A female Frankenstein throws off literary shackles

A brand-new Frankenstein, in song. Image courtesy of Philadelphia Opera Collective.

The real world and fantasy collide in the imaginative opera By You That Made Me, Frankenstein. This world premiere production by the Philadelphia Opera Collective (POC) explores the complex relationships of the artists living at Lord Byron’s estate during the summer of 1816 and the competition that would inspire Mary Shelley to create Frankenstein.

“We all have monsters inside of us,” said Michael A. Lienhard, who produced the show and portrays The Monster. “Shelley intended The Monster to be a personification of the damage we cause to our friends and lovers.”

Characters telling the tale, in addition to The Monster, include Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and, of course, Dr. Frankenstein. In a unique facet of this telling, the doctor who creates The Monster is female, played by soprano Kirsten C. Kunkle. Also, Dr. Frankenstein and The Monster don’t exist solely in their fictional world: Creators say the imaginary characters outgrow their literary shackles and interact with the real-world artists.

Giving opera a chance in English

Kunkle, a professionally trained opera singer who has performed in Italian, German, and French, likes that this production is in English.

“Everything should be accessible,” she said. “I love the art form so much. It’s often portrayed as being high-brow, but if more people would give it a chance, they would love it.”

She also likes performing opera as part of the Fringe Festival.

“The Fringe audience is incredibly supportive. They generally want to see what’s new and different, something other than what you can see in the big houses,” she said.

The libretto impressed Kunkle. “It grabs a hold of you,” she said. “It’s a rare find to see something like this.” She thinks that librettist Brenna Geffers “really thinks about how she can write in an artistic way that still appeals to the masses."

Did Mary Shelley imagine a female Frankenstein?

Geffers, POC’s lead conceptual creator, who also directs Frankenstein, wrote this piece after deciding with the group that they should do a story “with a central female protagonist with a dilemma other than romance,” she said.

Geffers, a history buff, enjoyed researching the lives of Mary Shelley and the other real people who are characters in the opera. As she wrote, themes of friendship, isolation, and the dynamics of being a part of an artistic community emerged.

Writing the libretto was easy, she said, because research yielded a plethora of items, including the artists’ poetry, novels, and letters. “They left behind so much,” she said. “It was easy to find their voices.”

She loves writing as well as the tradition of opera being made more consumer-friendly. “I love the spectacle and magnificence of it, but I love stories most of all,” she said. “I like to focus on how performers can best tell the story.”

Geffers said others were extremely helpful during her writing process through free writes, research assistance, and table readings. “It’s a labor of love from a lot of people,” she said. “I could not have done it without the imaginations of some great artists.”

She liked exploring the idea of a woman driven by scientific passion and intellectual pursuit. “Mary Shelley’s mother was a feminist writer, and Mary was raised with that point of view,” she said. "I felt comfortable based on our research that she might imagine our hero as a woman.”

Both Geffers and Kunkle agree that anyone will be able to relate, though, because of their shared humanity. Lienhard thinks the human and The Monster exist in all people: “In order to appreciate the light inside of us,” he said, “we need to identify the darkness.”

By You That Made Me, Frankenstein ($15–$20), part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, is running at the 112-year-old Franklin Inn Club at 205 S. Camac Street, Philadelphia, from September 12–21, and performances are selling out fast. For showtime details and tickets, click here.