Playwright Erik Ehn, composer Lisa Bielawa, novelist and epidemiologist Andrew Moss, director Christine Säng, and the San Francisco State University Department of Theatre Arts collaborated to create an original opera about the natural and social history of tuberculosis from the nineteenth century through its outbreak during the 1990s among homeless populations in the United States and its interaction with the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. The artists’ research included extended interviews with tuberculosis patients in San Francisco’s Tenderloin and South of Market (SoMa) and study of the history of the disease, including exploration of its treatment in literature and in such operas as La Boehme. The opera’s title, Phrenic Crush, came from a surgical intervention tried against tuberculosis in the early 1900s, prior to the development of drug therapies.
Ehn wrote, “Phrenic Crush is about a community and must involve community as more than a topic; it is of, and for the people of a place. We rehearse, work in, and work with Tenderloin/SoMa; we seek to draw residents into auditions, rehearsals and performances.” Among the project’s many development steps, the script-in-progress was read to medical staff of San Francisco General Hospital’s tuberculosis ward at a surgical theater on General’s grounds. Proceeds from all performances of Phrenic Crush benefited the tuberculosis clinic with which the artists collaborated. A free public symposium, “The Soul in Plague Time,” featuring members of the San Francisco Bay Area medical and artistic communities, was presented as part of the project.