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Bruce Archibald

Opera for television in one act by Gian Carlo Menotti to his own libretto; NBC, New York, 24 December 1951.

The stage is in two parts. One is the stark interior of a shepherd’s hut; surrounding it is the exterior showing distant hills, a road winding offstage to the left and reappearing among the hills, and a starry sky with the star of Bethlehem shining brightly. After a very short prelude of soft, tender music Amahl (boy soprano, about 12 years old), who is crippled, is seen and heard (oboe) playing his shepherd’s pipe. It is a cheerful C major tune, totally diatonic, over a drone C–G bass 5th. He is seated outside the hut wearing an oversized cloak. His mother (soprano) calls him to go to bed. He delays as long as possible but finally takes his crutch and hobbles into the hut. He tells her of the large bright star and she replies that he is a chronic liar and complains of their poverty. Amahl begins a short duet – comforting his mother – which closes with ‘Good night’. While they sleep, he on a bed of straw and she on a bench, the voices of the Three Kings are heard in the distance: Kaspar (tenor), Melchior (baritone) and Balthazar (bass). Amahl wakes up and hobbles to the window. He tells his mother that he sees three kings and, of course, she does not believe him. The kings and a page (baritone) are allowed in by the bewildered mother. They settle in, the kings seated on the bench and the page on a stool, to a stately but sprightly march from the orchestra. During the following conversation there is a humorous song by Kaspar – ‘This is my box’. He shows off the precious gems in his box, but most important is the liquorice. He gives some to Amahl. In staged performances this song is often sung with Kaspar walking among the audience tossing out sweets....


Barbara B. Heyman

Opera in three acts, op.40, by Samuel Barber to a libretto by Franco Zeffirelli after William Shakespeare ’s play; New York, Metropolitan Opera, 16 September 1966.

Commissioned for the opening of the new opera house at Lincoln Center, the original version of Antony and Cleopatra consisted entirely of Shakespeare’s words ( see also Cleopatra ), which Franco Zeffirelli condensed to 16 scenes set in Rome and Egypt, plus one scene aboard a Roman galley omitted in the revised version. Antony (bass-baritone) leaves Egypt and his mistress, the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra (soprano). Returning to Rome, he is pressed to marry Octavia, sister of Octavius Caesar (tenor). When he goes to Cleopatra instead, Caesar declares war and defeats him. Antony kills himself and Cleopatra commits suicide soon after.

The alternating geographical settings are mirrored in the character of the music: sinuous melodies, luminescent harmonies and exotic orchestral timbres in the Egyptian scenes and for Cleopatra contrast with the angular declamations and driving, irregular rhythms of the brash ‘Roman’ music. Conventional forms support the dramatic action: a fugato and ominous passacaglia, for example, dominate the tense meeting of Antony and Caesar in the Roman Senate (Act 1 scene ii). Recurring motives reinforce dramatic associations through transformation or expansion, giving audible unity to the opera: the Prologue’s brass fanfare opens the Roman scenes in Acts 1 and 2; Cleopatra’s serpentine phrase ‘If this be love indeed’ returns in the orchestral accompaniment to her suicide; her spine- chilling ‘my man of men’ (Act 1 scene iii) returns as the climax of her death scene in Act 3; the haunting choral evocation ‘Cleopatra’ accompanies the vision of her barge on the Nile and pervades the orchestral texture as well. Unusual instrumental combinations are strikingly effective: an electronic instrument and double bass provide an eerie background to the ‘Music i’ the air’ episode, and a solo flute and timpani are chilling accompaniment to the suicides of Antony and Enobarbus. Some of the most sensuous and soaring lyrical passages were composed especially for Leontyne Price, who created the role of Cleopatra. Two arias – ‘Give me some music’ (from Act 1) and the suicide monologue ‘Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have immortal longings in me’ (from Act 3) – were expanded in ...


