Chamber (of Horrors) Opera

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse: the Leanest, Creepiest Opera Ever

In December 1900 the lighthouse supply ship Hesperus based in Stromness, Orkney, went on its routine tour of duty to the Flannan Isles light in the Outer Hebrides. The lighthouse was empty–all three beds and the table looked as if they had been left in a hurry and the lamp, though out, was in perfect working order, but the men had disappeared… (p. 167).

Peter Maxwell Davies may not be a household name–it all depends on the household, I suppose–but it’s a name you should know.  And while you’re at it, call him “Sir,” since he was knighted in 1987.  He’s known to music students for some of the musical envelopes he pushed in the 1960’s in compositions like Eight Songs for a Mad King (and just a title like Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot gets you a lifetime achievement award for outlandishness, no matter what the music is like). What’s not so well known is Davies’ enthusiastic support of childhood music education, support that puts its money where its mouth is: he has written songs and musical plays for use in primary schools, including an opera, Cinderella (which has a character named Lord Delta Wing Vertical Takeoff, so give him another outlandish merit badge).

This month, Dallas will be graced–and I use the word advisedly and not at all sarcastically–with three performances of Sir Peter’s 1979 opera The Lighthouse. Performances will take place in the Wyly Theatre, so don’t head for the Winspear this time, and as a first for Dallas, the production is a collaboration between the Dallas Opera and the Dallas Theatre Center, with the DTC’s Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty in his operatic directorial debut.

True Story
The opening quote is the true part of the story.  In the opera, the names of the island and the characters are changed so as not to offend any relatives of those who vanished. And the story is reshaped so as to work on at least two levels: there’s the theme of the craziness induced by isolation–both literal and figurative–and there’s the abandonment of the light as a figure for betrayal of trust in some particularly flagrant forms, such as apostasy, patricide and incest.

The aforementioned craziness comes from the clash of personalities that have been rubbed raw by being cooped up with each other for months at a time. Arthur, Sandy and Blazes are the three lighthouse keepers who tend the light on the Isle of Fladda in the Outer Hebrides near the Artic circle, where the lengthening and shortening of days throughout the year is more pronounced than it is here in Texas. Yes, this opera may make you feel a little better about where you work and maybe even about the people you work with.

6 From 3 Leaves 7, or Maybe 8
Davies’ use of economical forces in this chamber opera (three singers and twelve players) helps to concentrate everything, to boil it down to some very essential bones. The musicians in the orchestra are busier than usual–switching back and forth between instruments does that to you–and so are the singers, since the performers playing the three lighthouse keepers also play the officers on the ship that discover the disappearance (that makes six), and one of them also sings the voice of some cards in a card game (seven). And the French Horn actually takes up the role of the judge asking questions at the opening inquest (that’s eight), an effect similar to the teacher in the Peanuts movies: you don’t hear the words, but you hear the voice, and the words are illuminated by the responses of the characters.

Never Ask a Co-worker to Sing
Since the genre’s beginnings, operas have featured two types of music, recitative and aria. Recitative corresponds to the more narrative parts of what there is to sing, the stuff that moves the plot forward; and arias, which are more like sure-enough songs, are frequently a vehicle for a character’s philosophical or poetic reflection on the goings-on. If a lot of music in The Lighthouse sounds like someone singing a conversation, that’s a portion descended from recitative.

At the center of the opera are three songs, however, that take us deeply into the characters of Arthur, Sandy and Blazes–perhaps deeper than we want to go.  Blazes sings about growing up in the slums and about some nasty stuff involving robbery and murder of an old woman (including how he framed his father for the crimes). This he sings to a lighthearted tune that makes the matter seem all the more horrendous. Sandy then changes the mood with a sweet love song that turns very nasty indeed. “I don’t know what your song means, but I disapprove!” says Arthur, who then completes the set with an upbeat Salvation Army-style song about the children of Israel and the golden calf and the nasty things that happen to you if you worship one of those.

These three songs deliver psychological insights into why the three keepers start to behave like cornered animals a little later, when the mists (and possibly something more sinister) start creeping into the lighthouse. I have not given anything away so far, and I certainly won’t give away the couple of twists that give the opera moral punch. I will say, however, that whether or not you are able to attend the live production, there’s a great recording on CD at the library, and we’ve even got the score for it.

Weird But True Postscript
Mike Seabrook, Davies’ biographer, relates a further creepy fact: on the night that The Lighthouse premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 1980, the Flannan Isle light, which had been automatic ever since the disappearance of the keepers in 1900, suddenly and without explanation stopped working.

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