Crazy to Kill

Crazy to Kill. A 'detective opera' in one act by James Reaney (libretto) and John Beckwith (music).

Crazy to Kill

Crazy to Kill. A 'detective opera' in one act by James Reaney (libretto) and John Beckwith (music). The libretto (Guelph, Ont 1989) is based on the mystery novel Crazy to Kill (New York 1941; repr London, Ont 1989 with an introduction by Reaney) by the Stratford, Ont writer Ann Cardwell (pseudonym of Jean Makins Pawley). The opera is set in the late 1930s and takes place in Elmhurst, a fictional southern Ontario private asylum for wealthy mental patients. The story involves a series of murders at Elmhurst which are investigated by Detective Fry with the aid of Agatha Lawson, a 'model patient' whose stay at Elmhurst is nearly over. As part of her cure Agatha makes life-size doll puppets, which also portray characters at Elmhurst as the action unfolds. The plot comes to a surprising resolution in a final ballad by Agatha which is the musical and dramatic highpoint of the opera.

Crazy to Kill was commissioned by the Edward Johnson Music Foundation with a grant from the OAC for the Guelph Spring Festival; it was given a workshop performance at the Banff CA in October 1988 before the official premiere 11 May 1989 at Ross Hall in Guelph. The 22 roles in the opera are performed by 3 singers and 2 actors who also manipulate 18 doll puppets. The Guelph cast featured mezzo-soprano Jean Stillwell as Agatha, baritone Paul Massel as Detective Fry, and soprano Sharon Crowther as Mme Dupont, a patient at Elmhurst. The acting roles were taken by Cheryl Swarts and Jay Bowen. The instrumental accompaniment was performed (on stage) by Marc Widner, keyboard, and Mark Duggan, percussion; taped sound effects were created by Elyakim Taussig. There was no conductor. Jerry Franken directed, Sue LePage created the set and costumes, and Anna Wagner-Ott designed the puppets. The production was broadcast on CBC radio 21 Oct 1989.

Beckwith combined popular music idioms of the 1930s with other more contemporary styles in setting the text to music. Robert Everett-Green noted that the opera 'is just about all that good indigenous music theatre should be. It's sharply conceived, well written and popular without being craven, and so smartly tailored for the stage that it's difficult to separate Beckwith's music and Reaney's text from their presentation on the stage' (Toronto Globe and Mail 13 May 1989).


Further Reading

  • Kentridge, Catherine. ' Crazy to Kill,' MSc, 367, May-Jun 1989

    Mayo, John. 'Expectations and compacts in the Beckwith-Reaney operas: a case study,' University of Toronto Q, vol 60, Winter 1990-1