Skip to content ↓

Art Talk: Elena Ruehr, composer

Elena Ruehr
Elena Ruehr

Composer Elena Ruehr has been a lecturer in the music and theater arts section since 1992. In 1995, she received the Institute's Baker Undergraduate Teaching Award. Ruehr is also composer in residence for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, which co-commissioned her new dance opera, "Toussaint Before the Spirits," premiering next month as part of Opera Unlimited, Boston's new festival of contemporary chamber opera. The opera is about the final hours of Toussaint Louverture, leader and hero of Haiti's revolution for independence from French colonial rule, who was captured in a ruse by Napoleon's army and condemed to die without a trial in a prison in the French Alps.

Christina Jensen of the Office of the Arts recently interviewed Ruehr about her new opera.

Q. What inspired you to write this opera?

A. I've always wanted to write an opera because I love drama and music as a storytelling vehicle. When I got the commission, I was reading Madison Smartt Bell's "All Souls' Rising," which is about Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian revolution against French colonial rule. Toussaint was such an interesting and complex character that I fell in love with both him and the book.

Nicola Hawkins was one of the main inspirations for writing a dance opera. She and I have been interested in Japanese Kabuki theater for a long time, in which the singers stand with the orchestra and the dancers create the action. Nicola and I had this in mind as we started visualizing a story.

Stephen Salters was another force behind the creation of "Toussaint Before the Spirits." I had written a number of works for him, and wanted to write an opera as well. In fact, almost four years ago exactly, Stephen made a bet with me that I would write an opera for him to sing within five years!

Q. What appealed to you about Toussaint as a protagonist?

A. First, I wanted an historical European subject from about 1600 to 1800 because I wanted my opera to refer to opera itself, to be cast in a time when opera was actually part of the day-to-day culture. Also, I wanted a larger-than-life, tragic male hero, because that's the perfect kind of role for Stephen Salters to play. He is a huge presence on stage, and the multitimbral quality of his voice lends itself to the dramatic sound of tragedy. I was also looking for someone whose story had not been told many times already. Toussaint fit all these categories. He was a great hero of Haiti, intimately caught up in both the European fight for the New World and the creation of the modern democratic state.

Q. What do you hope the audience takes away from the premiere?

A. I hope they come away with a sense of emotional involvement, that they have learned a story about a man faced with difficulties outside of his control and how he managed to prevail. And certainly, I hope they come away feeling more comfortable and sympathetic with Haiti and human rights movements in general. But mostly this is a very personal story, and I hope they feel connected to the characters--after all, we all have things we need to overcome.


"Toussaint Before the Spirits" will be premiered at 8 p.m. on June 7 and 10 at Tower Auditorium (621 Huntington Ave.) as part of Opera Unlimited. At 2 p.m. on June 7, Ruehr and her collaborators will discuss the piece in a free panel discussion, "From Novel to Stage," at the Boston Public Library's Rabb Lecture Hall. For more information, call 617-363-0396 or visit

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 21, 2003.

Related Topics

More MIT News