Show-Me Opera presents the worldwide debut of ‘A Certain Madness’

The opera, written by student composer Hans Bridger Heruth, tells the tale of what happens when renowned detective Sherlock Holmes meets the supernatural.

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MU’s Show-Me Opera program presented the original piece “A Certain Madness,” which made its worldwide debut on Nov. 9 in the Rhynsburger Theatre. The plot of the one-act opera is based in the classic Sherlock Holmes stories.

Sherlock (Marques Jerrell Ruff) is brought to the home of Major Blake, a friend of Watson’s (Connor Cochran) who was killed. When Sherlock gets there, he's hesitant to begin his normal investigations. The family, composed of daughter Ada (Martha Allen), son Jasper (Savon Hayes) and wife Constance (Madison Page) has decided to call a medium, Madame Derochés (Aubrey Smith) who will conjure the spirit of Major Blake in order to reveal the murderer.

MU’s composition program drew in Hans Bridger Heruth to composed “A Certain Madness.” As a composer, singer, pianist, conductor and violinist, Heruth is no stranger to music. However, he found composing opera to be an entirely new challenge to face, particularly in its construction and conception.

“You have to think about the balance between the orchestra and the singers, how much time the singers need to be [there] for their lines onstage [and] how much music is necessary for scene changes,” Heruth explained. “You're not only portraying musical ideas, but you're trying to further up a plot with the music and it becomes sort of a puzzle rather than just a game.”

In choosing to base his opera on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective, Heruth was able to connect back to his childhood love of mystery novels and the way they connected the reader to the story.

“I just think [the novels are] fantastically created and I love how [Doyle] lays out all these clues for the reader so that, potentially, you could solve it at the same time that Sherlock would,” Heruth said. “So I thought that if I were to create an opera, there's really nothing like it in any other operatic repertoire to have a mystery unfolding onstage.”

Heruth spent two years working on the development of the opera before presenting it to Christine Seitz, MU School of Music Voice Area Coordinator and Director of Show-Me Opera. Having worked with Heruth as a singer and witnessed his work as a composer, Seitz had a lot of faith in Heruth’s drive and was very willing to work with him when he approached her with the idea of creating an operatic piece.

“I knew that he was a worthy composer,” Seitz said. “He had a lot of talent, and he was able to finish projects that he started, which is a really important thing. We had just done a world premiere of another one-act [opera] by a different composer; he had seen that and he knew about the process.”

Heruth said he was friends with all the cast members, so he was familiar with their different voice styles and used that to match with his conception of the characters’ voices. In casting the lead, Heruth selected Ruff largely due to his “wonderful, warm, full voice,” finding it to be powerful and parallel to Sherlock as this “very towering force of intelligence and presence.”

Ruff, in his preparation for the role, found himself having to adjust to a newer music style, where the music can be atonal and doesn’t quite follow the melodic patterns of more traditional pieces. Once he felt that his body had adjusted to singing that way, he focused on getting to know the character of Sherlock, who he was previously unfamiliar with.

In working with the composer, Ruff said he felt very grateful for the patience Heruth showed to the cast members. He was said to have helped the cast understand where his mind was as he composed, being clear about what fit and what did not. Ruff especially appreciated this considering the limited time they had to learn the piece.

“Hans has been living with [“A Certain Madness”], fine-tuning this and rewriting, so he knows this thing so well,” Ruff said. “Then he turns it over to us and then we have to, in two months, get as familiar with it as he is after two years. That's like giving somebody your Lamborghini and saying, ‘here, take it around the corner.’ But he's very patient, especially because there are some tricky spots.”

Something unique about “A Certain Madness” is the intersection of Sherlock Holmes, a man of science and reason, with the supernatural. In creating this twist on the classic tales, Heruth looked into the connection between Doyle and his belief in spiritualism.

“I thought that it would be really cool to introduce spiritualism into the characters that [Doyle] created in his novels,” Heruth explained. “In this opera, you'll sort of see the dichotomy between Sherlock's somewhat intellectualized methods and the medium’s sort of organic spiritualism in contacting the spirits. In the beginning, they clash. [But] at the end, I think they coincide a little more than Sherlock might have been willing to expect.”

Despite opera’s general reputation as an older art form, Heruth finds that “A Certain Madness” puts a modern twist on the genre in a way that makes it accessible to the audience. The characters sing in English and he feels the music resembles more of a film score than an antiquated classical piece.

Edited by Alexandra Sharp | asharp@themaneater.com

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