About this Recording
8.669042-43 - KARCHIN, L.: Jane Eyre [Opera] (Zetlan, MacPherson, Meglioranza, J. Thompson, Orchestra of the League of Composers, Karchin)

Jane Eyre Music by Louis Karchin (b. 1951) • Libretto by Diane Osen (b. 1956)


Louis Karchin’s Jane Eyre – An interview with the composer

Over the past two decades, composer Louis Karchin has created an oeuvre of acclaimed vocal works: two extended pieces for baritone and orchestra—Gods of Winter (2006), on poems of Dana Gioia, and American Visions (2012), settings of the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko—Four Songs on Poems of Seamus Heaney (2014), for soprano and chamber ensemble, the masque Orpheus (2003), which employs a poem by Stanley Kunitz, and an hourlong one-act opera, Romulus (2005), based on a play by Alexandre Dumas. While he has set some of the most prominent poets of our time, composing a work based on one of the vast and iconic novels of the 19th century, by the beloved author Charlotte Brontë, presented both a challenge and an unparalleled opportunity.

Karchin says, “Jane Eyre was composed between 2010 and 2014, and it is, by far, the largest project I have ever undertaken. The libretto itself was a feat of compression, and it was Diane’s idea, both from a dramatic and practical standpoint, to introduce Jane as a governess, already serving Edward Rochester. Her inspired decision to open with a fire raging in Rochester’s bedroom recreated only one of many dramatic scenes that faithfully echo Brontë’s narrative and distinctive syntax.” While this is their first collaboration, Karchin and Osen had met many years earlier through their daughters, and Karchin frequently consulted Osen, an established writer with a background in opera, on questions about poetry he was setting.

The first scene of Act I is roughly divided into three parts: the opening “fire music,” followed by two arias of Jane’s. The first traces Jane’s transformation from unloved orphan to self-assured governess; the second, following a short freer section, is more reflective and speaks of Jane’s growing fascination with Rochester. The scene’s placid ending is a direct foil to its turbulent beginning. The opera’s second scene, set in the lavish drawing room of Thornfield, Rochester’s home, is layered with reference points, including some tropes from traditional opera. Karchin says, “Diane and I wanted to give Rochester more obvious appeal—so we represented him as a man of culture and decided that he should be an opera lover. Donizetti is a composer with whom he might have been acquainted, and three Donizetti operas are mentioned in the text. All are alluded to as fleeting musical references, but the one most relevant for Jane Eyre was Lucia di Lammermoor, with its own ‘mad’ scene. For example, Rochester explains to Blanche’s mother that Donizetti is ‘a composer, Mrs. Ingram, for the opera, the most sublime art invented by man.’ At that moment, Rochester is pensive, though, thinking of his own situation, and recalls a phrase from Lucia’s mad scene (here played by the horns). Mrs. Ingram, blithely unaware of Rochester’s circumstances, or his train of thought, dismisses the entire art form in a sentence, ‘Mr. Ingram never cared for music, nor for the Italians,’ and the music correspondingly changes abruptly.”

“The second scene also contains folk music,” Karchin notes, “and in a few cases, it incorporates songs gleaned from a book of 19th-century English parlor music loaned to me by a musicology colleague.” The appearance of Rochester, disguised as a gypsy, references another touchstone from traditional opera, in which the fortune teller is a frequent character type. In Rochester’s first major aria, the “gypsy” compliments Jane and searches to uncover her true feelings about him.

Scene 3 includes Rochester’s substantial second aria, in which he begins to confide in Jane. The arrival of the servant, Bessie, leads to the largest ensemble piece of the opera, a spirited quartet with Jane, Mrs. Fairfax, Bessie and Rochester that crests to form the act’s ebullient climax.

Beginning with Act II, the score moves more into the realm of arioso, relying less on traditional set pieces. Karchin says, “I felt in the first act that arias for the protagonists would help to establish their characters and the emotions that motivate them. In the second act, with its constant action, a more contemporary technique of creating monologues not dependent on standard musical forms seemed to best propel the narrative of the tale.”

