Sex, sadism, blackmail: Nico Muhly on why Hitchcock’s Marnie is an explosive heroine

Nico Muhly unravels a twisted tale of childhood trauma, toxic guilt – and a woman who is both hunter and hunted

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Marnie
Explosive story … Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren in Marnie (1964).

Brittle, bullied and blackmailed into marriage, Marnie inspired a Hitchcock classic and now a new opera. Its composer Nico Muhly unravels a twisted tale of childhood trauma, toxic guilt – and a woman who is both hunter and hunted

Marnie screams for an operatic treatment. First published in 1961, Winston Graham’s psychological thriller features a woman navigating a world of men with murky motivations, a woman who discovers her own complicated emotional landscape while lying about it to those around her. Marnie swaps identities as freely as she changes hairstyles, embezzles from her employers and avoids intimacy at all costs. Rather than send her to jail, one employer, intrigued by this complex and brittle woman, blackmails her into a marriage and bullies her into sexual relations she finds repellent. Add in a mother complex and toxic guilt over a traumatic childhood incident that has been buried deep and you have an explosive story that not surprisingly attracted Alfred Hitchcock’s attention and became the basis of his 1964 film.

When director Michael Mayer called me to suggest it would make a fabulous opera, my mind raced first to the Hitchcock adaptation. Strangely, though, I had just started dipping my toe into Graham’s novels. Michael and I asked Nicholas Wright to take on the libretto, and he said he had just read Graham’s novel himself. Then, not long thereafter, the serialisation of Graham’s Poldark novels began on the BBC. Clearly something was in the air.

While I was writing the second act, Tippi Hedren claimed Hitchcock had sexually assaulted her during filming

For the horses in the fox hunt scenes, I had an alarming vision of the chorus clacking coconut halves together

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Source: Opera News from the UK Guardian