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Alice Tierney (2023)

for 7 solo voices, chamber ensemble | 01:00:00

by Melissa Dunphy | text by Jacqueline Goldfinger

Commissioned by Oberlin Conservatory's Opera Commissioning Program through the generosity of Elizabeth and Justus '71 Schlichting.

Alice Tierney was premiered at Oberlin Conservatory in 2023, and at Opera Columbus in April 2023. Dunphy was one of seven winners of a 2020 OPERA America Discovery Grant, presented to female composers with the intention of increasing gender parity across the opera industry. That grant supported the development of Alice Tierney at Oberlin.

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Composer's Notes

"A few years ago, while researching the history of my home in Philadelphia, I uncovered newspaper reports of a 45-year-old “dissipated woman” named Alice Tierney who was found strangled and strung up on a fence on my property on a cold January night in 1880. Shockingly, Tierney’s death was written up by contemporary police and the press as an accident. I pledged to find a way to tell Alice’s story, which resonates in the 21st century when our culture is actively grappling with the ways in which women’s stories of trauma are silenced or minimized, especially those of vulnerable and poor women.

"What little we know about Alice is dimmed by the passage of 140 years and hampered by a lack of written records about those who lived on the fringes of society. Librettist Jacqueline Goldfinger and I opted to tell Alice’s story from the perspectives of four modern-day archeologists who piece together Alice Tierney’s life while excavating the place where she lived and died. Their different perspectives show that the telling of history says just as much about the narrator as the narrative. What assumptions, experiences, prejudices, knowledge, and personalities do these four archeologists bring to their research, which affect the way they see and conceive of Alice Tierney? Attempting to answer this question delves into big issues like truth, justice, and equality. For hundreds of years, American history (and indeed, opera) has been primarily told by one demographic. Including marginalized perspectives is a challenge, but gives us a fuller picture of the past and ourselves."
—Melissa Dunphy

Press quotes

"Melissa Dunphy’s score is a magical mix of styles that supports each change of emotion. Dunphy also leaves plenty of room in the score for the vocal lines to project over the music. " [Cleveland Classical]

“I think the Alice Tierney is uniquely important with its empowerment of women, and that the main characters of the opera are actually graduate students within the story, as are the graduate students who are performing the roles [at Boston University].” [William Lumpkin, Artistic Director of BU’s Opera Institute]


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.

Original Cast

QUINN...Jordan Twadell
ZANDRA...Kayleigh Tolley
LYRA...Elizabeth Hanje
JOHN...Jon Motes
ALICE 1...Mae Harrell
ALICE 2...Kylie Buckham
ALICE 3...Wooldjina Present
Conductor...Benjamin Martin
Pianist...Daniel Michalak

Stage Director…Christopher Mirto
Dramaturg…Julia Bumke

Photographers: Yevhen Gulenko and Jonathan Clark

Oberlin Conservatory

OPERA America

Artwork by Caroline Church.


  • 29 Feb, 2024 - 03 Mar, 2024: Lawrence University Opera at Stansbury Theatre, Music-Drama Center, Lawrence University, Appleton, WI
  • 01 Dec, 2023 - 03 Dec, 2023: Rutgers University Helix! Ensemble at Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
  • 13 Oct, 2023 - 15 Oct, 2023: Boston University Opera Institute at Studio ONE, CFA Building, Boston University, Boston, MA
  • 29 Apr, 2023: Oberlin Opera at Riffe Center, Columbus, OH
  • 27 Jan, 2023 - 29 Jan, 2023: Oberlin Opera at Finney Chapel, Oberlin, OH


  • OPERA America Discovery Grant 2020