Virginia Saya

Opera buffa in one act by Dominick Argento to a libretto by John Olon (pseudonym of John Scrymgeour) after Anton Pavlovich Chekhov ’s play The Bear; Rochester, New York, Eastman School of Music, 6 May 1957.

A young Widow (soprano) has been mourning the death of her husband for exactly one year. A neighbour, the Boor (bass-baritone), arrives to collect a debt owed by the deceased, only to be rebuked for his indelicacy at making such a request on this anniversary. A lengthy argument ensues and a duel is proposed. In the heat of the moment, it comes out that the widow harboured no real fondness for her faithless, neglectful husband, and in the wake of these revelations, a new passion is kindled.

This work is Argento’s earliest well-known opera, composed while he was completing his studies at the Eastman School. The tonal score with motivic unification employs vocally gracious lines and demonstrates exceptional sensitivity to comic and dramatic flow, features which have remained hallmarks of his operatic style. The opera’s modest theatrical requirements and small cast (the Servant, a tenor, is the only other character) have made it a popular piece for workshop presentations, and it remains the composer’s most frequently performed opera....


Andrew Stiller

Folk opera in one act by Douglas S(tuart) Moore to a libretto (‘book’) by Stephen Vincent Benét after his own short story; New York, Martin Beck Theater, 18 May 1939.

Moore and Benét called this work a folk opera ‘because it is legendary in its subject matter and simple in its musical expression’. In fact, it is a musical, albeit an unorthodox one, with no overture, only one act, and much of the spoken dialogue accompanied by music. The opera may be performed either with full orchestra (wind in pairs) or a reduced ensemble with solo winds.

It is set in the home of farmer Jabez Stone (bass) of Cross Corners, New Hampshire, in the 1840s. After 12 introductory bars the curtain rises on the wedding reception of Jabez and his new wife Mary (mezzo-soprano). Jabez, we learn, has worked his way out of poverty with surprising speed and become state senator for the district. Indeed, he is such a hot political prospect that his name has been suggested for governor, and the Secretary of State, Daniel Webster (baritone), has agreed to appear at the wedding. Webster’s arrival is marred, however, by the sudden unmanageability of the violinist’s instrument. When the Fiddler (spoken role) comments that ‘the very devil’ has got into his instrument, Mr Scratch (tenor) appears, introducing himself as a Boston lawyer and claiming to be an old friend of the bridegroom. Under the pretence of fixing the fiddle, he plays a devilishly Stravinskian accompaniment to a nasty ballad of death and despair (‘Young William was a thriving boy’), which Webster interrupts in a fury....


Robert F. Nisbett

Opera in two acts, with a prologue and an interlude, by Louis Gruenberg to his own libretto after Eugene O’Neill ; New York, Metropolitan Opera, 7 January 1933.

Gruenberg’s adaptation follows the play with few alterations, the most frequent changes being either omission of dialogue or repetition for emphasis. The story is that of an ex-Pullman porter Jones (baritone), who makes himself emperor of a West Indian island by combining an appeal to superstition with a white man’s cunning. Jones cynically exploits the natives, or ‘bush-niggers’ (as he calls them), until they rebel and he is forced to flee. Gruenberg made two important changes from the original play: a chorus acts as a commentator on the events taking place, and Jones kills himself rather than being murdered by the natives.

Throughout the opera the orchestra provides a background of syncopated dissonances to the fast-moving drama. Except for one lyrical, dramatic moment when Jones sings the spiritual ‘It’s me, O’ Lord’, the singers recite and shout their words in a Sprechgesang manner. The demands of the title role are great (it was sung by Lawrence Tibbett at the first performance). The subject matter, exploitation of blacks by a black, has limited the performance of this controversial work, and the opera is rarely heard today....


Julian Budden

(‘The Girl of the West’ [The Girl of the Golden West])

Opera in three acts by Giacomo Puccini to a libretto by Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini after David Belasco’s play The Girl of the Golden West; New York, Metropolitan Opera House, 10 December 1910.

