Opioids the Opera: painkiller’s ‘lurid tale of greed’ inspires new production

<span>Seth Numrich in a scene from a production of War Horse at the Lincoln Centre Theatre in New York in 2011. </span><span>Photograph: Paul Kolnik/ASSOCIATED PRESS</span>
Seth Numrich in a scene from a production of War Horse at the Lincoln Centre Theatre in New York in 2011. Photograph: Paul Kolnik/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The opioid crisis is to be the subject of a new opera by a former artistic director of English National Opera (ENO) and the man behind the stage adaptation of War Horse.

The Galloping Cure would tell “a lurid tale of the greed surrounding the tragedy of the opioid crisis”, said Tom Morris, its director.

Morris’s staging of War Horse with puppets has been seen by more than 8.3 million people worldwide, has won at least 25 awards and is about to embark on another tour.

John Berry, the award-winning former artistic director of ENO, who is developing the project alongside international production companies, said: “This is a newly commissioned opera based on the opioid crisis and the destructive nature of addiction. Opera can tell these multi-emotional and big subjects like no other art form because you’ve got the emotional content of the music, as well as the acting, the singing and thrilling visuals.

“Most new opera commissions do not reflect the zeitgeist of current contemporary society.”

The premiere is planned for 2026. Missy Mazzoli, described by Berry as “one of the world’s most exciting opera composers”, is writing the music to a story by Karen Russell and Royce Vavrek, the latter “a hugely gifted opera librettist”, whose opera Angel’s Bone, with composer Du Yun, was awarded the 2017 Pulitzer prize for music.

Two of the creators have lost close friends or relatives to addiction.

Morris said: “The commercialisation of care and medications is highly problematic in itself. But, as [the librettist and composer] are digging into the story, it is already starting to chime with the ways in which the peddling of dreams and falsehoods of other kinds creates opportunities for exploitation, dishonesty and injustice.”

He added: “We need to be courageous about allowing ourselves to tell big important stories.”

Related: The making of an opioid epidemic

The opera will not mention real individuals, such as the billionaire Sackler family, who owned Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, a highly addictive painkiller that fuelled an opioid epidemic responsible for the deaths of more than half a million Americans over two decades.

In the UK, opioid-related deaths make up the largest proportion of drug-linked fatalities, with an average of 40 deaths a week. Other drug makers, distribution companies and pharmacies have also faced legal action for their roles in the opioid crisis.

Berry said: “The creative team have found an unexpected and fascinating approach to the subject matter, setting it in the present day and in a deprived, down-on-its-luck, nonspecific small town.”

The opera, said Morris, would be an allegorical story about the advent of an apparent miracle cure and its devastating consequences, transposing “the beleaguered hero of Franz Kafka’s classic story A Country Doctor to the dreamless landscape of a depressed post-industrial town”.

He added that this will be a “Burton-esque fable”, referring to director Tim Burton, whose films combine the fantastic and the macabre.

Morris said: “The nightmare begins as our hero is seduced by a diabolic salesman with a vision of a world free from pain: new to the town, the charismatic Lucky Mack is busy handing out his miracle cure – a painted carousel, providing galloping relief to a community racked with exhaustion and despair. As addiction takes hold, the world floods with surreal colour.” l

Mazzoli said: “Two of my cousins died before they were 25, of overdoses. For pain relief, after surgery, one of them had been prescribed opioids. It got them into an addiction, which became a heroin addiction. The other cousin died from a heroin addiction.

“Royce and I have several friends we’ve lost to addiction in their 30s. So it’s a very real thing for us. Opera is a place for big ideas. Its superpower is in its layering, communicating many things at the same time.”

Vavrek said: “My father died from suicide due to alcoholism, but this piece also speaks to addiction in general. We carry our life’s experiences with us and, as artists, we synthesise them and try to reflect them in our work. This is such a big topic in America and now in the world, it feels really relevant. We have to tell stories that get people’s imaginations riled up.”

San Francisco Opera and Norrlandsoperan in Sweden are among leading international commissioners and collaborators that are ensuring the production will be staged worldwide, which is unusual for a contemporary opera.

Berry led the ENO from 2005 to 2015, staging award-winning productions including The Damnation of Faust, directed by Terry Gilliam. Berry then founded Opera Ventures Productions, putting on acclaimed operas that have toured worldwide, including Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar, about the murdered Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca.

Its co-producers include Welsh National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York, which stages it in October.

Morris said that Berry is “single-handedly changing the rules” for opera.