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Music by Christopher Cerrone, libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann, based on the short story by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa • Feb. 19, 22, 25, 27 & March 1, 3, 2022

A silent, expectant grove. A violent encounter between a man, a woman, and a notorious brigand.

Seven testimonies, each proposing a different perspective on the crime. Akutagawa’s classic short story “In a Grove,” which inspired the plot of Kurosawa’s renowned film Rashomon, offers a searing investigation into the impossibility and elusiveness of truth.

Epic and intimate, timeless and devastatingly timely, the story’s structure lends itself powerfully to music’s ability to conjure—via repetition and variation—how human perception, memory, and desire are fallible, imprecise, and subject to interference.

Join us for this unique world-premiere experience in a place where the ground shifts beneath your feet—a space of ambiguity and clarity, of beauty and menace, and of fragility and strength.

Antony Walker conducts; Mary Birnbaum directs.

This production is sponsored in part by the Allen R. and Judy Brick Freedman Venture Fund for Opera.


Composer Christopher Cerrone, librettist Stephanie Fleischmann, and stage director Mary Birnbaum talk about the upcoming world premiere of "In a Grove" at Pittsburgh Opera February 19 - March 3, 2022.


Audience members at the world premiere performance of "In a Grove" talk about the production. Video by Julius Thomas.

Headshot of Yazid Gray

Yazid Gray*: Woodcutter / The Outlaw (Luther Harlow)

Headshot of Andrew Turner

Andrew Turner*: Policeman / The Man (Ambrose Raines)

Headshot of Madeline Ehlinger Madeline Ehlinger*: Leona Raines / Leona’s Mother
Headshot of Chuanyuan Liu

Chuanyuan Liu+: Priest / Medium 


Conductor: Antony Walker
Stage Director: Mary Birnbaum+
Assistant Stage Director: Kaley Karis Smith*
Set Designer - Mimi Lien+
Costume Designer - Oana Botez+
Lighting Designer - Yuki Nakase Link+
Stage Manager- Alex W. Seidel
Asst Stage Manager- Hannah Nathan

+    Pittsburgh Opera debut
*     Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist


*This production contains violent themes, theatrical haze (fake smoke/fog), and fake gunshots.*

Music by Christopher Cerrone, libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann, based on the short story by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Sung in English with English texts projected above the stage

Six performances at the George R. White Opera Studio, Bitz Opera Factory, 2425 Liberty Avenue.

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A ghost forest in the mountains of Oregon, 1921—the aftermath of a wildfire. We, the audience, are the silent, unseen interlocutor, gathering testimony from seven witnesses—potential perpetrators of a crime.

A woodcutter states that he found a body in the grove, on the mountain where he goes to cut wood. A priest testifies that he passed a man leading a woman on a horse along the Foundry Post Road. A policeman recounts his arrest of Luther Harlow, a local vigilante, who some say is responsible for the spate of women gone missing from the mountain. A woman describes her daughter, Leona, an aspiring botanist, whose new husband, Ambrose, a schoolteacher, appears to have been murdered. The mother pleads with the interlocutor to find the girl, who is missing. 

Luther Harlow confesses. Taken by the beauty of a young woman he encountered along the mountain road, he had tried to lure the girl and her husband into a nearby grove, promising treasure. As Luther tells his story, he relives the events: The girl resists Luther’s ruse, but her husband, eager to regale his new bride with pretty trinkets, follows Luther into the grove. Luther quickly disposes of the young man, and when Leona discovers her husband bound and gagged, she pulls a knife on Luther, who wrestles her to the ground, intending to assault the girl. But she slips from his grasp, pelting Luther with a rock, knocking him out just long enough for her to free her husband, arming him with her knife. Ambrose is hesitant at first, but Leona urges him to fight. Although the schoolteacher is no match for the vigilante, he somehow holds his own. Soon enough, however, Ambrose’s strength wanes. Leona intervenes by shooting Ambrose’s rifle into the air, and in the confusion, Luther stabs him, grabs the gun and flees, leaving him for dead. 

Leona reluctantly delivers her testimony: of having encountered a dubious man on the mountain road; of her husband Ambrose’s misguided desire to follow the stranger into the grove; of being left to wait alone in the gloam, calling on the relics of the ghost forest for protection. When the man returns without Ambrose, she follows, terrified of what has befallen her husband. In the grove, Luther attempts to assault her, but she eludes him, hurling a stone at him, freeing Ambrose so that he can defend them both. Ambrose hesitates, and she lashes out at him. Ambrose has no choice but to fight a losing battle. Leona again steps in, pointing Ambrose’s rifle to the sky and firing. In the tumult, the marauder disappears, and Leona discovers that her husband is bleeding. She gathers medicinal plants to staunch the wound. But as she tends to Ambrose, he jealously rebukes her, accusing her of having consorted with Luther. Thrown by his anger, she balks, and in that moment he expires. Believing she killed him, she tries, over and over again to take her own life, but fails. Leona confesses that she murdered her husband.

A medium channels the dead man, who articulates the secret Ambrose was never able to tell his new bride—that his heart has always been weak, ever since suffering from rheumatic fever as a small child. The medium and Ambrose relive the incidents leading up to Ambrose’s death from his perspective, tormented by the fact that in his final moments, he allowed his wife to believe it was she who killed him, rather than his failing heart.


IN A GROVE opens with a wash of white noise—a sonic representation of wildfire and smoke. As the opera progresses, rhythms, harmonies, motives, and eventually melodies emerge out of this aural fog, mirroring the way facts emerge, piece by piece, in this musical detective story. 

As our characters relate their tales, motives and melodies recur, but they also evolve, paralleling each narrator’s shifting perspective. A throwaway melody in Luther’s scene becomes the basis for Leona’s aria in hers; finally, this melody becomes the core of the final confession, a duet between a Medium and Ambrose.

Throughout the work, the voices are transformed electronically. I tried to exemplify remembrance’s flawed roughness by distorting the voices using reverb, pitch-shifting, and, granulation—effects that suggest that our characters’ memories are flawed, foggy, or plain wrong.

In setting out to compose IN A GROVE, I tried to take something unconventional—a story told over and over again from different perspectives—and marry it to something familiar: music, where themes, repetition, and variation help us navigate and understand this mysterious tale.

—Christopher Cerrone


What we discovered in the process of making IN A GROVE is that Leona is the heart of the story. And that truth is not just prismatic, elusive, and fallible, it is personal, emotional, razor-edged. The truths and untruths that we perceive, gloss over, embrace, refute or deny drive the trajectories of our lives. The uncanny weave of opacity and transparencies so aptly conjured in Akutagawa’s remarkable tale makes up the fabric of lived experience. The story’s form, that of seven testimonies, asks us to listen differently—to approach narrative, language, image and sound in new ways, and in so doing, perhaps, to see and hear anew. Obfuscation is pervasive, and yet the crystalline architecture of Chris’s music serves as a revelatory container for the ineffable. Mary’s exquisite staging plunges us into an ever-shifting grove sited within a ghost forest in the Pacific Northwest, a setting that mines a series of profoundly American truths.

—Stephanie Fleischmann