Early in 1907, during his first visit to New York for the Metropolitan premières of Manon Lescaut and Madama Butterfly, Puccini saw three of Belasco’s plays performed on Broadway, among them The Girl of the Golden West. He was not enthusiastic. ‘I like the ambience of the West’, he wrote to Tito Ricordi (ii), ‘but in all the “pièces” I’ve seen I’ve found only a few scenes here and there. Never a simple thread, all muddle and at times bad taste and old hat’. However, a seed had been sown; and when at the end of May Puccini went to London, his friend Sybil Seligman urged him to consider Belasco’s drama, of which she procured him an Italian translation. By July Puccini was firmly decided. He wrote to his publisher asking him to obtain the rights as well as the author’s permission to make certain changes to the action (these would amount to transferring the bible-class from the third act to the first and amalgamating Acts 3 and 4, where the setting would be a Californian forest). Of his previous librettists, Giacosa was dead and Illica fully engaged on a libretto about Marie Antoinette (for which Puccini had contracted but which he never set). Tito Ricordi indicated Carlo Zangarini as the ideal collaborator, especially since his mother was American. In August the contracts were signed for what Puccini foretold would prove ‘a second ...


Julian Budden

Opera in one act by Giacomo Puccini to a libretto by Giovacchino Forzano after a passage from Dante Alighieri ’s narrative poem Commedia, part 1: Inferno; New York, Metropolitan Opera House, 14 December 1918 (as no.3 of Il trittico).

Authorities disagree as to whether Puccini or Forzano first had the idea of basing a comedy on a brief passage in Canto 30 of Dante’s Inferno concerning a sly rogue who cheated the poet’s own relatives by marriage out of a substantial inheritance. Forzano submitted his scheme in March 1917 and completed the libretto in June. Puccini began work on it immediately, before laying it aside to finish the second part of Il trittico, Suor Angelica. The autograph is dated 3 February 1918. The American cast included Giuseppe De Luca (Schicchi), Florence Easton (Lauretta), Giulio Crimi (Rinuccio), Kathleen Howard (Zita) and Adam Didur (Simone); the conductor was Roberto Moranzoni. At the Italian première on ...


Douglas Riva

Opera in one act (three scenes) by Enrique Granados to a libretto by Fernando Periquet; New York, Metropolitan Opera, 28 January 1916.

Goyescas is perhaps unique among operas in being based on a piano suite, inspired by the atmosphere and the people of 18th-century Madrid as depicted by the Spanish painter Francisco Goya (1746–1828). Granados was encouraged by the American pianist Ernest Schelling to transform the suite into an opera. After creating a dramatic format for the work with Periquet he composed the music, to which Periquet then fitted a libretto.

The setting is Madrid, around 1800. Paquiro (baritone), a bullfighter, is flirting and joking with a group of young people in the Campo de la Florida. His fiancée, Pepa (mezzo-soprano), arrives in her dog-cart (‘La calesa’) followed by the noblewoman Rosario (soprano), in her sedan chair (‘Los requiebros’), who looks for her lover, Fernando (tenor), a captain in the Royal Guard. Paquiro invites her to a dance at a tavern that evening. Fernando arrives in time to announce that he will be taking Rosario himself. Pepa, furious, vows vengeance on Rosario. The second scene is in a lantern-lit tavern. Fernando and Paquiro quarrel and arrange a duel, while the ...


[L’importanza di esser Franco]

Comic opera in three acts by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco to his own libretto after Oscar Wilde’s play; New York, La Guardia Theatre, 22 February 1975 (in Italian, Florence, Chiostro delle Donne, 1984).

