It’s still a mystery why Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes—a whimsical 1926 novel about a woman who becomes a witch—remains relatively obscure. But it might be having a revival, beginning here in Houston. Based on the book, Michael Alec Rose’s new chamber opera premieres at MATCH this week, directed by Dash Waterbury and produced by Matt Lammers, Lee Hallman, and Chandler Yu.

Listed as one of The Guardian’s “100 Best Novels of All Time,” Warner’s clever, coolly subversive narrative of a spinster’s self-discovery certainly deserves a space of its own among seminal feminist works like those of Woolf, Austen, and Plath. Chronicling an Englishwoman who rejects marriage and her family’s stifling control and moves to a quaint countryside town to fulfill her own calling, Warner’s fairytale is beautiful, wry, and occasionally sinister. Its eventual verge into the supernatural is startling—shocking, even—quietly turning upside down societal and gender roles, family loyalty, and notions of good and evil.

“It's brilliantly subversive, and I knew I had to set it to music,” says composer and librettist Michael Alec Rose. He envisioned the opera back in 2012, and with encouragement from art historian Lee Hallman, soon contacted Warner’s estate and her London publishing house, procuring dramatic rights to the novel. The project was put on hold for years until violinist Matt Lammers and soprano Chelsea Helm approached Rose, with a combined vision for a Houston-based premiere.

It wasn’t until the British Broadcasting Corporation put in their own request for exclusive rights to the novel that the production truly began to materialize. “With the BBC’s looming request, we ended up in a footrace to get dates and a venue,” Lammers says; thankfully, Andy Hines, the publisher’s permissions director, was the opera’s champion. “She ensured our rights to the novel despite the much more lucrative bid by the BBC to adapt it for television,” Rose says. “And I knew that if they wanted it, then it must be a very timely story.”

A rehearsal of the upcoming Lolly Willowes premiere.

Part of Rose’s approach was a response to the trend of contemporary opera and its distaste of tuneful melodies. “I’m old-fashioned about melody,” Rose admits. “I knew from the start that I wanted the music to be lyrical, to have recognizable tunes that could be sung if you listened to a soundtrack.”

Inspired by Mozart’s treatment of music and drama, he crafted a haunting score for vocalists and string quartet, with the latter filling both a pragmatic and imaginative function. Without the restraint of a conductor or limitations of an orchestra pit, the four string players play an equal role onstage as eerie presences that dance and swirl around Laura, embodying the book’s whispered voices that guide her as she ventures out into the rural village of Great Mop. 

The dancers, choreographed by A.J. Garcia-Rameau, act as shadow figures that mirror Laura’s relationship with the devil. It’s the dances, especially the pas de deux, that reveal the love story, Rose says, because everything else about Laura’s relationship with the devil is so chaste and dignified and courteous. And that relationship with the devil—a male figure—is the mysterious paradox of the whole story. Because he lets her be.

“We went into it much like Laura did, not knowing what the outcome would look like,” says violinist and co-producer Chandler Yu. The result, she says, is a story that feels strikingly modern. “I think women today are redefining themselves, whether it be through their work, or through their passions, or through the family, but the discovery process is grueling. And we can all relate. One part of her identity is saying I know where I need to be, but then there is the other part, I don't know what I want to be, and I have no idea what I'm doing, but I’m going somewhere.”

April 18 and 20. Tickets $25. MATCH, 3400 Main St. 713-521-4533. More info and tickets at matchouston.org.

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