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From Page to Opera Stage: Mid-Century Psychological Horror in Graham’s & Muhly’s ‘Marnie’

(Credit: Ken Howard Metropolitan Opera)

“Page to Opera Stage” examines stories – real or fictional, old and new – that have inspired operas, and how those stories have been edited and dramatized to fit a new medium. This month, head to the 20th and 21st centuries with Winston Graham’s quasi-Freudian psychological thriller “Marnie”, adapted into an opera by composer Nico Muhly and librettist Nicholas Wright in 2017.

Winston Graham is perhaps best known for the stormy romances and domestic strife of his “Poldark” novels, which have inspired adaptations very different from those of his most famous psychological thriller. Instead of heading into Cornish’s past, her 1961 novel “Marnie” is set in the 1950s among families still bearing the scars of World War II. Graham’s novel is a compelling crime story of its time, as its anti-heroine assumes many identities and steals large sums of money to support her mother and her beloved horse. She moves between jobs and towns in the bucolic English South West and the Midlands one step ahead of anyone’s trail. Unsurprisingly, a new employer – Mark Rutland – understands his ruse, forcing a marriage, sex and psychotherapy.

Graham ostensibly based aspects of “Marnie” on three real cases: about a woman who turned to sex work during World War II, killed her child born out of wedlock, and was acquitted of insanity (reflecting Marnie’s mother’s situation); of a woman who moved from one job to another stealing money and changing her identity; and another young woman who lied compulsively, avoided men, and loved horse riding.

Little is known about these cases other than Graham’s own anecdotes, and the author’s sympathy seems more with those affected by these “abnormalities” rather than with the humans and the trauma at their hearts. He was writing at a time when Freudian psychology was very much in vogue. Marnie’s dislike of men and her fondness for her horse Forio have inspired both authoritarian interpretations of “repression” as well as more nuanced gay and asexual readings of the novel. But ultimately, the text relies on the polar angle.

Hitchcock’s loose adaptation is perhaps more famous (and won’t be covered here), but Nico Muhly and Nicholas Wright’s opera – which premiered at the English National Opera in 2017 and the Metropolitan Opera in 2018 – puts its own fascinating spin on the story. “Marnie” is an ambitious opera to produce, with large choruses, many changes of scenery, and an action-packed fox hunt – complete with abstract dogs and horses – depicted on stage. Muhly and Wright drew directly from the novel rather than Hitchcock’s famous reworking. The result is a largely faithful adaptation with some tweaks for stage support, the most crucial of which are explored below.

Compressed and contrasted characters

Marnie’s trap plays out through increased connections in the opera. The novel’s early identity changes, abrupt departures and thefts are reviewed in favor of the two occasions Marnie meets Mark Rutland – first as a client, then as an employer. Mark therefore figures much more prominently. When he understands Marnie’s schemes and forces her to marry, it’s less shocking but no less heartbreaking.

Mark’s slimy cousin Terry also rose to prominence, becoming Mark’s brother and Marnie’s eventual brother-in-law. His role in the plot remains largely unchanged, but another member of Mark’s family gets an upgrade to complete a family as messed up as Marnie’s. In the novel, Mark’s mother is an appropriate and kind presence; in the opera, Mark’s (and now Terry’s) mother is involved in her sons’ affairs, demanding that Mark assert himself as general manager and live up to the tough image she has.

This added importance and parental pressure, reflecting the shadow of neglect that Marnie cannot escape with her own family, sets the ill-fated couple as foils for each other. If their relationship were more conventional, they would seem ready to continue this dysfunctional cycle into the next generation.

In her head

Graham’s first-person narration captures much of Marnie’s psychic sentences that lengthen and lack focus as her carefully constructed life crumbles. Below, she contemplates Mark’s proposal, strangely moved by the care he seems to show her but also aware of the ensuing disaster of unparalleled desires.

He said this in such a calm voice that for a moment I felt touched and happy. Maybe this idea about Chinese boxes was good for me to think about, because God knows a third of the time I was a little flattered because he was so crazy about me and a third of the time I hated it deeply, and a the third time I felt sorry for him, and all I could be sure of was that if I married him it would be the biggest mess in the world for both of us and I wouldn’t couldn’t think of it.

Muhly’s score and Wright’s libretto retain the centralization of Marnie’s outlook, giving her the only arias in the opera. They further back up his inner monologue with a chorus from his past. These shadows echo current Marnie’s thoughts and behave like characters she has adopted and abandoned. This effect not only amplifies Marnie’s ability to slip between characters, but also the baggage she’s carried since childhood, as she can’t shake off her ghosts.

The end

Despite the coercive start to Marnie and Mark’s marriage, there is a glimmer of something – hope, recognition, perhaps reconciliation – at the end of the opera. As attempted marital rape and suicide threaten their relationship (and should have, by all rights, ended the marriage), after Forio’s death and Mark’s serious injury during the fox hunt, it seems that there is an agreement. As she leaves her mother’s funeral – having learned the truth about her brother’s death – she is confronted by Mark, Terry and the police. Her husband, largely recovered, asks her if she will come back to him “when all this is over”, in reference to her prison sentence. She neither confirms nor denies, only singing that she is free – finally – when handcuffed. Their future is uncertain, but an almost restorative sense of closure is achieved.

In the novel, Marnie is arrested while Mark remains in the hospital. She doesn’t mention it because she sees her past catching up with her. Both endings remain more ambiguous, fitting the thriller genre if it lacks the poetry of opera.

“Marnie” is a story of its time. Muhly’s focus is that of the 21st century, subtly working within modern understandings of trauma to replace the “deviance” in which Graham revels. It’s a smart play, retaining the dark aspects that make the novel work while emphasizing the human.

Winston’s Graham’s “Marnie” is widely available in libraries and booksellers.

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