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Linsey Abrams
Rappaccini's Daughter

Interview by Beth Herstein

Linsey Abrams and Michael Cohen
Photo by Ann Volkes
Linsey Abrams is a multi-talent and an inspiration. She's written three novels, "Our History in New York," "Double Vision" and "Charting by the Stars," and her short stories, essays and reviews have been published widely. A feminist and humanist, Linsey co-founded PEN American Center's Women's Committee and served as writer-in-residence at the Harvey Milk School, New York's LGBT high school, in the 1980s. She founded and edited Global City Review (1993-2012), and she teaches fiction writing for City College of New York's MFA program—a program she directed from 2001-2012. She stepped down as head of the program so she could focus on her writing.

Among her new projects is Rappaccini's Daughter, which is enjoying its first extended run at Theater for the New City, from September 11-28. The operatic musical, a collaboration with composer Michael Cohen, is based on a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne that is medieval and quite dramatic—perfect, Abrams says, for an opera. Rappaccini's Daughter originated as a one-act and was a finalist at a competition at City Opera. It received more grants, honors and productions, and eventually evolved into its current two-act form. The show at Theater for the New City, which is entitled The Power of Love, also includes the operatic musical Out the Window by composer and librettist Seymour Barab.

I was lucky to have Linsey Abrams as my thesis advisor at City College, and was always impressed by her intellectual enthusiasm, her sense of the possibility, and her warmth. Therefore, I was especially excited to hear about this show. Between the commencement of the school year and preparations for the show her schedule has been furiously busy, but she was kind enough to let me conduct this e-interview.

Beth Herstein:  You were introduced to your collaborator Michael Cohen by a friend who thought you might work on something together. How did your relationship evolve from that point?

Linsey Abrams:  In fact, it's a funny story. We met quite some time ago, at a dinner party given by the late Paul Corrigan, a director, who said he was inviting the ten smartest people he knew. Of course, everyone went, and Paul introduced Michael and me, and said we should work together. He handed us [the short story] "Rappaccini's Daughter," and suggested it would make a wonderful opera.

Michael and I shared an aesthetic, loved each other's work, and an almost effortless way of working, together evolved—scene by scene, trading lyrics and musical motifs back and forth, making each other's work better. From the beginning, it was a perfect collaboration. Paul had been so right. Lost to AIDS, he never got to direct it. This was heart-breaking.

Scene from Rappaccini's Daughter
Photo by Peter Welch
BH:  What appealed to you about the story?

LA:  We both were drawn to Hawthorne's medieval tale, because of the doomed lovers Giovanni and Beatrice, daughter of the famous Dr. Rappaccini, in whose poisonous garden they carry on their courtship. They are the victims of one of his experiments, with the attendant hubris of a man who intends to change the very laws of nature. Rappaccini ends up in a tug-of-war with Professor Baglioni, who also teaches medicine at the University, for the young people's lives. Science vs. Humanity. What could be more operatic than that?

BH:  What are the challenges of working in this genre? How has being a writer of prose helped you?

LA:  As a fiction writer, I found writing an opera to be like writing a novel. You carry a story forward, and opposing themes, along with the dramatic arcs of each character and relationship, enrich the action, making it blossom into "life." The difference is the vocabulary—lyrics instead of prose—and the knowledge that music is the other vocabulary, and it needs its own space and opportunities to soar, shade, and follow its compositional necessities. The fact that it is set in Italy has influenced both lyrics and music.

BH:  How has the show evolved since its inception? What are your future hopes for Rappaccini's Daughter?

The first five scenes were sung in concert in June, 2013, by Essential Voices USA. We had been working on the eventually two-act opera, cutting it down. Earlier, Rappaccini's Daughter had been a finalist in a contest for one-acts at the City Opera. The result of the work for the concert was a dramatic reshaping, more cutting, and a complete rewrite of the last scene. That version was produced and is running at Theater for the New City, off-off Broadway. Our next step is a production with an orchestrated score at an opera or theater venue.

BH:  Do you and Michael Cohen plan to collaborate together in the future?

LA:  We are now working on a musical, working title A Fairy Godmother's Tale, which is similar to the opera in its magical, archetypal world. And it is also set in the past and in another country, early 18th-century France. But it has the traditional book and songs of the genre, and it is funny. The fairy godmother is a kind of secret agent, undercover as a ladies' maid. It is a great part for a comic actress and singer.

BH:  Until recently you were head of City College's creative writing MFA program. How did you balance that? Now you've stepped down as dean (chair?) to focus on your writing. How has it freed you up? Will you be focusing on musical theater or working on various projects?

LA:  Having stepped down as director after 12 years, I am able to focus more on my own work, as you say. Teaching remains very important to me, but it is time now to make tracks in my new artistic direction: the musical theater.

The Power of Love: Two New Operatic Musicals, Seymour Barab's Out the Window and Rappaccini's Daughter, by Michael Cohen and Linsey Abrams, at Theatre for the New City through September 28, 2014. For more information, visit

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