic’.  Miss Havisham’s Fire, an opera by the American composer Dominick Argento, centres on the circumstances of her death.  It was commissioned by New York City Opera and premiered at the New York State Theatre in 1979.  (It was subsequently revised by Argento, both as a one-act monodrama entitled Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night, and in a shortened operatic form.)  But, whereas Argento’s opera is largely one of reminiscence – the emotionally wounded woman relives past pain in excruciating detail through a series of flashbacks – The Lady of Satis House offers a more immediate representation of the events of Dickens’ novel, as seen from Miss Havisham’s perspective.

Jacques Cohen (photo credit – Lester Barnes)

Jacques’s monodrama was first staged as part of the 2012 Tête à Tête opera festival.  “After a workshop performance earlier in 2010 of my opera, The Magic Potion, Bill [Bankes-Jones] asked me to compose something for the festival that August,” Jacques explains.  There were certain limitations, of time and budget, but Jacques argues that these turned out to be a strength.  The intimacy of the Riverside Studios where the opera was first performed created a strong personal tone and intensity.  And, the scoring for just string quartet further heightens the dramatic and expressive immediacy.  “It’s one reason why the work needs to be recorded,” suggests Jacques.  “Listening to a CD brings the string quartet and the singer directly into one’s own room.”

The Lady of Satis House wasn’t the only Dickens-inspired work performed at that year’s Tête à Tête festival.  Jilted, for two singers, imagined a meeting between Miss Havisham and Dickens’s own wife, Catherine Hogarth, with whom he had ten children and from whom he separated after nineteen years of marriage.  I wonder if this was a planned pairing of works, and whether Bankes-Jones had suggested the Dickensian subject matter?  “No, it was just coincidence, though Bill was pleased by the potential dialogue between the two pieces,” replies Jacques. “The choice to explore Great Expectations was entirely my own,” he continues.  “I’d read Dickens’s novel at school and loved it.  When I re-read it, about ten years later, I appreciated it on a new level and felt strongly that Miss Havisham could be the subject of an opera.”

Weighty nineteenth-century novels are not easily distilled into successful opera librettos, however.  Jacques has drawn the text of the nine scenes which form his monodrama directly from Dickens’s novel, with, he explains, just a few adaptations.  So, in the first sung scene, which establishes the setting of a house in which the clocks have been stopped and the grey-tressed Miss Havisham decays amid the maggot-riddled wedding paraphernalia, the hostile question that in the novel she flings at the bewildered Pip, “You are not afraid of a woman who has never seen the sun since you were born?”, is subtly altered as it is directed not at a small child but at the audience.  Jacques comments on David Lean’s classic 1946 film which, while necessarily making changes to the sprawling novel, is, he remarks, brilliant cinema on its own terms, and on Helena Bonham Carter’s performance as Miss Havisham in the cinema adaptation directed by Mike Newell in 2012.  “Watching the [latter] film again, I found that I’d largely chosen the same episodes!”

Marie Vassiliou as Miss Havisham (2012) (photo credit – Claire Shovelton)

In fact, when I teasingly suggest that Jacques has taken a few more liberties with Dickens’s text than he has previously suggested, he grins and admits that, looking at the libretto again, he would be inclined to agree.  The re-phrasings are mostly minor, though.  For example, in the novel several characters comment on Miss Havisham’s obsessive vengefulness.  In The Lady of Satis House, it is Miss Havisham herself who declares, “I gave him my love and he ruined my life but I will have my revenge”, in a fierce refrain that concludes the first seven scenes.

However, there is one shift that fundamentally shapes the way the audience respond to Miss Havisham and that’s the removal of Dickens’s first-person narration.  In the novel, although Miss Havisham tells her own story – or her version of it – it is the adult Pip, remembering the experiences of his childhood self, who communicates her words to the reader.  We see Miss Havisham through Pip’s eyes.  In contrast, in The Lady of Satis House Miss Havisham is not defined by how others see her, but through her own belief in the fragility of love and cruelty of life. 

A good example of this shift of perspective comes in the second scene of The Lady of Satis House.  In the novel, when Estella expresses contempt upon being introduced to the “common labouring-boy!”, Pip tells the reader, ‘I thought I overheard Miss Havisham answer, – only it seemed so unlikely, – “Well? You can break his heart”.’  The limited child’s perspective is important.  And, in this way, our understanding of Miss Havisham grows with Pip’s own developing knowledge and maturity.  But, in the opera, there’s no equivocation, as Miss Havisham instructs Estella, whom she is schooling in the art of feminine cruelty, “Well, you can break his heart!”

