Hannah Moscovitch’s first full-length play was 2007′s East of Berlin, a psychological thriller about a son of a Nazi. Her Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes, concerning an illicit love affair, won the 2021 Governor-General’s Award for English-language drama. Before the current labour disputes in Hollywood, she was a writer and co-executive producer on the gothic-horror television series Interview with the Vampire on the U.S. cable channel AMC.
“I like to pick dark topics,” the 45-year-old writer says.
Indeed, Moscovitch’s latest project is an opera about the horror and misogyny of 19th-century insane asylums. A co-production between Toronto’s Tapestry Opera and Opera Philadelphia, 10 Days in a Madhouse received its world premiere this week in the city of liberty and cheesesteaks.
You want it darker? The budding librettist and one of Canada leading playwrights is thinking about leaving the world of theatre and opera altogether for Hollywood.
Moscovitch and American composer Rene Orth wrote 10 Days in a Madhouse in 2018. Then the pandemic and the accompanying pause of live performances hit. Moscovitch went from having a dozen productions of her plays in a year to none at all.
“My industry was gone for two years, and when your industry is gone, you move on,” she says. “I’m a freelancer, so I switched to television. And now I’m really ensconced in that other world.”
Working on Interview with the Vampire, she spent half her time in Los Angeles and the other half in Prague, where the first season was shot. “I’m barely Canadian at the moment,” Moscovitch says.
Actually, at the moment, she’s in Halifax, speaking from the home she shares with her husband and their child. When she’s not there or in Los Angeles, she works in Toronto. She recently collaborated with First Nations actress and producer Jennifer Podemski on Little Bird, the six-part Crave series on life during the Sixties Scoop.
10 Days in a Madhouse is Moscovitch’s fourth opera – she previously worked with composer Lembit Beecher for Sky on Swings and I Have No Stories To Tell You. The psychological drama was inspired by the essays written by trailblazing journalist Nellie Bly for the New York World in 1887. Bly covertly posed as a patient to expose the incompetence of mental hospitals and the abysmal treatment of incarcerated women.
“It just screamed opera,” says Orth, who came across the story of Bly and her essays while scrolling social media. Orth, like Moscovitch, had participated in Opera Philadelphia’s Opera Lab, an incubator for operas and emerging composers and librettists. Opera Philadelphia suggested the two would be a great match.
“Hannah was game for anything I threw at her,” says Orth, a young composer who applies electronic soundscapes and beats to acoustic music.
As Moscovitch often tackles issues and relationships through a feminist lens, the subject matter of 10 Days in a Madhouse grabbed her.
“There was absolute authority of these male doctors over these female patients,” Moscovitch says. “They were treated abominably – they didn’t go in there mad; those conditions created madness.”
The opera, which is expected to hit a Toronto stage in 2024, is directed by Joanna Settle, who also helmed Moscovitch’s Sky on Swings. Before working with Moscovitch, the Brooklyn-based Settle read a half dozen of the Canadian’s plays.
“Often characters are written to the code of what we expect on stage, and they do things that real people would not do,” Settle says. “Hannah never makes that compromise, and it’s most striking in the women characters. They are never sold out to further the story. There are very few writers who write women like Hannah does. Annie Baker is the only other one I can think of.”
That’s high praise: The American playwright won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for her play The Flick. Not that Moscovitch’s trophy case is empty: In addition to the G-G award, she received the Windham–Campbell Literature Prize in the drama category for East of Berlin, becoming the first Canadian woman to earn the Yale University-bestowed honour.
Though her operas have won no trophies yet, Moscovitch’s reputation glitters.
“I call Hannah a muse, in that she’s one of those people who can take what’s going on in the world and come up with a story that captures the feeling of what it’s like to be alive right now,” says Michael Hidetoshi Mori, Tapestry Opera’s artistic and general director. “The cool thing about her is that she could do anything, but she’s going to do the things that she cares about, and that will keep her a unique artist.”
Moscovitch has described her occupational path as “strange and whimsical.” One New York agent was puzzled by what he called her “lateral” move into opera. “I used to be told that my career was prolific but disorganized,” she says.
Now, she can add “practical” to the list of adjectives. Though her invitation to write for Interview with the Vampire was totally unexpected – one of the show’s producers saw her work at the Stratford Festival – her decision to relocate to Los Angeles’s TV land was an extreme move made out of necessity when theatre stages were locked down.
She had plays in the pipeline that have since premiered (the Succession-style corporate drama Post-Democracy at Tarragon Theatre and the adaptation of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s bestselling novel Fall on Your Knees at Canadian Stage), and another is still to come (Red Like Fruit, at Halifax’s 2b Theatre). But, for now, she’s dedicated to the small screen, even as the Writers Guild of America strike moves into its fifth month.
“I want to write plays and operas again, but will I be interested in those jobs?” she wonders. “I’m sure I will, but in the meantime, I’ve been swept up in another industry.”
Canada’s David B. Devan departs Opera Philadelphia
After 18 years, including 12 as general director and president, David B. Devan said he will not seek to renew his contract with Opera Philadelphia when it expires on May 31, 2024. The company recently announced it would reduce its budget by 20 per cent for the coming season by eliminating several full-time administrative positions and postponing the production of Joseph Bologne’s The Anonymous Lover. Regarded as a change agent in the world of opera, Devan previously was executive director of Pacific Opera Victoria. B.W.
Editor’s note: Editor's note: A previous version of this article included incorrect details about Hannah Moscovitch's personal and professional life. She shares a home with her husband and their child; 10 Days in a Madhouse is her fourth opera. This version has been corrected.