Composed in 2008, Disappearing Act is a full-length opera based on the Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle spiritualist connection. Dorothy Louise's imaginative libretto reveals the transitory nature of human existence.
Presently the score exists in piano-vocal form only.
ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE, 63, lyric baritone
JEAN, his wife, 50, dramatic mezzo soprano
HARRY HOUDINI, 48, bass baritone (or lyric bass)
BESS, his wife, 45, lyric mezzo soprano
QUEEN VICTORIA, about 80, but often younger, dramatic soprano
DR. WATSON, 55, lyric tenor
SHERLOCK HOLMES, 50, bass baritone
WINIFRED, a New Woman, mid-20’s, soubrette soprano
PRESTON, mid-20’s, tutor to the Conan Doyle children, lyric tenor
KENNETH, Winifred’s brother, MIA, the Great War, late 20’s, lyric tenor
Extras: Chorus SATB (at least 12 singers); Mrs. Hudson, 60’s, contralto; the Conan Doyle children: Denis, 13 (boy soprano); Adrian, 12 (boy soprano); and Jean, 10 (immature soprano); Mamma, Houdini’s mother, 60’s, contralto (doubles with Mrs. Hudson)
SCENE: Atlantic City, London, June 1922, earlier, and later – both time and place are fluid
Prolog on the Boardwalk: Stagehands visibly bring in the scenic elements – projections, turntable, cyclorama -- as the Chorus sets the scene – “We are here for our health and to make money” -- Harry Houdini and his wife, Bess, are welcomed by their hosts, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife, Jean. They agree not to argue about spiritualism, Sir Arthur’s passion and the subject of his current lecture tour, but to devote themselves to leisure.
Scene 1 – Houdini and Bess’s hotel suite: Harry awakens from a dream of his mother wearing the dress he bought for her made for Queen Victoria. He longs to contact her. Bess suggests that he enlist the Conan Doyles, but Harry refuses. Bess then begs Harry to drop his quest.
Scene 2 – Osborne House on the Isle of Wight: Queen Victoria in her pony cart looks out to sea, still mourning her dear Prince Albert, aware that she has neglected her responsibilities “from the collieries of Wales to the cloud-capped peaks of Africa.” She will tuck a message into a bottle – tomorrow.
Scene 3 – Sir Arthur and Lady Doyle’s hotel suite: At Houdini’s request, Arthur outlines his journey to spiritualism through a litany of brothers, sons, uncles, nephews dead in the Great War. Jean’s brother, Malcolm, appeared to Arthur, and Arthur believed. Preston, tutor to the Doyle children, interrupts: the children await their “underwater instruction” with Mr. Houdini, and the three men leave. Jean notices that Bess is preoccupied, and wonders if their spiritualist beliefs offend her. Bess says she just admires Jean’s role in her husband’s work. “I once shared Harry’s work, but vaudeville’s gone.” Not here, says Jean. “An absolutely smashing woman is getting up a benefit for that moldy old theater near the pier…Arthur’s appearing.… Why not Harry? And you, onstage?” Jean turns to her children’s antics, Bess recalls life onstage with Harry: “In the old days, it took two to play,” but eventually Harry abandoned vaudeville for daredevil feats. As Bess emerges from her reverie, Arthur returns to announce that Harry has asked for a séance to try to contact his mother.
Scene 4 – 221 Baker Street: Holmes is restless, bored, hoping for “an elusive trace of something behind the data of the commonplace.” Watson and he will shake the limits of Doyle’s characterization.
Scene 5 – Garden Pier Theater stage: Winifred, the “absolutely smashing woman,” leafs through actors’ resumes as Preston enters to offer technical services. He is immediately smitten, although she is all business: they must find a Holmes and a Watson for the benefit. Bess appears, costumed as a Baker Street Irregular, charming Winifred. Preston then ushers in two actors “in full rig,” and Holmes and Watson audition with Bess. Winifred is ecstatic: these actors seem born to the roles – maybe the theater can be saved. “The game,” says Watson, “is afoot.”
Prolog on the Beach: A shawl-wrapped invalid, binoculars focused, enters in a rolling chair pushed by his faithful valet (aka Holmes and Watson), and they take in the panorama of scenes from an unobtrusive vantage point. As Queen Victoria swims in her bathing machine, Winifred and Preston towel off, while the Doyle children “bury” Houdini in the sand. Tourists watch this display of prodigious lung power. Meanwhile, Winifred confides in Preston the secret of her commitment to restoring the theater, the legacy of her adored brother, Kenneth, a shellshocked soldier who has disappeared. Kenneth, on his lifeguard’s perch, and heard only by Holmes and Watson, emerges to consider the monster of his war experiences packed in his head. Encouraged by Winifred’s confiding in him, Preston lets her know that he is fond of her, but she brushes this off, and dashes to rehearsal. Houdini remains submerged in sand, finally sitting up, in complete command. Holmes and Watson swivel to comment on mortality and exercise.
Scene 1 – Garden Pier Theater stage: Kenneth appears in the ghost light, wracked with memories of war. As Holmes and Watson emerge arguing over changes in the script, Kenneth takes cover. Starting out, Holmes and Watson linger as Preston backs in testing the effects of his fog machine. Kenneth thinks he sees gas – “we’ve got no masks!” -- and attacks Preston, who protests that he is only setting the London scene. “It’s not real – and we were on the same side! The war is over!” With Holmes and Watson still observing unobserved, Kenneth again withdraws as Winifred enters to announce the coup of having secured Houdini and his wife to perform, then dashes off to place a new advertisement to that effect. Needing now to replace Bess, Holmes and Watson invite Kenneth to join their ensemble in a new scene set in Atlantic City. Kenneth is interested, but, having decided to trust Preston, first must help with the fog.
Scene 2 – Osborne House on the Isle of Wight: Queen Victoria in her bedroom recalls spring’s awakening, and contrasts it to the winter in her heart. She wonders if Albert is listening, and asks him if she should “relinquish myself” to royal responsibilities. When her lady-in-waiting arrives to assist her in donning a formal costume, the Queen allows herself to be clothed for duty.
Scene 3 – Sir Arthur and Lady Doyle’s hotel suite: Before beginning the séance to contact Harry’s mother, Sir Arthur and Jean note the importance of converting the skeptic. Lights pick up the Queen’s dress, while Bess attends as Houdini imagines his mother as he saw her in his dream, and feels touched somehow – it is difficult to say exactly what has transpired, except that Houdini feels chastened and enlightened. The experience frees him of his obsession. Arthur thinks Houdini has been converted, ignoring Houdini’s ambivalence.
Scene 4 – Garden Pier Theater in the wings and onstage: As the audience gathers, Winifred gets ready to go on in a last-minute change for the Baker Street scene. After a dazzling opening from the local talent, Bess struts upon the stage, and Houdini conjures Homes and Watson, who stage the reuniting of Winifred and Kenneth. Houdini and Arthur agree to disagree re communication from beyond the grave. Preston and Winifred declare their love for one another.
Epilog: a series of telescoped scenes as Houdini and Arthur sing final farewells. The Chorus leave severally, thinning to absence and silence. The crew strikes whatever is left as Kenneth sets the ghost light. Ghostly images of the major characters flicker. Gulls, wind, horizon and the ghost light fade slowly. And the music ends.]