Marie Vassiliou as Miss Havisham (2012) (photo credit – Claire Shovelton)

Thus, the ‘Lady’ of Satis House entirely controls the way the story of her betrayal by the reprobate Compeyson and her brother Arthur is heard and interpreted.  While the reader of the novel hears Herbert Pocket’s somewhat matter-of-fact account of her courtship and abandonment – “There is not doubt that she perfectly idolized him.  He practised on her affection in that systematic way, that he got great sums of money from her … The marriage day was fixed … the day came, but not the bridgegroom” – in the opera we have only her vision of love: “I’ll tell you what real love is.  It is blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world, giving up your whole heart and soul to the smiter – as I did!” 

Pip tells us, in the novel, that she spoke these words to him in a ‘hurried, passionate whisper’, and even as a young, impressionable boy he recognised ‘the intensity of a mind mortally hurt and diseased’.   The opera conveys this ‘diseased’ mind directly, the narrow, high vocal line suggesting emotional stagnation, the strings’ stabbing agitations evoking the intensity of suffering, and the singer’s deep plunge at the close confirming Miss Havisham’s vainglorious solipsism.  Here, there is no narrator to make judgement as she elevates her personal tragedy to mythical dimensions. 

We do hear the voices of other characters from the novel, though.  Jacques explains, “Whereas Miss Havisham always sings, she speaks the words of other characters – again, a practical solution to a problem is often a plus.  In any case, the Pockets are two-dimensional.  Raymond is seen as merely an appendage to Camilla – Mr Camilla!”  The spoken voices are complemented by musical characterisation too.  Estella, through whom Miss Havisham achieves her vicarious revenge, has a heart of ice and she is represented by high harmonics and what Jacques has described as a “theme suggestive of childish taunting. (We’re all familiar with this theme – usually sung to the words, “Nah-nah, nah-Nah-nah!’)  “And, the child’s perspective does remain important,” says Jacques.  Interestingly, as well as tone poem for string quartet, From Behind Glass, the disc also includes When the Bough Breaks which comprises three ‘lullabies’, perhaps complementing that child’s-eye vision.

The opera begins with a tense, atmospheric instrumental introduction, the fragmentary motifs and shifting colours sharply defined on the recording by the Tippett Quartet.  Then, before the final scene, the quartet play an ‘Interlude’ which, though brief, Jacques describes as “the emotional heart of the piece”, presenting as it does the theme which has been heard in varied forms through the preceding scenes.  The four musicians are also called upon to add percussive effects, and hum, and at the end of the opera their chant allows the audience to step back from Miss Havisham’s self-aggrandising myth-making, confirming that it is not her jilting that was her tragedy, but rather her determination to allow it to define her life that resulted in her distortion and isolation: “She gave her love and ruined her life.”

Marie Vassiliou as Miss Havisham (2012) (photo credit – Claire Shovelton)

The part of Miss Havisham is sung by Marie Vassiliou, who performed the role in 2012 and with whom Jacques has worked extensively.  “I know her voice very well.  And as an actor and singer she has great depth and maturity.  I think it would be a challenge for a less experienced singer to communicate the depth and range of character required.”  I ask Jacques if there were any specific ways in which the qualities of Marie’s voice shaped the vocal writing?  “Well, for one simple example, she has an amazing top G-sharp – and, towards the end, when Miss Havisham reflects on the various vanities of her life, there’s a high held note which then fades … it had to be a G-sharp!”

If he were to stage the work again, would Jacques want to do anything differently?  “Well, we were incredibly lucky to be guided by a terrific young director.  In 2012, Bill proposed working with Joe Austin, who had so many brilliant ideas.”   It was Joe who suggested that the string quartet could dramatically represent the four musicians originally engaged to play at the doomed wedding, and who had become trapped within Miss Havisham’s own circumscribed world.  And, he came up with the idea of using a doll’s house and dolls to represent Pip and Estella.  The production, with designs by Emily Harwood is available to view on YouTube.

Listening to The Lady of Satis House I’m reminded of Tom Stoppard’s observation that every exit is an entrance somewhere else.  In Dickens’s novel, Miss Havisham becomes a spectre of suffering and horror.  For example, Magwitch tells Pip that her dying brother, Arthur, is afflicted with frightful visions, crying out in terror: “she really is upstairs alonger me, now, and I can’t get rid of her.  She’s all in white … wi’ white flowers in her hair, and she’s awful mad, and she’s got a shroud hanging over her arm, and she says she’ll put it on me at five in the morning.” 

But in the opera, it is Miss Havisham’s self-recognition and her desperate wish for forgiveness that is emphasised in the closing scene which dramatises her final meeting with Pip.  The libretto takes Pip’s realisation that ‘in shutting out the light of day, she had shut out infinitely more; that, in seclusion, she had secluded herself from a thousand natural and healing influences; that, her mind, brooding solitary, had grown diseased, as all minds do and must and will that reverse the appointed order of their Maker’ and gives these words to Miss Havisham herself.  She delivers them ‘speaking calmly’.  Her final sung words are “Forgive me!”  Acknowledging her “monstrous vanities”, she is humanised by her music.

The Lady of Satis House is released by Meridian Records on 23rd February.

Claire Seymour