Alice Tierney (2023)
for solo soprano, piano | 00:11:00
by Melissa Dunphy | text by Jacqueline Goldfinger
Excerpts from Alice Tierney:
I Wish That You Could See You (Lyra)
three arias for soprano
I am Alice 1 (Alice 1)
I Might be Alice 3 (Alice 3)
A present-day archaeological dig in Philadelphia. Three graduate students, John, Quinn, and Zandra, are digging amid the ruins of a boarding house once run by Alice Tierney, a 19th-century sex worker whose death remains a mystery. The students count artifacts and joke about inconsequential finds, exhausted by the drudgery of the dig. Quinn discovers a teaspoon, triggering memories of her working-class childhood, while Zandra shares her heartbreak from a recent broken engagement. Lyra arrives at the site; she and Zandra have just begun a relationship, though Zandra is troubled by its rapid intensity. John sees them together and crudely reminds them of HR guidelines governing workplace relationships, causing Quinn to snap at him.
John shares his evolving passion for archaeology. Zandra imagines Alice through her feminist lens, while Lyra warns her about the dangers of projecting herself onto historical figures. Lyra expresses her love for Zandra, revealing some of their relationship’s backstory and her confidence that Zandra is “the one” (“I Wish That You Could See You”).
John and Quinn discover artifacts of significance. As John explains how his artifact, a shoe with a broken heel, unveils information about Alice Tierney, a version of her appears (“I Am Alice 1”). As imagined by John, Alice is a 19th-century sex worker trope: a coquettish femme fatale who manipulates men for pleasure and profit. Quinn is unimpressed with John’s version of Alice, criticizing him for his reliance on sexist stereotypes. She shares her artifact, a teapot with a suffragette slogan, and her version of Alice: an anachronistically liberated feminist who joins Quinn in a powerful pop-rock duet.
John throws Quinn’s words back at her as he pronounces her Alice unrealistic. Zandra and Lyra break up the argument, and Zandra encourages them to focus on what they know, rather than making assumptions. Her version of Alice Tierney appears and gives a nuanced if indistinct biography (“I Might Be Alice 3”).
The four argue about the power and currency of certainty in academic careers, but the argument is cut short when prior sexual drama between Quinn and John is unexpectedly revealed. After an awkward moment, they all return to work. John and Quinn continue to interact with their Alices, each respectively realizing that they have created inauthentic visions of her, which fade away.
Lyra accepts Zandra’s version of Alice, and the three women share how they are each struggling to break free of society’s assumptions. They promise to embrace the uncertainty of Alice Tierney’s life and death, as Lyra declares her love for Zandra’s human complexity.
Quinn and John join Lyra and Zandra in accepting what they do not know. The four archaeologists recognize their pasts’ influence on the way they construct their stories and view the world. Together, the characters look to the future as they continue to work on the dig, watched by the three Alices.
I Wish that You Could See You
LYRA: I wish that you could see you
the way that I see you.
I wish that you could feel you
the way that I feel you.
Not broken but brave,
and brilliant and bold,
and genuine and strong, so strong.
A beautiful monster of madness and rage
that only I can tame,
that only I can hold.
I thought I was in love, once long ago.
I thought she made me whole.
I didn't know it was really you.
My love, I was waiting for you.
My love, who arrived at my door,
soaked and freezing,
Lost in a storm with only me to keep you warm,
give you a home, give you…
I was never one for the spotlight.
I never wanted the top prize.
Once I earn this degree for my mother,
I’ll begin my own life—at last!—by your side,
my love, my own.
I didn't get it wrong, did I? No!
You’re the one,
and I will make it work.
no more mistakes,
I am Alice 1
ALICE 1: It did break.
It broke on the night I was murdered.
It broke in the struggle.
They threw it into the privy and left me dangling on the fence.
I am Alice. I am Alice Tierney.
I danced my way from New York to New Jersey,
New Jersey to the Philadelphia-shore.
Parties, glamour, and fashion.
I ran out of money
but not out of men, or women, or…
I built a place for those who hide in the shadows.
From the Merchant’s doors at Penn Harbor they came.
Top coats, top hats, striking silhouettes.
I open my front door wide.
They are ready for a loosened collar,
the gaze of someone who can truly see them,
the finest wine and company,
this is the life I was destined for.
No stuffy ballrooms,
no husband littering the city with bastards.
This is me.
No one will ever stop me.
I am Alice. I am Alice Tierney.
I might be Alice 3
ALICE 3: I might be Alice.
I might be Alice Tierney.
I cannot tell you where I come from,
but I can tell you where I’ve been.
I’ve been in bars where men profess love,
only to turn their backs when the next ship comes in.
I have lost lovers to conscription and civil war.
I have lost lovers to the meddling church,
and the cruel illness of Philadelphia summers.
But I have gained as I have lost,
and I have loved more than most.
Live on, all those who love and wish to be loved.
Destroy all but the proof of your passion
for the future to hold and judge.
In the end, the gavel sounds, a jury stands,
and I swing from a fence behind a boarding house.
A murder? A mistake? A suicide in the rough?
I might be Alice Tierney.
Commissioned by the Oberlin Conservatory’s Opera Commissioning Program, with the support of Justus Schlichting and a 2020 Discovery Grant from OPERA America.
Artwork by Caroline Church
- 20 May, 2023: Jessica Lennick (solo) at Moorestown Library, Moorestown, NJ