Dead Woman Walking

The true story of lesbian serial killer Aileen Wuornos becomes an opera

The true story of lesbian serial killer Aileen Wuornos seems tailor-made for an opera -- controversial, political, baffling, and tragic. Although women have been serial murderers as long as men have, Wuornos was frequently and incorrectly referred to as "America's first female serial killer," one example of the many misconceptions that surround her tale. Currently on death row for fatally shooting seven men in Florida -- she claims to have killed them in self-defense -- Wuornos' life is a matter of public record, but sifting through the myths is no small task. Bay Area composer and librettist Carla Lucero tackles the job in Wuornos.

Sung in English, the two-act opera opens in the midst of the media frenzy that followed Wuornos. The story evolves through intermittent flashbacks that link Wuornos' abusive childhood and the violence of her adult life, which included teenage and adult prostitution. In one instance, a teen Wuornos (played by Linh Kauffman) watches in horror as her adult self (played by soprano Kristin Norderval) kills her first victim. Wuornos' story has been covered before -- in a television movie-of-the-week, Overkill, and in Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, a documentary by British director Nick Broomfield -- but this is a first for the opera world.

Lucero depicts Wuornos as a victim of her circumstances. As she writes in her composer's notes for the National Queer Arts Festival, "Is it so shocking that a woman, horribly abused as a child and later as an adult, killed in self-defense and then had knee-jerk reactions to threats of violence to her person time and again?" She continues, "Men returning from war call it shell shock. Yet women have been in the trenches for centuries."

Kristin Norderval sings the life of convicted serial killer Aileen Wuornos.
Liz Zivic
Kristin Norderval sings the life of convicted serial killer Aileen Wuornos.


Friday, June 22, at 8 p.m.

The opera continues on Saturday, June 23, at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 24, at 4 p.m.

Admission is $30-60


Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 701 Mission (at Howard), S.F.

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Much of the second act focuses on the players in Wuornos' life who hoped to profit from her story. The character of Madeline is based on Arlene Pralle, the Christian fundamentalist who claimed she received instructions to legally adopt Wuornos from God; she became a regular on talk-show circuits. Stan, a sleazy lawyer who hawks his legal services on late-night television, is a fictionalized version of Steve Glazer, Wuornos' public defender.

Aileen Wuornos' life raises many questions. Prostitution advocates, gay rights activists, and crusaders on both sides of the death penalty issue have taken an interest in her story. This month, she made headlines again when she implored the Supreme Court to waive her numerous appeals and speed up her execution. As she wrote in a letter to a judge, "I'm one who seriously hates human life and would kill again. So what's the point!"

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