Opera in two acts by Tobias Picker to a libretto by J. D. McClatchy, based on the novel by Judith Rossner; Santa Fe Opera, 27 July 1996.
The première was conducted by George Manahan, with Patricia Racette as Emmeline, Anne‐Marie Owens as Aunt Hannah, Kevin Langan as Henry Mosher, Wright Moore as Hooker, Melanie Sarakatsannis as Sophie and Curt Peterson as Matthew Gurney.Although the libretto is adapted from Judith Rossner's novel, Picker first encountered the story in 1990 in a documentary on the Public Broadcasting Corporation's series An American Experience. The entire work was composed over a period of five months in 1994.
The Mosher family burying ground, Fayette, Maine, 1841 The Mosher family are burying another of their many children. Sarah, mad with grief, weeps as her formidable sister‐in‐law urges Henry to send the oldest of the children – 13‐year‐old Emmeline – to Massachusetts to work in the textile mills. Henry is resistant, but Hannah overcomes his reluctance and leaves with Emmeline, admonishing the child never to be afraid.
The mill, Lowell, Massachussetts Hooker interviews Emmeline, who stands silent as Hannah answers on her behalf. She is hired and sent to live at Mrs Bass's boardinghouse. She begins work, with Sophie showing her how to work the machinery. Stephen Maguire has been watching Emmeline since she arrived, and when Sophie leaves for a moment he takes the opportunity to befriend her. Though shy and embarrassed, she warms to his seemingly paternal attention, uttering her first words of the opera when she haltingly tells him her name. Sophie returns, warning Emmeline to stay away from Maguire, who has a reputation among the mill girls. The whistle blows to mark the end of the shift.
The boardinghouse The girls clear up after supper (‘Plates to the kitchen, hearts to Heaven’) and after a few kind words to Emmeline, Mrs Bass retires. Emmeline and Sophie dream together a future of wealth and marriage (‘The mill will spin your dowry’).
The mill Emmeline lingers at the mill with a book at the end of a long day. When Maguire again shows kindness, she begins to weep and he comforts her with tales of his own hard past and the hard road to success. Cheered, Emmeline teases him about marrying the boss's daughter and he takes the opportunity to complain of his loveless marriage. He offers to be a father to Emmeline, but his physical advances frighten her and she flees the factory.
The boardinghouse Emmeline writes to her parents sending them her wages (‘Dearest father and mother’). She hears Maguire outside, calling for her (‘He's there almost every night’). Uncertain, yet compelled, she walks out to meet him.
A forest near Lowell Maguire chases Emmeline through the forest, both of them laughing. Catching Emmeline, Maguire begins his seduction in earnest, preying on her longing for her absent father. Confused and lonely, Emmeline succumbs.
The mill The girls are at the machines, practising a song to entertain Mr Summers (‘To cheerfulness inclining’). Emmeline is clearly miserable, and Sophie questions her about Maguire. Mr Summers enters, with his daughter and Maguire, and the girls begin their song. When Emmeline faints, Sophie recognizes the signs of early pregnancy. Hooker orders Emmeline to leave the factory at once, and Maguire tries to give her money. Maguire's wife, understanding the situation, gives Emmeline her shawl, and leaves, shunning Maguire. Aunt Hannah arrives and takes Emmeline away as the factory girls shout abuse after her.