Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart' Comes To Palm Beach In Opera Form

Jan 28, 2020

Edgar Allen Poe’s famous short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” follows an unreliable narrator’s account of murdering his roommate, and then his distress over being able to hear the murdered man’s heart beating loudly, even after he’s dead.  The dramatic, suspenseful story has spawned numerous adaptations for film, TV, radio,theater and ballet.

Now, composer Gregg Kallor is bringing his operatic version to the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach for a Wednesday evening show.

WLRN’s Madeline Fox spoke to Kallor about why he chose to use Poe’s story, and how his version subverts some assumptions about the original text.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

WLRN: What was your first experience with "The Tell-Tale Heart?" Can you tell me about when you first read it?

GREGG KALLOR:  I think the first time I read "The Tell-Tale Heart" was maybe in middle school, maybe in high school. I don't remember much about it, except that the story itself struck me. I had very little to do with it for a long time. I mean, it kind of hovers on the edge of your consciousness, comes up occasionally.

I didn't want to get into a full opera. I wasn't quite ready for that. So I thought, well, I love reading short stories. What about setting one [to music]? I had this vision of sitting around a campfire or someone holding a flashlight under their chin and and scaring the crap out of people. And I thought, well, yeah, I want to do that. And so what is a good ghost story? And Poe immediately came to mind.

The story, "The Tell-Tale Heart," follows a main character who's horrified by his roommate's eye and ends up killing him and stashing him beneath the floorboards. And then he's tormented by the sound of the man's heart beating. You said you categorize it as as a ghost story, as this sort of campfire story. Tell me a little bit more about that.

I always think of ghost stories as the ones that are chilling in a certain way, the ones that pull you in as a listener and create this very vivid world that scares you because you've envisioned yourself a part of it. I don't think of ghost stories as necessarily having to do with the supernatural. It's more of a visceral experience.

One of the adaptational choices that you made in this staging was to make the main character a woman.

It's interesting. There's nothing in the text that specifies gender. Most people, myself included, always assumed that the narrator is a man. But really, there's no reason to think that. So I thought, well, I don't know, what if we try giving this to a woman?

Jennifer Johnson Cano in 'The Tell-Tale Heart.'
Credit Courtesy of Gregg Kallor

It's kind of like in high school, you're sitting in English class and the professor brings in a frog for you to dissect or vice versa, you're in science class and they put a poem in front of you. Context. It just it makes you focus, or it makes me focus, that much more intently. So I thought something about this kind of subverted expectations a little bit, but it's still an entirely familiar tale — just maybe with a slightly different twist.

And in this opera the performers are just you, and the cellist, and then singer Jennifer Johnson Cano.

Yes. This is for voice, cello and piano. I wrote the piece with the idea that the cello would be another character in the story, so not background music in any way. It's kind of the aural embodiment of the narrator's thoughts. At times it's sort of a poltergeist on the edge of her consciousness. At other times, it's reflecting and magnifying her anxiety. And then the last component is the piano, which kind of provides the overall sound world that's in her head.

So basically what we're trying to do with the music is take what's in her head and manifest it in sound so that the audience is kind of enveloped in her world, and experiences what she experiences as she experiences it, rather than a retelling. It's more of a 'I am grabbing you by the throat and pulling you along with me for this crazy ride where I descend into the depths of insanity.'

Talk to me a little bit about what people will see when they see the performance here in Palm Beach.

So, for this performance, it's going to be less of a staged experience. It's going to be more of a concert setting. So, in a way, a little closer to my original intention, which was just a bunch of people sitting around a campfire and somebody happens to stick a flashlight underneath their chin. We're not going to use a costume, we're not gonna have any lighting changes. There will be no sets, no scenery. So this will really be carried on the strength of the performance.

If you go

Tickets for the performance, at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 29, are available on the Society of the Four Arts website. The music from the show can be purchased or streamed via links on Kallor’s website.