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Serial killer Aileen Wuornos' life is subject of new opera

Published Sep. 10, 2005

The made-for-TV movie about her was only to be expected. So were the documentary films.

After all, Aileen Wuornos is a serial killer _ the killer of six men who picked her up along highways as she worked as a prostitute. Her trial a decade ago in Volusia County created a sensation in the media, so it was inevitable that her story would wind up on the screen.

But now Wuornos is entering a whole new category: She's the title character of an opera.

Wuornos will have its premiere tonight in San Francisco _ the fruition of five years' work by Carla Lucero, a San Francisco Bay area composer.

"While nobody in their right mind condones murder, you can have compassion for this person _ and have some understanding of how the events in somebody's life could lead to actions such as these," Lucero said last week.

The curtain will go up to show Wuornos _ played by soprano Kristin Norderval, an experienced performer of new music _ at the Last Resort, the Port Orange bar where she used to pass the time between customers. As the killings and Wuornos' capture, trial and conviction play out, flashbacks will show the traumas of her early years: an abusive father; a pedophile grandfather and alcoholic grandmother who ended up with custody of her; the life of prostitution that began after she was thrown out on the street as a teen.

Woven in will be the story of Wuornos and the woman she was in love with at the time of the killings _ Tyria Moore, who ultimately helped authorities arrest her.

"To make sense of her life is ultimately my interpretation _ an artistic interpretation," Lucero said.

Nobody disputes that Wuornos killed the men. Why she did it is the question, and Lucero believes the theory laid out by some psychiatrists: The first slaying was out of self-defense, and the psychological trauma from that struggle set off an inner rage that drove Wuornos to kill again.

Asked recently by letter about her reaction to being depicted in an opera, Wuornos, who sits on death row in a prison in Fort Lauderdale, wrote back that "my main concern is if this composer has been made aware of the fact that I've come clean in all of my cases" _ that she has dropped her original claim of self-defense.

"I killed in pure hate, robbing along the way," Wuornos, 45, wrote.

"So if this person hasn't (heard), then I'd sure appreciate it if someone would inform him or her of it. Otherwise _ further misleading will only carry on . . . and society doesn't deserve it."

Lucero thinks Wuornos' campaign for execution is, in the condemned woman's view, "the only way to get control over her destiny."

Lucero comes to Wuornos after writing scores for a variety of independent films and ballet productions. Wuornos, a $300,000 production, is her first opera. She learned of its subject, she said, through a story in Vanity Fair magazine that appeared after Wuornos' arrest. But it was only several years later _ in 1996 _ that she considered writing the opera.

She gleaned more information about the saga from a variety of sources: news reports, Court TV coverage, books about the case and letters shown to her by a San Francisco woman who corresponded with Wuornos.

There is another perspective on Wuornos' story, of course: that of her victims' families.

"I'm sure I speak on behalf of the families when I say that they would be very upset" about the tale's being played out onstage, said Wendy Hallowell, victims advocate coordinator in the state Attorney General's Office.

"Maybe someone should write an opera about being a victim."