New working title, Love vs. Death. A chamber opera in 2 acts, each act being a separate but complementary story, utilizing the same cast. Both stories are based upon the life stories of two historical figures.
I shared my thoughts about the first half of the piece in my last blog. Today I will discuss the strange story of Karl Tanzler von Cosel. What follows is not the plot of my chamber opera, but an historical accounting of what is known about Karl von Cosel and Elena Hoyo.
Born in Germany, Karl Tanzler adopted the name von Cosel, which was a name in the family tree. Karl was a scientist, and at the time the play takes place, 1940, an X-ray technician at a tuberculosis sanitarium in Key West, Florida. There, he met Elena Hoyo Mesa.
Elena was 19 years old and dying of TB. She came to the sanitarium for help and von Cosel was immediately smitten by the beautiful, long-haired Cuban girl. Not just for her beauty, but also because he believed she was the girl he dreamt of, decades ago.
In Karl’s dream, an ancestor brought to him a young girl, claiming that this was the girl he was fated to spend his life with. He also believed he met this same girl during an hallucinatory experience at Campo Santo, a cemetery in Genoa. There, he came across a white marble statue of a young girl, and at once recognized it as the girl in his dream. The statue came to life, beckoning him. They embraced, which Karl described as terror and ecstasy. Other visitors to the cemetery saw Karl and alerted authorities. He was asked to leave.
After this experience, Karl searched the world for her, and when Elena walked into the TB clinic, he was positive he had found her.
Karl gave her standard treatments which did not help her. As Elena continued to decline, Karl went above and beyond to keep her alive. He believed he could cure TB and used unconventional treatments involving electricity or ointments of his own invention.
He professed his love for her, but she did not feel the same way towards him. After all, he was 63 at the time of her death at 19 years of age. She was grateful for his help but always honest with him about her feelings. It didn’t matter. Karl was committed to this relationship, to the very end. And beyond.
He had given her many gifts; beautiful clothing, a radio, a diamond bracelet—all of which her family sold to pay for food. They were very poor, and Elena’s association with Karl helped them get by. When she passed away, he offered to build an above-ground crypt for her, because he couldn’t face Elena rotting away, under the ground. The family agreed and she was buried in Key West in 1933.
Karl visited Elena every day at the crypt, spending most his nights there, as well. Eventually, he brought her corpse to his home, and took great care to preserve the body. Using a vast array of chemicals, he did his best to stop the process of decomposition. When that failed, he began replacing her skin with wax, and using wire to keep the skeleton articulated.
When authorities discovered Elena’s body in Karl’s home, 7 years had passed since she died. She lied in her own bed, right next to Karl’s. Her parents were astonished at her appearance, saying that she looked almost alive. The story went national and the press covered every aspect of his arrest, incarceration, and eventual release due to the statute of limitations having expired on his crime, which was “Unlawful Excavation of a Corpse.”
As you read this, you must be aghast as I was, yet the most surprising element of the story has not been revealed: the press, and public opinion at large, viewed Karl von Cosel as a hopeless romantic, someone whose love ran so deep that even death could not sever it.
The question that arises is “Why?”
Not “Why would anyone do such a horrific thing?” but “Why, Tom, would you want to write an opera based on this ghastly story?”
Mary Mallon’s love life was destroyed by death. Each time she falls in love, death takes that person away from her. Eventually, she loses the capacity to love at all.
Karl von Cosel’s love was not diminished by death. Nothing could extinguish that flame. There is something to admire about the man.