Set in Victorian London, this comedy of manners concerns two friends, Algernon Moncrieff (tenor) and John Worthing (tenor), who are in love with two young girls, Gwendolen Fairfax (soprano) and Cecily Cardew (soprano). Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell (contralto), cannot agree to John (nicknamed Jack) marrying her daughter until he can satisfactorily substantiate his eligibility as to age, money, education and, most importantly, parentage; he was found as a baby in a handbag at Victoria Station and then adopted by Lord Worthing. To further complicate matters, John Worthing assumes the names of ‘Ernest in town and Jack in the country [where he lives]’, while Algernon, who lives in town, ‘invents’ a permanent invalid named Bunberry whom he uses as an excuse to absent himself from the city to visit Cecily, John Worthing’s ward....


Andrew Stiller

Chamber opera in two continuous acts with prologue, by Philip Glass and Robert Moran to a libretto by Arthur Yorinks after Jacob Ludwig and Wilhelm Carl Grimm; Cambridge, Massachusetts, American Repertory Theater, 6 December 1985.

Glass’s most popular operatic work, it had received more than a hundred performances by mid-1989. This success is partly due to its straightforward concision, but more to its highly effective alternation of styles. The contrast between Glass’s lush minimalism and Moran’s more naturalistic neo-romanticism is much like the alternating aria and recitative style of older operas. Moran set the more dramatic parts of the libretto, while Glass concentrated on points of stasis or slow unfolding.

The Prologue (composed by Glass, and largely mimed) introduces an unnamed husband and wife (called The Father and The Mother in the cast list) who have everything they want from life except children. When the Mother (lyric soprano) wishes intensely for a baby, she becomes pregnant but dies in childbirth. Some years later (Act 1 scene i; music by Moran), the Father (lyric baritone) has remarried, and provided his child, the Son (soprano) with a half-sister, the Daughter (soprano). The Stepmother (mezzo-soprano), pathologically jealous of the Son, sees his dead mother every time she looks at him. When the Daughter (Act 1 scene ii; Moran) expresses solicitude for her brother, the Stepmother resolves to kill him, decapitating him with the lid of a chest into which he has reached for an apple. She props the body in a chair, placing the severed head on its shoulders and the apple in its hands. When the Daughter asks for a piece of the apple there is of course no reply; vexed, she boxes the Son’s ears and the head flies off. The Stepmother comforts her, saying no one need ever know of the ‘accident’, and proceeds to chop up the body. When the Father returns home (Act 1 scene iii; Glass) he is ravenously hungry, and insists on eating all of the stew his wife has prepared from the Son’s body. The Daughter buries the bones under a nearby juniper tree, from which a bird emerges singing beautifully of the murder, in the Son’s voice, its words understood only by the audience. Seeing and hearing it, the Daughter regains some of her spirits (Moran) and ventures to hope for a fortunate outcome....


Amanda Glauert

(‘The King’s Children’)

Märchenoper in three acts by Engelbert Humperdinck to a libretto by Ernst Rosmer (pseudonym of Else Bernstein-Porges) after her play of the same name; New York, Metropolitan Opera, 28 December 1910.

In 1894 Heinrich Porges asked Humperdinck to provide incidental music for the play written by his daughter, Else Bernstein-Porges, under the pseudonym Ernst Rosmer. When the author refused to allow the material to be expanded into an opera, Humperdinck decided to adopt the medium of melodrama, mixing spoken dialogue and song with a new kind of rhythmically notated Sprechgesang. The work was produced at the Munich Hoftheater on 23 January 1897, with Hedwig Schako as the Goose Girl. Despite the practical difficulties created by the new idiom, the melodrama appeared on over 130 stages before lapsing into obscurity.

In 1907, finally gaining the author’s consent to transform it into an opera, Humperdinck set about revising the work. He reworked each melodramatic scene into a continuous musical fabric, replacing the Sprechgesang with sung dialogue. The American public responded with great enthusiasm to the opera’s New York première, which Alfred Herz conducted with Geraldine Farrar as the Goose Girl, Hermann Jadlowker as the King’s Son, Louise Homer as the Witch and Otto Goritz as the Fiddler. The Berlin première on ...


