Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup is a new opera written by celebrated composer Michelle DiBucci and award-winning Canadian librettist Royce Vavrek, this opera will be a journey into a young woman’s world torn apart by abuse, neglect, addiction and apathy. It is an unflinching and compassionate look at the opioid crisis and a brutal testament on a plague that is emblematic of this decade. Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup will be sung in English and and is expected to premiere in 2021.
America’s opioid epidemic is the deadliest drug crisis in US history and one of our greatest national tragedies. In 2016 alone, more Americans died from drug overdoses than from the Vietnam war, gun violence, car crashes, and HIV/AIDS combined (vox.com). Composer Michelle DiBucci has conceived a powerful new work that grapples with this complex subject on the operatic stage.
Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup is about a contemporary woman named Meri, a wife and young mother who becomes addicted to painkillers after a routine surgery. Abandoned by a system unable to provide help, her life quickly spins out of control as she moves desperately from prescription drugs to street Heroin to feed her addiction.
Should Meri be punished, pitied or rescued? Her feelings of isolation and social alienation collide head-on with the cold calculus of a dysfunctional social system.
Structurally, the opera will loosely follow characters and scenes from the play, Woyzeck. Each scene will be a self-contained unit building on the last to form a coherent whole, as in a series of paintings by William Hogarth. The Norman Rockwellesque tableaux which open each scene will reflect a snapshot of everyday North American life.
Switching the attention away from Büchner’s protagonist, Franz Woyzeck, this opera will bring focus on Meri, the domestic partner of Frank, an Army Reserve Soldier, and father of her child.
Stylistically, the music will encompass three sound-worlds which will overlap.
Chromatic, non-tonal sonorities represent the underlying story.
American folk music styles support the setting of Meri’s poems
Extended tertian and polytonal sonorities represent Meri’s states of “high.”
Throughout the opera, Meri will be followed by the Chorus. This vocal quartet will use contemporary vocal techniques in contrast to the operatic performance style of the other characters.
The Chorus haunts and taunts Meri and the only way to silence their ridicule and contempt is by being high on drugs.
Once Meri’s prescription is cut off, she moves to the streets in search of drugs and meets the male drug dealer, Mrs. Winslow, who will introduce her to heroin. The name, Mrs. Winslow, is a reference to “Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup”, an opiate-laced drink that was given to babies with colic and their nervous mothers from 1849 – 1920. Tragically, many who took Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup became addicts.
DiBucci imagines the opera as an expressionistic tragedy. It presents a passionate debate on the idea of free will vs. determinism. Moreover, it is a damming commentary on a society that seems headed towards irreversible decline. In Woyzeck, Büchner makes clear that madness is never isolated, but instead connected to the society that feeds it. In the opera, addiction will replicate this madness as a hungry ghost.
As an artist and composer, DiBucci has many years of experience creating social-impact work that helps facilitate dialogue on complex topics. She felt compelled to shine a light on the urgent subject of opiod addiction and to raise awareness of the national catastrophe unfolding in slow motion in communities around the country. Opera, as the most complex of the dramatic forms, is the best medium to address this difficult subject. Opera involves emotion of an epic scale, which is how the composer views the devastating life of her antiheroine, Meri. With music, narrative and visual imagery, this opera will engage audiences to see, hear and feel her world in the grips of addiction.