Through the Grisly Maze: "Elizabeth Cree" is a puzzle-filled operatic mystery


An excerpt from the promotional poster for Elizabeth Cree. It shows the silhouettes of a man and a woman, with the moon overhead and an outline of the London skyline.

An excerpt from the promotional poster for the Unversity of Michigan Department of Voice and Opera's production of Elizabeth Cree.

As the opera begins, Elizabeth is hung for the murder of her husband, the playwright John Cree. 

Is she guilty of poisoning him?  

John is a serial killer, in the fashion of Jack the Ripper.  

Or is he? 

You’ll have about an hour and a half to solve the puzzles in Elizabeth Cree, which unravel in 29 scenes and over four timelines and include plays and vaudeville within an opera. 

“It’s an interesting and complicated piece,” says Gregory Keller, who directs Unversity of Michigan opera students in this one-act chamber opera, sung in English, that runs March 21-24 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre. Likening it to a hedge maze, he says, “We’re presenting it as a theatrical puzzle, a house of mirrors that the audience gets lost in and, maybe, found in. Each time you go into the maze, you make another connection.”

It’s so much so that conductor Kirk A. Severtson, who coordinates opera at U-M, says audiences who see it twice will delight in discovering Easter eggs, once they know what happened. “You have to see it more than once to get all the nuances,” he says. 

But those who see it once will have a chance to figure out just what is happening, after observing three gruesome murders almost in front of their eyes: Keller opted to stylize the crimes, presenting them as Victorian shadow plays.  

Costume drawing for Elizabeth Cree.

Costume drawing for Elizabeth Cree by Christianne Myers.

The work is a rondo, which means it ends where it begins, with Elizabeth’s hanging. But, oh, where you’ll go in between. We see her rise from rags to riches, enjoy her performances in vaudeville—Elizabeth is an entertainer—and shudder at assorted crimes. 

Librettist Mark Campbell and composer Kevin Puts, the team responsible for the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Silent Night, based their opera on Peter Ackroyd's novel The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, which is loosely based on a real 1880s serial killer in London.

There are other hat tips to history here, too. John Cree runs into Karl Marx and other historical figures of the era in the reading room of the British Museum. A play within the play within the opera mixes Victorian stage machinery with 2024 characters, trapped in the story of a killing. “This is a modern opera, written five years ago. This is not a period piece. It comments on our current state of humanity,” says Keller.

Costume drawings for John Cree and Little Victor Farrell.

Costume drawings for John Cree and Little Victor Farrell by Christianne Myers.

Costume designer Christianne Myers researched the times and the historical figures in Elizabeth Cree. “Little Victor Farrell,” a music hall performer, would have been cast with a little person in a realistic piece. Keller cast a singer who is 6-foot 2-inches and Myers outfitted him in 6-inch platform shoes and a stovepipe hat with a 3-foot feather. “We flipped it,” she says. 

Myers says Keller didn’t want the opera to look like a Victorian period piece; the idea was “to keep the flavor of the Victorian era through the lens of a contemporary group of performers.” She included period details—facial hair, a smoky dirtiness, an edgy Victorian feel—and mixed these with high fashion, which she investigated with the help of her student design assistant, Kayti Sanchez.

In addition to the museum, multiple locales include a music hall (on stage and off), a courtroom, and a prison. The cast moves most of the simple scenic pieces as they leave one scene and return in another. Myers used a tight color palette, which helped make it possible for actors to change costumes in rapidly changing scenes just by adding or removing an accessory. 

“There is not a resolution at the end where order is restored and justice and virtue survive,” says Keller. We’re left with a pile of bodies on stage. Yet, the work is peppered with absurd and funny moments, “mixing up our two basic dramatic structures of comedy and tragedy, It’s a work of genius,” says Keller, likening it to a shaggy dog story. 

“Vaudeville performers put on a variety show [that’s] wacky and outside the plot and entirely diversionary," says Severtson. "It’s very evocative of the musical style of that period. There are other moments of beautiful lyricism." The music and soundscape help define particular characters. 

“The music is very approachable and very challenging for performers,” adds Severtson. “There are a lot of disparate musical styles contained within it [and different theatrical styles, too.] ... This is a piece that’s been on my radar for some time. I’ve followed it since 2017 when it was premiered in Philadelphia.” 

Myers says the team got together early on, allowing them to work without feeling rushed and in a fully collaborative way. Keller, a guest director who staged Metropolitan Opera revivals for many years, concurs. 

“We had a two-month rehearsal period,” he says, explaining that even though they work short hours, it allowed “a deep dive into the material … It’s such a great luxury.” In New York’s premiere opera house, there may be more rehearsal hours but there’s little time to let the material percolate.  

This gave them time to consider and reject ideas, which then stimulated other ideas. “We thought of making the actors look like marionettes,” says Myers. “That was way too literal, but it allowed me to start thinking about the concept of being manipulated, how can that be manifest in the clothes.”

They thought about a company of performers stuck in Hell, putting on a production of Elizabeth Cree, which as you might guess, ends—justly or unjustly—with Elizabeth hung for poisoning her husband. 

Davi Napoleon, a theater historian and freelance writer, holds a BA and MA from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. from New York University. Her book is “Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theatre.”

"Elizabeth Cree" runs Thursday, March 21 at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday, March 22 and 23 at 8 pm; and Sunday, March 24 at 2 pm at Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, 911 North University Avenue, Ann Arbor. For tickets and more information, visit or call 734-764-2538.