SERIAL KILLER SUBJECT OF NEW OPERA

* What: The world premiere of “Wuornos,” by Carla Lucero

* Where: Yerba Buena Center of the Arts Theater, 701 Mission St., S.F.

* When: 8 p.m. Friday through June 24.

* How much: $30/$45/$60

* Call: 415-978-2787, www.wuornos.org

In the life of a female serial killer, Carla Lucero found her opera.

In 1989 and 1990, six middle-aged men were found shot dead along central Florida highways. The murderer turned out to be a woman, an oddity in the annals of criminality. In 1991, Aileen Wuornos was arrested after her lesbian lover turned witness against her.

Lucero, 36, has turned the tragicomic circus of a killer’s life into a full-scale operatic production. Part of the Queer Arts Festival 2001, “Wuornos” premieres June 22 for a three-day run at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

When the case first made lurid headline news, the Newark resident cringed. “God, this is all we (lesbians) need,'” she recalls thinking. “That was instinctively why I didn’t pay attention to the story.” A 1991 Vanity Fair article led Lucero to see the dramatic possibilities, at a time when she had tired of being a hired gun in the film and music industry in Los Angeles and yearned to compose her own opera.

The more Lucero delved into the circumstances of Wuornos’ miserable upbringing, the more the composer could see and hear the lyrical possibilities. The curiosity factor of a lesbian serial killer wears off, but the elements of violence and sexuality echo throughout classical works such as “Oedipus” and “Othello” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Wuornos had been abandoned, abused, raped, pregnant, married, divorced, beaten, betrayed, suicidal.

There were even elements of dark comedy in her story: a born-again wolf and horse breeder who “adopted” Wuornos after her arrest, the former rock musician attorney and “agent,” the underhanded TV movie deals attempted by members of the sheriff’s department investigating the case.

The circumstances were so absurd, it inspired Nick Broomfield’s 1992 documentary, “Aileen Wuornos: Selling of a Serial Killer.”

In 1996, Lucero finally left Los Angeles for her parents’ Cabo San Lucas home. Amidst the transient community of expatriates, she wrote the libretto. Her mother supported her, but her father who introduced Lucero to Mozart at a young age thought she was male bashing until he read the first draft. The unexpected obstacle and where she thought she would have the most support came from the lesbian community.

“Don’t make her an icon,'” was their objection, Lucero says, but since then “they’ve come around.”

After Lucero moved to San Francisco in 1997, she met a woman who had kept up a 36-month correspondence with the death row inmate. Wuornos’ letters, adorned with pictures, revealed humor and despair, flights of fantasy and grueling honesty.

“What surprised me was her (good) penmanship,” she says, but they confirmed Lucero’s insight. “I felt like somebody had winded me.”

The composer did try to reach Wuornos three times but, not surprisingly, received no response. The prisoner had rediscovered her faith and “she told her friend two years ago she was ready to die.”

The two-act, English-language production integrates multimedia a video screen is as crucial onstage as the singers, reflecting the media cottage industry that built up around Wuornos’ life. Cast in shades of blue and ’80s costuming, the story begins with Wuornos’ mother, moving on to the abusive hardscrabble upbringing, the killings, the betrayal. In act two, the opera takes a dark comic turn to echo the bizarre antics after the arrest.

Drama, both offstage and behind bars, continues to escalate. Lucero squirreled away in her apartment to complete the orchestration even as the actors rehearsed in a former dot-com office space.

While she ended the story at the trial, Wuornos’ carnival grimly plays on. In May, Wuornos, 44, reinforced once again in a letter to a judge and on television news that she killed for gain and not self-defense (the earlier reason she gave for the killings), and that she wanted to be executed so she could be with Jesus.

On June 7, a circuit judge denied the appeals and, six days later, the Florida Supreme Court said Wuornos could end her appeals and move up her execution date if she could prove her competence.

The social issues “Wuornos” explores extend beyond the stage. At $300,000, the budget is minuscule compared to those of established opera houses, but substantial in terms of a nonprofit investment in a new work.

“You don’t see many new composers getting production of this scale,” says producer Lauren Hewitt.

Music director/conductor Mary Chun has been the principal conductor for the West Bay and Hawaii operas, Texas Shakespeare Festival and more.

She sees “Wuornos,” which she describes as a romantic lyrical opera with a contemporary edge, as the future of American opera, often viewed as the ungainly stepchild to its European brethren. And as rare Wuornos might be as a female serial killer, Lucero may be even rarer as an opera composer in which women, Chun estimates, constitute 3 to 5 percent.

“I never thought growing up as a child or even as a young adult (that) being a composer was a career option,” Lucero says. “To hear a full orchestra play my music, you know, that I was just hearing in my head, it was really moving.”

She hopes “Wuornos” will become incorporated into standard opera repertoire and encourage other women to rethink their mental boundaries about composing. “I’m going to tear down some of those.”

Vera H-C Chan is the Times event editor. She can be reached at 925-977-8428 at vchan@cctimes.com

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