T h e O p e r a
A Chamber Opera in One Act
by John G. Bilotta
Libretto by John F. McGrew
Adapted from the Play
by Susan Glaspell
Henry Peters, Sheriff Baritone
Mrs. Peters, his wife Soprano
The County Attorney Tenor
Lewis Hale, a farmer Baritone
Mrs. Hale, his wife Mezzo-soprano
Photograph courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society (RG3542.PH128-14)
Based on a murder that occurred in Iowa in 1900, Susan Glaspell relocated her 1916 play Trifles to an overcast, subzero morning in Nebraska. As the opera opens, Lewis Hale, a local farmer, describes to the Sheriff and County Attorney what he discovered at John Wright's farm. Mrs. Wright, he says, was sitting in a rocking chair in a state of shock. Hale asks to speak with John but she says he's dead. When Hale asks how, she responds "of a rope round his neck" pointing to the bedroom. Hale sends his farmhand for the Sheriff. He asks Mrs. Wright if she heard anything when her husband was strangled and is shocked when she responds in the negative. "I sleep sound," she explains.
The next morning, the Sheriff, the County Attorney, and Mr. Hale arrive to examine the murder scene. Mrs. Wright is being held for her husband's murderer. Entering behind the men are Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters who have come to pick up clothing and personal items for Mrs. Wright. As the men discuss the case, their condescending remarks about Mrs. Wright and women in general begin to create a divide between the men and the women.
The men exit to search the bedroom. Mrs. Peters defends them, "They're only doing their duty." The County Attorney, she says, needs evidence showing sudden anger or intense feeling, something around which he can build a story. "You know how juries are about women," he comments at one point. As the women complete their errand, they uncover evidence of a long, abusive relationship between John and Minnie Wright.
The women's discovery of a dead canary hidden in a sewing box suggests a link to the murder. The men return briefly then exit again. Without speaking, Mrs. Peters tries to hide the box containing the canary in her purse. It doesn't fit. She panics and Mrs. Hale grabs the box, slipping it into her coat pocket as the men return. The women exit the house quickly followed by everyone except the County Attorney who remains behind to continue searching.