WE WERE FRIENDS (Opera in progress)

 

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A one-act opera for 2 singers, chorus, and chamber orchestra

Libretto by EUAN TAIT

based on characters described in Mahler's lied "Der Tamboursg'sell"

Music by MARK BULLER

 

Timing: c. 70 minutes

 

CHARACTERS:

 

THOMAS                                                      baritone

NICO                                                             leggiero tenor or countertenor

CHORUS of soldiers, townspeople

Chamber orchestra (1111.1110 hp perc pno 21111)

Introduction by librettist Euan Tait

The seed of a conversation has grown into a tree.  

 

Talking to the soprano Melissa Givens and the composer Mark Buller after a performance of a work we had created together, I remarked that Mahler’s song Der Tamboursg’sell sounded like the final scene of an opera that Mahler never wrote: it suggested a long story that led up to this tragic and inescapable end.  For me, it suggested a broken, unfulfilled love, riven by hidden rage and unanswerable longing, that the condemned young soldier had been engaged in all his life.  I felt that this story could become a short opera of great emotional power, inspiring Mark Buller’s wonderfully imaginative and inventive music.

 

This work speaks for wounded inner lives: it explores the human roots of conflict, the tragedy of avoiding truth, attempts to control another in a relationship and a refusal to listen to and respect the heart of the other, and wars we can’t seem to end in a world under threat.  The aim of this work of art is to start a conversation in the hearts and minds of its listeners, in a short space to create and characters we love and remember, that mean so much to us because the story of their struggles helps us understand ours.

 

This work aims to welcome a wide audience who could engage with its message, recognising artists who use their gifting to walk with them on their journeys, seeking, questioning, even comforting us as we struggle.

 

Story summary

Two friends, Thomas and Nico, that have grown up in a mountain pass village that has been the crossing point of endless wars.  They join a troop as it passes through their village, but their troubled relationship ends tragically during a battle.  The spirit of Nico confronts his living but condemned friend in jail before his impending execution, so the final scene, where Thomas is led to his end, which he faces with great dignity and without self-pity.

 

Opera synopsis.
  1. Scene 1: We were friends:  Two young men wake in a mountain valley, having slept outside on a warm spring night.  The music depicts the deep of the young adult friendship lying behind their words to each other, its embarrassed tenderness that cannot find its focus, the way they trust each other with their hidden and troubled inner lives (as they recount their dreams, THOMAS is shown as very lost and angry; NICO, asleep, is called by a mysterious figure to a life of risky love).  Their inner conflicts show that they both know they have to move away from their childhood home to heal.  A TROOP OF SOLDIERS passes by, making for yet another ceaseless war, and call out for comrades (“will you be liars, cowards/come, join us”).  For NICO, this is a way out, avoiding the consequences of his betrayal of his friend (although what that betrayal has been is not clear). THOMAS lingers for a moment, expresses his rage, confusion and sense of betrayal – though again, its cause is ambiguous, in shadows.

  2. Scene Two: Battlefield:  The scene begins amidst the confusion and screams of a battle. THOMAS and NICO emerge from the battle, wounded, apparently to catch their breath and bind wounds so that they can continue the fight, but instead a passionate, angry scene quickly develops between them, with THOMAS demanding from NICO a love the latter cannot give him.  THOMAS threatens NICO with a knife, and swings it at him – and, to THOMAS’ horror, he actually stabs NICO, who quickly collapses, fades and dies.  Although THOMAS did not mean to kill his friend, and is clearly devastated and grieving, when the CHORUS enter they are convinced they have witnessed a murder (they clearly have never trusted THOMAS or been comfortable with him), and surround the body and the living man, seeking justice and law for their dead and beloved young comrade.

  3. Scene Three: The night before the dawn.   It is sunset and then nighttime in a small roadside guardhouse where THOMAS is being kept prisoner before his execution at dawn the next morning.  In an adjoining room, the soldiers can be seen desperately trying to forget what is coming and the battle of the recent past.  Soon, THOMAS and NICO’S GHOST are seen engaged in anguished conversation.

  4. Scene Four: A soldier dies.  THOMAS is now in the last moments of his life.  As the doors of the guardhouse swing open, he sings his last song, without making any excuse or plea for himself; he has been, apparently, strengthened and relieved by NICO’s harsh words.  The guardroom doors close and his end occurs out of sight; after a moment, we hear the whole TROOP singing about the two lost young men before the curtain falls.

 

 

Libretto extract

 

  1. Scene One: We were friends

(It is dawn; two young men, THOMAS and NICO, have been sleeping in the open all night: they wake, leaping up like foals disturbed by an unseen threat; then, laughing, they shadow box as if they are dancing with each other, and mock each other in the ways trusting friends do.  The place is a pass in a wall of mountains, a crossroads, a place of small violent acts in larger conflicts.  Meadows in their early summer radiance and colour stretch across the valley floors; the air is an early morning riot of birdsong, cowbells, church bells, whinnying horses, and calling human voices.  Gradually a calm, bee-laden buzz descends like the pollen from the wide branches of a tree, a day-calm of working lives, and the boys calm down too.  They begin talking to each other, as if unfolding what they had been dreaming about).

 ​

THOMAS

This earth feeds a hungry village;

horses leap and die here; we bring

calves squealing to birth in the dark, 

and slaughter them in the burning day;

we are always hungry, and cannot rest:

always the fear of hunger and beauty.