Andrew Lamb

Musical play in two acts by Kurt Weill to a book by Moss Hart and lyrics by Ira Gershwin ; Boston, Colonial Theatre, 30 December 1940, New York, Alvin Theatre, 21 January 1941.

Despite achieving success as editor of a popular fashion magazine, Liza Elliott (high mezzo-soprano) feels at odds with male-dominated and success-orientated society. Moreover, she is unable to decide between the rival attractions of the three men in her life, her business colleague Charlie Johnson (baritone), her publisher and current lover Kendall Nesbitt, and glamorous film star Randy Curtis (baritone). She consults her psychiatrist, and at each of four sessions relives a dream. In the first (‘Glamour Dream’) she becomes the glamorous, sought-after woman that in real life she never feels. In the second (‘Wedding Dream’) her plan to marry Kendall Nesbitt is interrupted when Randy Curtis appears. In the third (‘Circus Dream’) she undergoes a trial in a circus ring, accused of being unable to make up her mind between her three admirers. Russell Paxton (high baritone), a photographer on the magazine, is the ringmaster. In the fourth dream (‘Childhood Dream’) she finally recalls the traumatic childhood incidents that are at the root of her problems and bursts forth with the haunting childhood song (‘My Ship’) that has appeared fragmentarily throughout the score....


Howard Shanet

A ‘family portrait’ in three acts by Jack Beeson to a libretto by Kenward Elmslie based on a scenario by Richard Plant; New York, City Center of Music and Drama, 25 March 1965.

The plot is derived from an actual crime, which took place in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1892: Lizzie Borden, daughter of a wealthy banker, was accused of killing her father and stepmother by hacking them to death with an axe. Lizzie was brought to trial, but was acquitted and lived out the rest of her life on her share of her father’s fortune.

Act 1 shows the family at home: Andrew Borden (bass-baritone), his daughters, Lizzie (mezzo-soprano) and Margret (soprano), and second wife Abigail (soprano). Borden is mean and disagreeable, refusing a church donation to the Rev. Harrington (tenor) and money to his daughters.

In Act 2, Captain Jason MacFarlane (baritone) asks for Margret’s hand, interrupting a family quarrel about Abigail’s increasing ascendancy over Borden at his daughters’ expense. Borden tries to turn Lizzie out of the house, and the balance of her mind is shown to be upset. Margret’s elopement in Act 3 precipitates the murders of Borden and Abigail, the action taking place offstage. At the end, children are heard chanting: ...


John Rockwell

Opera in three acts by Virgil Thomson to a libretto by Jack Larson; Juilliard Theater, New York, 20 April 1972.

Set in Westminster Abbey in 1824, Act 1 opens with mourning for the poet and freedom-fighter, whose body has just been returned from Greece. Dead poets including Shelley (baritone) lament their colleague. A committee led by John Hobhouse (bass-baritone) and including Thomas Moore (baritone), Byron’s sister Mrs Leigh (soprano) and his estranged wife (mezzo-soprano) petition for Byron’s burial in the Abbey. The ship bringing the corpse also contains a statue as well as Byron’s memoirs, both accompanied by Byron’s last love, the Contessa Guiccioli (soprano) and her brother (baritone). The statue arrives and as the stage freezes in admiration, Byron (tenor) enters as a shade and sings a ‘satirical apostrophe’ to the city of London.

Act 2 begins with the friends still admiring the statue. Some argue for the destruction of the potentially damaging memoirs, but Moore insists that they be read. Four memory scenes follow. At a garden party at Lady Melbourne’s (soprano) in ...


Stephen Hinton

Musical tragedy by Kurt Weill to a libretto by Maxwell Anderson after Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the Beloved Country; New York, Music Box Theatre, 30 October 1949.

