Thursday, July 29, 2010


I am far from an expert, and can't even claim to be an aficionado, but I like opera. I like the lush choruses and soaring arias of grand opera and I like the more arid tonalities of modern opera such as Douglas Moore's "Ballad of Baby Doe" or John Adams' "Dr. Atomic."

Every once in a while it comes to me that a certain story or historical event would make a good opera. One such story -- that I imagined as an opera almost from the time I read it, decades ago -- is Mark Twain's "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg," and I was astonished to discover, in a lazy Google search, that a "Hadleyburg" opera actually exists. It was commissioned in 1982 by the Houston Grand Opera and written by the composer Hiram Titus. (You can even hear a couple of excerpts from the opera at Titus' web site.) Who knew!?

So, before Googling further, here is a list of other stories that I think could make good operas. (I am quite serious about this.) I would enjoy having you add to the list, dear reader, or let me know if a work already exists for any of these ideas (thus revealing how little I really do know about opera).

  • The biblical story of David and Bathsheba. Love, betrayal, murder, nudity!
  • The biblical story of David and Jonathan.  ("... for he loved him as he loved his own soul.") Love, betrayal, murder, (nudity?)!
  • The love story of George and Libby Custer, with an aging Libby reflecting. Flashbacks.
  • Rolvaag's "Giants in the Earth" (I imagine a moving aria culminating in the scene in which the intensely homesick Beret curls up inside the steamer trunk that sits in the bare room of her prairie cabin. And a final chorus of all of the pioneers joining Per Hansa's solo as he dies with a westward look in his eyes.)
  • Shackleton on the ice. (This is a stretch.) Operatic material that comes to my mind would focus on a scene in which the men, exhausted, are sitting on an ice field while their revered Shackleton reads poetry to them. Another: A growing, hopeful chorus as the stranded men strain to see Shackleton returning with rescue. A moving finale as Shackleton is buried there at the end of the earth, on South Georgia Island. The romance of the opera would be supplied by his wife -- back in England -- pining for the man she knows she has lost to the great adventure.
  • The story of Jesus and the man born blind in the 9th chapter of John's gospel. This has no romance, but it has a wonderful set of fools, and dialogue between them and Jesus. This would be a short comic opera. Maybe Gilbert and Sullivan.
Well, dear reader...?


Joseph G. Crippen said...

Here are the David operas I could find, including one specifically on D and B: David—Ernest Guiraud (“Le Roi David,” 1852), Nielsen (“Saul og David,” 1902), Honegger (“Le Roi David,” 1921) and David Barlow (“David and Bathsheba,” 1969).

Richard Jorgensen said...

Thanks, Joseph. I feel like an idiot: I actually have a recording of the Honneger, and it's from that opera (I think() that I learned the words I want on my tombstone (David's dying words), "How good it was to live; I thank thee, Lord, for giving me life." I'm going to check into the Nielsen piece.

Joseph G. Crippen said...

The Barlow might be interesting, too - it's in English. He was a Brit, and his bio online calls "David and Bathsheba" a "church opera," whatever that means. He also wrote another church opera, "Judas." So he definitely had an eye for the flawed hero!