 

Ah, this place cannot lie to the boy

who was born here, who dodged

rocks falling from above him:

these mountains are not mountains

but the crest of waves that one day

will break, and our village, its fights,

its frightened churches, will be gone,

 

swept away -

 

NICO

When I was little I thought I knew her:

she was a watching presence, or I rested

 

in her arms.  I was loved and comforted.

In my dreams she used to lift up bleeding,

 

skirmish-dying boys, who lay out here

in last agony in the meadows.  One night,

 

as I slept, she called me to follow her out

into the fields of suffering.  I went.  I, too,

 

had to stay with these men as they died;

I heard the last curses escaping from them,

 

their last cries of love.  She placed my hand

on their chests, as their heartbeats fluttered

 

away –

 

THOMAS

See?  This is a place of the dead.  This place

has already vanished.  We shouldn’t be here.

 

​[...]

 

NICO

Love does not draw you away,

only anger.

How will you live, how breathe?

Anger will choke you.

 

How people live here

is no worse sin

than the city, no worse fear.

No, home is not your anger:

your rage is elsewhere.

 ​

THOMAS/NICO

Yet we must leave.

We cannot love here.

 

(The offstage sounds of a small TROOP OF SOLDIERS - filthy laughter, riotous jokes, marching feet, cries of hurt and grief - have been gathering intensity.  Their music is not the traditional operatic martial kind, but seems to sweep in as a tide of rage from some larger, unspecified and endless conflict.  The TROOP enters, and, seeing the two young men, throws out challenges to them).

 

TROOP OF SOLDIERS

Our troop is broken,

our friends lie dead,

our grief is endless,

pain our poison bread.

 

All you see here

is all we have left.

Out of a hundred,

The few, and the dead.

​[...]

(The TROOP exit with NICO.  THOMAS stays behind).

 ​

THOMAS

Nico, Nico,

friend of the cradle,

love written

in the deep of my skin:

 

you are the rage

I cannot heal.

You know: you know 

and never answer me.

 

Yet for you it was a game

of silence, hurting me.

O yes, I will follow you! 

I’ll chase you to our deaths.

 ​

[...]

NICO

Are you still so afraid?

 

THOMAS

No love for us.

No space left

for us to love

as others love.

The valley fell

and crushed us.

 

NICO

You know

you can rest

in my friendship​

we travel

with this troop,

we are always friends -

 

THOMAS

But not as I want!

Damn friendship!

Damn being friends!

Over and over again

You call me a friend

when you know, Nico,

it is not enough,

it burns my heart up

to pretend -

 

just friends!

Don’t be a friend -

 

NICO

I’ve always known

what you want.

 

I’ve always known

the deep of your love

 

and I have loved you,​

always,

 

But I cannot give you

what you want,

 

my heart is full of you,

full of your pain and fear,

 

the love we shared then,

and cannot escape now.

 

(THOMAS stands suddenly, with shocking force.  He turns away, then turns back slowly, approaching NICO with a drawn knife, but with uncertain intent, as if threat is not what he means or wants).

 

​[...]

TROOP

What will happen

on the gallows at dawn

we cannot stop:

the condemned boy waits,

and we cannot comfort him.

 

We won the battle:

innocence and courage

laughs through the night.

 

I want to be drunk,

the world to blur

to nothing at all,

into the morning,

far into the darkened day.

 

How can we bear it?

These boys, the boy

who killed, the boy

we will soon kill

will never leave us,

for none of our dead 

are ever at rest.

 

NICO’S GHOST  (enters the room where THOMAS is shackled)

Who condemns you?

 ​

THOMAS

My comrades, this evening,

convened a court,

condemned me. 

At dawn, I must die

for what I did to you.

 

NICO’S GHOST

Yet who condemns you?

I do not condemn you.

Where are your accusers?

Where are your guards?

Miserable and getting drunk,

drowning the hours in tears.

 

​[...]

THOMAS

It was a mistake!

I struck wildly

in anger and hurt:

The knife fell

where I did not intend,

into the life I loved.

 

NICO’S GHOST

The knife and the death

was your intention!

 ​

THOMAS

Love was my intention.

The knife was my rage.

 

NICO’S GHOST

The knife was your threat:

Love me or die.  No mistake.

 ​

[...]

THOMAS

I am Thomas.

I am a soldier.

I am a dead man.

I am naked.

 

I am fear.

I am a fool,

I dance on rope

in weird obscenity.

 

See, the rope,

its strong loop,

the great tree

the creaking cart:

 

there I’ll stand

before the world,

not brave, but damned,

known for all I am. 

 

The men

with powerful,

war-cut limbs,

wait patiently:

 

I am on my way!

My whole life

burns in my mind

to ashes; all I am

 

blows quickly away.  I

am nothing again.

I am dying, a child 

of this dawn, this day.

 

(THOMAS exits the guardhouse, escorted by some members of the TROOP.  He walks with remarkable steadiness towards the cart and the tree, as if NICO’s harsh words have somehow strengthened him.  The guardhouse doors are closed behind him, and we see him and the tree no longer.  After a few moments, we can hear the whole TROOP singing).

 ​

CHORUS

They fly above us already, restless,

anxious, watching us, these friends

we longed for but quickly lost:

we march away, swift carried 

by conflict none can end or name.

 

Euan Tait, Gwent, Wales, Summer 2021.