In South Africa in 1949, a black preacher, Stephen Kumalo (bass-baritone), is anxious about his son Absalom (spoken), who is working in the mines to pay for his education; Stephen has not heard from him for nearly a year. Stephen’s wife, Grace (spoken), senses trouble, but Stephen has faith, expressed in the song ‘Thousands of Miles’.

Stephen agrees to take their meagre savings and look for their son in the city (‘Train to Johannesburg’). At the station he sees Arthur Jarvis (spoken), son of a British planter, who is bemused by his own son’s sympathy for black people. Unsuccessful in his search for Absalom, Stephen agrees to look after his sister’s son Alex (treble) back in his ‘Little Gray House’ in Ndotsheni. Absalom is living in a shanty-town with his friend Irina (mezzo-soprano), who is pregnant; he listens to ‘Who’ll Buy’, the brazen song of the entertainer Linda (mezzo-soprano). Desperate for a better life, he plans to take part in a gang robbery. Irina loves him, but is anxious about her ‘Trouble Man’. During the robbery Absalom shoots a white man in panic. It is James (spoken), Arthur Jarvis’s son. The double chorus, split into black and white halves, comments with ‘Fear’. When Absalom is arrested, Stephen’s faith is shaken: ‘Sometimes it seems God’s gone away … And we’re lost … in the stars’....



Donald Thompson

Opera in three acts by Felipe Gutiérrez (y) Espinosa after Mariano José de Larra’s historical drama; San Juan, Puerto Rico, Teatro Tapia, 19 August 1977.

The authorship of the libretto remains a matter of conjecture despite attributions to Alejandro Tapia y Rivera and Martín J. Travieso. A strong possibility, based by Batista on evidence found in the autograph score, is that the libretto was made by the composer himself.

The courtly legend of Macías had received several dramatic treatments before Larra’s romantic play (1834), going back as far as the 16th century. The Gutiérrez version reduces Larra’s four acts to three but retains all of his numerous roles and adds a large chorus. The opera is set in the palace of Don Enrique de Villena in Andújar, Spain, in 1406; the entire action occurs in one day. The troubadour Macías (tenor) having been sent deliberately on a mission, his beloved Elvira (soprano) is forced to marry Fernán Pérez (baritone). Macías returns, finds Elvira married, challenges Fernán to a duel and is imprisoned. Elvira’s companion Beatriz (mezzo-soprano) bribes the guard; Elvira enters Macías’s cell and urges him to flee. Macías refuses, insisting on going ahead with the duel, but is mortally wounded by assassins sent by Fernán. Fernán arrives in time to witness Elvira’s suicide. Elvira and Macías thus fulfil their vow to die together, as Fernán proclaims that his marital honour has been avenged....


Julian Budden

(‘Madame Carefree’)

Opera in three acts by Umberto Giordano to a libretto by Renato Simoni based on the comedy of the same title by Victorien Sardou and Emile Moreau; New York, Metropolitan Opera, 25 January 1915.

Set in Paris in August 1792, Act 1 opens outside the laundry of Caterina Hubscher (soprano), known as Madame Sans-Gêne, where all is confusion. Soldiers of the Revolution are attacking the Tuileries. Caterina arrives, having run the gauntlet of an amorous patrol, all of whom exacted a kiss (‘Mentre andavo via leggera’). Fouché (baritone), a supporter of the insurgents, takes shelter at the laundry while the fighting lasts. Caterina dispatches one of her girls with a bundle of clothes to an impoverished officer, telling her not to demand payment. His name is Napoleon Bonaparte. She then sends for Sergeant Lefèbvre (tenor) – her lover, she tells Fouché, ever since he rescued her from the attentions of a would-be seducer at Vauxhall (‘Lo conobbi son due mesi’). News comes that the Tuileries has fallen and Fouché leaves to join the victorious troops. An enemy soldier knocks at the door begging for shelter; he is the Austrian Count of Neipperg (tenor), gravely wounded in the fight. Caterina conceals him in an adjoining room. Lefèbvre arrives and joyfully recounts his exploits (‘Alle giubbe scarlatte diam la caccia’). Caterina is unable to prevent him from entering the room where Neipperg is hidden. He reappears to announce that the fugitive is dead. But this is merely a ruse to discover whether the man is Caterina’s lover. Satisfied with her reaction, he commends the wounded man to her care....