Towards the end of Act II, Scene 1, Jane and Rochester sing ecstatically of their love and forthcoming marriage. Then, as the orchestral interlude intimates, Jane begins to fear the future. “It was important that the interlude between Scenes 1 and 2 – one of the most extended of the opera—gradually transform the mood into its opposite,” Karchin notes. “Now Jane is alone, in an orchard at night, waiting for Rochester, who is late, and she is troubled by ominous signs.” The scene leads to Jane’s “nightmare” monologue, which recalls a trumpet motif from the prior interlude. The climax is a duet in which Jane relates waking to find her wedding veil torn to shreds, and Rochester denies any cause for concern. The duet, some of the most complex music of the opera, is based on a moment in Act I when Rochester is caught between praise of Jane and trepidation at Mason’s sudden appearance. The duet expands that music greatly, layering it with counterpoint.

There is contrasting levity in the wedding scene, as the pastor, Mr. Wood, plods in his recitation of the marriage vows and Rochester tries to hurry him along. The pastor barely budges (as depicted by the incremental tempo marking in the score, “Only slightly faster than before”). Rochester’s final monologue in Act II finds him losing control and lashing out, declaring that he is above God’s laws.

Musical connections abound in the second act. In addition to the above-mentioned duet, Mrs. Fairfax’s entrance in Act II expands the music of her previous entrance in Act I. Moments later, as Jane reflects on her visit to her Aunt Reed, the music refers back to Bessie’s aria of Act I in which Bessie requested that Jane return home. The lawyer Briggs’s music as he objects to the wedding taking place, is, in fact, the music of the interlude in Act I that presages Mason’s visit, now overlaid with a vocal part. The moment at the end of Rochester’s final monologue, where he pronounces himself above the constraints of traditional morality, transforms music presented in much quieter fashion close to the beginning of the act, in which Mrs. Fairfax counsels Jane towards a conservative approach to her relations with Rochester before the wedding.

The overture to Act III represents Jane’s harrowing flight from Thornfield, gradually calming to reveal the pastoral mood of a country setting. The introduction of children is a crucial component of Act III, Scene 1. Jane is teaching in a one-room schoolhouse, and providing her charges with the positive educational experience she was denied. “Musically, this opened an opportunity for another orchestral flowering,” explains Karchin, “as the music of the chorus builds steadily from an accompaniment of ‘one note at a time’ to a ‘symphony of sound’ representing the children’s happiness (and even providing for the possibility, towards the end, of a children’s ballet). Afterwards the ‘sweet side’ of St. John’s (pronounced “SINjin’s”) character appears, as he cheerfully describes to Jane the news of her good fortune. In Scene 2, by contrast, Osen’s libretto is deft in turning the tables, showing St. John’s puritanical side, as Jane ponders his proposal of a marriage based on single-minded service to God, rather than love.”

The transition between Scenes 2 and 3 is a final orchestral showpiece, depicting Jane’s carriage ride back to Thornfield. As this instrumental climax fades and the carriage slows, a bowed flexatone (one of the most innovative touches of orchestration in the opera) suggests the brakes of its wheels. Mrs. Fairfax relates the story of the fire that has destroyed Thornfield and incapacitated Rochester; as the music gains in intensity, it recalls the “fire music” of the very opening of the opera. A slow transition follows as Rochester now nearly blind, gradually intuits that Jane has returned to him. Jane’s return provides a redemptive quality to the end of the opera that is underscored by a touching moment. Rochester, one arm incapacitated, attempts to play and sing one of the folk songs that reminds him of happier days with Jane. She joins him in the song as a duet and they affirm their enduring love. The dissonance found during St. John’s demands on Jane and her subsequent indecision is banished in favor of a final, moving duet, some of the most resolutely consonant music that Karchin has composed to date.

Karchin’s wide-ranging harmonic language in Jane Eyre is a hallmark of the work. “This was planned carefully and is intentional,” notes the composer. “Opera needs contrast, and in this sprawling work, I felt that the more variety, the greater the possibility of emphasizing drama and delineating character. There are other ways to do it, of course, but this path seemed most appropriate for Jane Eyre. The opera also flows from the language of my previous vocal music, with every stylistic element simply more pronounced here due to the vast dimensions at hand. The greatest challenge was to try to create a seamless flow always—the intended effect was the opposite of ‘collage.’ Ideally, I would like the audience to think not of harmonic shifts, but rather sit back and listen to the work as one continuous entity.”

