“First, do no harm” every doctor says. Does this oath end on a patient’s death bed? Or should a doctor honour every patient’s wishes – and listen to their terrors – about the fate of their own corpse? What happens when a patient’s body is so extraordinary, his corpse becomes an object of desire – a trophy?
This opera tells a true story, one involving existential terror and the most gruesome betrayal. It shows a physician who desecrates and steals to fathom the nature of disease. It shows how public prurience – the desire for a thrilling spectacle – can make us ugly spectators and conspirators in a crime. We are all beneficiaries of the work conducted by surgeon and anatomist John Hunter. Arguably, we are also complicit in what happened to Charles Byrne, even those of us who haven’t bought a ticket to this opera.
Men forget –
I did not craft the skull.
I made no designs upon the heart
I was not the author
of our laws of decay…
I am their enduring servant–
from Giant libretto (Ross Sutherland)
Charles Byrne (1761–1783), ‘The Irish Giant’, was considered a living wonder, a freak, a gentleman, a fine performer, an ‘ill-bred beast’ and a person who held within his bones secrets which surgeon and anatomist John Hunter longed to understand.
When Charles exhibited himself in London as a piece of living art, John was smitten by his extraordinary physique. He visited Charles after a show, offering him money, medicine and friendship. Charles saw John as an ally but John was actually after a trade: In return for money and attention, John wanted sole access to Charles’ body after death so he could dissect it and put it on public display.
Living in terror of this fate, Charles refused John’s request and paid undertakers to keep his body safe. They promised to seal his corpse in a lead-lined coffin, carry it to Margate and drop it in the sea. But when Charles was on his deathbed, John sent an accomplice to spy on him and intercept his funeral procession. Unbeknown to the mourners, the coffin dropped into the sea at Margate contained nothing more than rocks. The corpse had been stolen. It was brought back to London then boiled to strip the flesh from the bones. John worked so furiously on the body, he scorched the bones as he extracted them, losing vital evidence about Byrne’s medical condition.
Hunter kept his theft secret at first, then hinted about it in cryptic letters to friends (‘I have a tall man, I can’t wait for you to see him’).
In the final moments of the opera, we see Byrne’s skeleton on public display where it was exhibited until 2016 (and possibly will return – see below). It’s debatable how much public prurience, professional vanity or the desire for medical progress prompted Hunter’s betrayal of Byrne – the tragedy at the heart of this opera.
A CALL FOR RESTITUTION
It took many years for John Hunter to admit he’d stolen Charles Byrne’s body. He revealed this in stages, first in cryptic letters to friends (see above), then within a portrait, in which he instructed the painter Joshua Reynolds to depict two long legs in the shadows. Some years after Charles’ death, John put the skeleton on public display as part of his collection of medical specimens.
The events surrounding Byrne’s death occured in the 1790s, long before the era of medical consent. However Byrne’s case is unusual for the time as he made his wishes for a sea burial explicit. It was his way to escape ‘the resurrection men’ who stole corpses to order for medical teaching and research. Some argue there are reasonable ethical grounds to keep Byrne’s skeleton on display or at least within Hunter’s collection. His bones may contain useful clues for those researching pituitary tumours. Others argue it’s time for restitution: we should honour Byrne’s wishes and give him the sea burial he desired.
Byrne’s skeleton remained on public display until 2016 when the Hunterian Museum closed for refurbishment. We’re waiting to hear their plans for Byrne’s remains when the museum reopens
London-based composer and electronic artist Sarah Angliss joins forces with librettist Ross Sutherland and director Sarah Fahie. Sutherland is a poet and performer whose work is tightly bound to moving image. Fahie is a director particularly renowned for her absorbing movement language, working as trusted movement director for the Royal Opera and English National Opera.
Angliss’ finely-wrought, highly inventive music explores the sonorities of voices and ancient instruments, revealing and augmenting them with her distinctive electronic techniques. Her score for Giant also makes extensive use of viola da gamba, an instrument whose deep and mournful timbre has long been associated with the tomb. Angliss will also be using bespoke musical automata, her own contemporary updates on the eighteenth century Hall of Wonders. This, combined with Sutherlands’ visually compelling language and Fahie’s sensitivity to the subject matter is an exciting proposition.
Supported by the Jerwood Opera Writing Fellowship between 2016-18, this creative team have been working and developing this concept for five years now. They are now working towards the premerie in June 2023.
Sarah is also grateful to Britten-Pears Arts for funding and enabling access to singers, musicians and tech, for their rehearsal spaces and residencies at Snape Maltings and The Red House. This invaluable support has given Sarah the necessary time, space and resources to develop Giant.