John C.G. Waterhouse

(‘The Egyptian Mary’)

Trittico per concerto/Mistero in three episodes by Ottorino Respighi to a libretto by Claudio Guastalla after Domenico Cavalca’s Le vite dei santi padri (14th century); New York, Carnegie Hall, 16 March 1932 (concert première, semi-staged), Venice, Teatro Goldoni, 10 August 1932 (stage première).

Although it was soon transferred to the operatic stage, where it naturally belongs, Maria egiziaca was conceived in response to an unusual commission for a so-called ‘concert opera’. The première, though on a concert platform, was in costume, with simple scenery consisting of a painted screen in the form of a triptych depicting the three episodes. In devising his libretto, Guastalla wished to create a modern equivalent of a medieval mystery play, and to model his affectedly archaic language on that of Fra’ Domenico Cavalca whose life of St Mary of Egypt was his main source.

St Mary (soprano) is first seen as a young Alexandrian prostitute who suddenly feels an urge to sail to the Holy Land, paying for her passage with her body. In the second episode she finds herself unable to enter the temple until she has repented, and an angel tells her to retire into the desert and become a hermit. Finally we see her still in the desert in old age: when the time is ripe for her to die, a lion digs a grave for her....


Bruce Archibald

Tragic opera in two acts by Gian Carlo Menotti to his own libretto; New York, Brander Matthews Theater, Columbia University, 8 May 1946 (revised version, New York, Heckscher Theatre, 18 February 1947).

Both acts take place in Madame Flora’s parlour, where she holds séances. On the left is a stairway coming up from street level; on the right are a small puppet theatre with a white curtain and a small trunk. After a short instrumental introduction the curtain rises on Toby (dancer), a mute teenager, making up costumes from items in the trunk, and Madame Flora’s daughter, Monica (soprano), combing her hair and singing a song (‘Where, oh, where is my new golden spindle and thread?’). They are interrupted by Madame Flora, called Baba (contralto), who comes in and scolds Toby for playing with her possessions. They prepare for a séance and the participants arrive: Mr and Mrs Gobineau (baritone and soprano) and Mrs Nolan (mezzo-soprano). They sit round a table with only the light of a candle near a small statue of the Virgin Mary. Monica, in a white dress, is the voice and apparition of Mrs Nolan’s dead child. Suddenly Baba turns on the light and screams that a hand touched her. In hysterics, she sends the people away and pours herself a drink. She blames Toby, who was behind the puppet theatre, and attacks him, but Monica intervenes and tries to comfort her with a song whose refrain is ‘O black swan, where, oh, where is my lover gone?’. A ghostly offstage voice sings what Monica, as the apparition, had sung earlier. Baba sends Toby to see if someone is outside, but there is no one. Monica recapitulates her song, now to the words ‘O black wave’ and Baba recites the ‘Ave Maria’ as the curtain falls....


John Rockwell

Opera in two acts by Virgil Thomson to a libretto by Gertrude Stein and a scenario by Maurice Grosser; New York, Columbia University, Brander Matthews Hall, 7 May 1947.

Despite the fame of the first opera on which they collaborated, Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein let nearly two decades elapse between Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All. Ruefully, Thomson later explained, ‘I am sorry now that I did not write an opera with her every year. It had not occurred to me that both of us would not always be living.’ They got together in October 1945 to begin a second project. Thomson, always fascinated by the inflections of American vernacular speech, felt that the language of American political oratory could form the basis of an opera, and proposed one on political life in the 19th century. Stein, as a feminist, suggested as the central figure Susan B. Anthony (...