The world premiere staging of Jane Eyre took place on 20 and 22 October 2016, at the Kaye Playhouse in Manhattan, under the auspices of the Center for Contemporary Opera. All of the singers from the original production signed on to record the following September. The principals—soprano Jennifer Zetlan (Jane) and tenor Ryan MacPherson (Rochester)—are vocalists experienced in both contemporary music and standard repertoire who have performed on some of the most acclaimed stages in the world. Two singers from the cast of Karchin’s Romulus – soprano Katrina Thurman (Blanche Ingram) and baritone Thomas Meglioranza (Roderick Ingram/St. John Rivers)—appear in roles written for them. Karchin is fortunate that the Orchestra of the League of Composers, which he has conducted in many concerts, was available to record the opera. Karchin says, “There is a level of working rapport that I have with these musicians that I value immeasurably. They met every challenge head on.” Thus, this recording of the work has the benefit of singers who have inhabited the roles onstage, honing their musical and dramatic interpretations of them, sympathetic and committed orchestral collaborators, and, certainly not least, Karchin’s operatic score: an ambitious, multi-faceted, and boldly engaging work.

Christian Carey

Composer, musicologist, and theorist Christian Carey is editor of the contemporary music site Sequenza 21 and has published articles in Perspectives of New Music, Intégral, Musical America, and Tempo.


Act I

As the opera begins, Jane Eyre, an orphaned young governess, is fearlessly dousing a fire set in the bedroom of her employer, the dashing and insouciant Edward Rochester. Despite the difference in their stations, each senses in the other a singular sensibility, and their banter and reveries reveal their unspoken attachment. In Scene 2, set in the lavish drawing room of Thornfield, Rochester’s manor, Jane’s discernment contrasts sharply with the disingenuousness of Blanche Ingram, an imperious beauty determined to marry Rochester. Disguising himself as a gypsy, he exposes Blanche’s true nature, while trying to ascertain Jane’s. In Scene 3, Rochester trusts Jane to tend to Richard Mason, an unexpected guest with a mysterious injury; but further conversation is interrupted by an urgent summons for Jane to attend to her dying Aunt Reed, who has a secret to share as well.

Act II

Rochester’s housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax is distressed by the news that Jane, newly returned to Thornfield, is to marry Mr. Rochester—and counsels her to resist his certain advances. That the new couple is deeply in love is unmistakable, but Jane insists on retaining her own identity and remaining Rochester’s equal. In Scene 2, she confesses that her joy in their imminent nuptials has been dimmed by nightmares and eerie omens, which Rochester dismisses. In the final scene, set in the manor chapel, the groom can barely contain his impatience to exchange vows; but the ceremony is nevertheless cut short when Mr. Briggs, an attorney, declares that Rochester is already married—to Mason’s sister. Rochester bitterly recounts his personal history and how his wife, now quite mad, came to live in the attic at Thornfield. He begs Jane to run away with him, declaring that conventional morality should not keep them apart; but despite the pain it will cause them both, she refuses to sacrifice her principles to her passion.


Jane is now teaching in a schoolhouse far away from Rochester. Her rescuers—sisters Mary and Diana, and their dour brother, pastor St. John—learn Jane’s real name and family connections through a letter from Mr. Briggs, who also reveals Jane’s surprising, and heretofore unknown, status as the beneficiary of a large inheritance. In Scene 2, St. John reveals a far more disturbing secret: he now believes it is Jane’s God-given duty to marry him and support his missionary work in India. Still captivated by Rochester, and horrified by the prospect of a loveless marriage, Jane nonetheless considers St. John’s proposal—until she hears a voice calling her name. In Scene 3, Jane and Mrs. Fairfax converse again, under very different circumstances: Mrs. Rochester has died in a blaze set by her own hand; and in trying to save her, Mr. Rochester has been nearly blinded and maimed. He and Jane are joyfully reunited, secure in their love and they vow never to part.

Diane Osen

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