To the FBI, she was "America's first female serial killer." To the press and entertainment media that devoured her tale, Aileen Wuornos was tabloid fodder of the first order. A prostitute from age 14 and a lifelong victim of abuse and neglect, she murdered seven men between 1989 and 1991 while hooking on the I-75 corridor in northern Florida. Wuornos confessed to the crimes in 1991, primarily to spare her female lover, Tyria Moore, from being arrested as an accomplice, and then watched as Moore turned against her as the police's primary witness.
Wuornos's story was adapted into a TV movie and became a well-received documentary by Nick Broomfield. Now it's a full-length opera by Carla Lucero, a Bay Area composer-librettist who sees Wuornos not as a monster or man-hating killer dyke but as a "fragmented" woman who reacted, initially, in self-defense.
"I think she was so severely damaged in her childhood," Lucero says, "that she doesn't have the coping mechanism that most of us have. Her life was just beyond traumatic.... She became so protective of herself that she became proactive, on the offense."
Wuornos, which stars soprano Kristin Norderval as the volatile, rawboned Wuornos and Sarah Helen Land as her girlfriend, Syrena (a fictional character based on Moore), will have its world premiere production June 22-24 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. The work, Lucero's first full-length opera, took five years to complete and exacted a huge emotional toll on the composer.
"I was just put through the wringer," Lucero, 36, says. "I mean, there were times I was writing and I'd realize, I'm not breathing. I'm hyperventilating. And I'd have to go outside. Sometimes I'd cry. Sometimes I'd become so depressed."
Lucero first read about Wuornos, now 45, in a 1992 Vanity Fair piece. "At the time I thought, Gosh, this would make such a great opera. But I don't think I was mature enough at the time to take on the commitment." Her interest didn't wane, however, and when she saw Broomfield's documentary, she recalls, "I understood her. Aileen Wuornos isn't somebody I would necessarily seek out as a friend, but there are elements about her that are true and good."
In a stroke of luck, Lucero heard from a San Francisco Bay area woman who had corresponded with Wuornos for 2 1/2 years and who shared several dozen letters from the convicted killer. "The content was probably as fragmented as Aileen," Lucero says. "There's a certain innocence about her, actually. She's very articulate, which shocked me completely."
The writing of Wuornos was so taxing, Lucero says, that she felt relieved to be single most of the time she worked on it. A year ago, though, she met Livia Thomas, a musician and elementary schoolteacher, and now Lucero lives with her in a suburb south of Oakland. "She's been a godsend. When I was finishing the writing, she was like, `Oh, my God, what are you writing now?' because she would see a complete change in me. She knows what I go through."
Lucero is one of a tiny number of women who write opera and an even smaller number of women whose works have been produced with a full orchestra and cast. (The Metropolitan Opera of New York last produced an opera written by a woman in 1903.) "I feel blessed, but I've worked my ass off to get to this point," she says. "And I think there's a lot of work that has been produced that's inferior to a lot of things [by women] that never even got a chance."
It's a given that Wuornos, with its violent imagery and complex central character, will upset audience members--lesbians perhaps most acutely. During the fund-raising process, Lucero says, "Wuornos was such a hard sell. Women would say, `Don't make her an icon. My God, we have enough problems as it is.' And it's so far from that. I'm a lesbian: Why would I write something that's detrimental to our community?"
Today, Wuornos awaits execution on Florida's death row, having received six death sentences. Lucero sees Wuornos as symptomatic of a deep rage felt by many women toward male oppression and sexual abuse. By unleashing her anger at men--her father had been imprisoned for child molesting and her grandfather physically (and allegedly sexually) abused her--Wuornos was tapping into that well of anger.
"On a karmic level, it's almost like--and many women would agree with me--Wow, I'm surprised this didn't happen sooner. I don't really condone killing, but you do have to wonder, Why did this take so long? I've always likened it to a boiling pot, and she's the steam that escaped the pot."
Guthmann is an entertainment reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.
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|Title Annotation:||'Wuornos,' by Carla Lucero|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Article Type:||Brief Article|
|Date:||Jul 3, 2001|
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