The Peabody Opera Theatre
the forthcoming premiere of
The Alien Corn
An opera in two acts
Music by Tom Benjamin
Libretto by Roger Brunyate
after the story by W. Somerset Maugham
This opera is scheduled for
the 2004–05 season
Characters in the Opera
Somerset, writer, traveller, and gentleman [tenor]
Ferdy Rabenstein, retired banker and man about town [bass-baritone]
Lea Makart, a celebrated concert pianist [soprano]
Sir Adolf (“Bertie”) Bland, Bart., M.P., of Tilby Park in Sussex [tenor]
Miriam (“Muriel”) Bland, his wife [soprano]
George Bland, their elder son [baritone]
Hannah Rabenstein, Ferdy’s sister, the dowager Lady Bland [mezzo-soprano]
Prologue. Somerset’s rooms in London
A partial stage-setting only: a chair, a hat-rack, and a side table with a few invitation cards propped against a tray of decanters and glasses. Somerset enters, a man now in his late fifties or early sixties. He is in formal mourning clothes of the early part of the present century. He hangs up his hat and lays his gloves on the table; then pauses for a moment and pours himself a glass of sherry before speaking. Ferdy Rabenstein is dead, though his memory will linger. Somerset recalls Ferdy’s sparkling career in his society, and his kindness to artists like himself.
It was through Ferdy, Somerset reflects, that he had first come to know George Bland. While he is talking, he sits, opens a drawer of the table, and takes out a folded rectangle of silky material, embroidered and fringed, which he looks at reflectively. He remembers the occasion well: a small lunch arranged for him to meet Lea Makart, the pianist, then near the beginning of her career; Lea Makart who was to play such a decisive role in the affair later; Lea Makart, who had agreed to play for a few minutes before lunch… some Chopin…
As the scene changes, a piano is heard with the orchestra, playing Chopin or music of a similar style: something brilliant, yet with a haunting beauty.
Act I, scene 1. Ferdy Rabenstein’s apartments in London
It is ten or fifteen years earlier. Ferdy offers coffee to his guests: Somerset and Lea Makart, who has just got up from the piano. Ferdy tells her that there is a quality about her playing that reminds him of Paderewski. Ah, Paderewski, she replies; that is a genius she could never hope to match even with a lifetime of practice. But the old guard must always pass, says Ferdy, and the young must take their place. He makes his point with a witty story (arietta) about his arranging a meeting between Lily Langtry and the Duchess of Somerset, a celebrated beauty of a former age. Laughing, Lea Makart excuses herself and leaves for a rehearsal.
Somerset says he has heard that Ferdy himself plays. Only as an amateur, he protests: salon music, Viennese waltzes and the like. Still, it must be in the blood somewhere. He has a relative who, it appears, likes to dabble too: George Bland, the son of Sir Adolf Bland of Tilby in Sussex. Somerset has heard of the Blands, and knows people who have been to Tilby; but what is the connection to Ferdy?
Ferdy explains. It appears that the first baronet, Sir Alfred Bland, was originally Alfons Bleikogel. He married Ferdy’s sister, Hannah Rabenstein, who still lives in Bloomsbury. The present baronet, Sir Adolphus Bland, was originally named Adolf, although everybody calls him Bertie. His wife insists on being called Muriel rather than her given name Miriam. Ferdy has more or less been banished from the family on account of his tendency to forget these new names at crucial moments, but he keeps somewhat in touch through his sister. The couple have only two sons: Harry, the younger, will clearly take over the business, but it is George who is the apple of his father’s eye. It is as though he came from different stock: he is tall and blonde, a fine sportsman, the nonpareil of the young Englishman. Alas, George has recently been sent down from Oxford, apparently for idleness—which is no bar to his intended life as a country squire, but Ferdy is worried just the same.
Suddenly Ferdy has an idea. As a writer, Somerset would be greatly amused by the Blands, and he would surely like George. Ferdy says he can arrange an introduction through his sister on some pretext: giving advice on the library, perhaps. Ferdy further asks Somerset to be his guest at Lea Makart’s recital at the Royal Albert Hall in three week’s time, and to bring George Bland with him. In a short duet-coda, Somerset accepts the commission, his writer’s sense intrigued at the thought of meeting this curious family for himself.
The lights fade to the sound of a piano playing a Viennese waltz, eventually moving into rather more spacious music, though perhaps a little pompous or affected, to introduce the next scene.
Act I, scene 2. The terrace at Tilby
Sir Adolf Bland (Bertie) enters with Somerset. He has just finished showing him his library, and speaks with pride about his various acquisitions. Indeed, he takes great pride in his entire estate, which he describes as “just an English house in the country,” but clearly thinks of as a work of art in its own right. Indeed, nothing so perfectly captures the Greek ideal of life as that of the English country gentleman living on his estates. He goes off to fetch his son, George.
Somerset has a short aria. He thinks about the house, which he sees as being put together with too much taste and too few traces of life actually lived there from generation to generation. He compares it to his own situation of being always on the outside of people’s lives, but seldom a participant in a life of his own.
Bertie returns with George, who is all that Ferdy had described: tall and slim, with blue eyes and curly light brown hair, the perfect type of the young Englishman. Somerset is immediately struck by the contrast between him and his father.
Almost immediately, Lady Bland, Muriel, joins them. She is an imposing blonde woman in her mid-forties, full of dominating energy. She and Bertie immediately begin to talk about George. We learn that he has been brought up as an English gentleman, clearly destined to play an important role in the social life of the county. Somerset finds himself intrigued by the cross-currents of feeling under the surface, and by the sense that there is more behind this young man than he is allowing to show. The moment provides material for a short quartet. Somerset now passes on Ferdy’s invitation. The Blands refuse categorically, remarking that although Ferdy may be some kind of distant relation, all intercourse with him was severed before George was born. Bertie leaves on the pretext of having something to do around the estate, and takes George with him.
But Muriel apparently needs to explain herself further, admitting that her husband has traces of Jewish blood in him, although nobody could be more English. She launches into an aria about the sanctity of English life, the Church of England, the Conservative party, and the obligations of the landed gentry. Her plans, she explains, are for George to enter politics and stand for parliament. She admits that George has not shown much interest in politics as yet—all he seems to want to do, in fact, is to strum away at the piano.
George himself returns at this, and tells Somerset that although he has agreed to start in the diplomatic service eventually, he wants to visit Germany first to learn the language. Somerset asks where. Munich, George replies. Somerset remarks that he should find it a most interesting place, though a very different one. George says that that is precisely why he wants to go.
The ensuing interlude moves from the rather dry, enigmatic mood with which the Tilby scene ended into Lea Makart’s recital at the Royal Albert Hall, which is just coming to the end of its first half.
Act I, scene 3. Ferdy Rabenstein’s box at the Royal Albert Hall
It is the intermission of Lea Makart’s concert. Ferdy serves smoked salmon and champagne. George is there after all, virtually commanded into it by his grandmother Hannah, who has joined them to make up the foursome; she appears at first as a rather aloof grande dame from a former age. George is much struck by Lea Makart’s playing, which has made a profound impression on him. Somerset is moved also; he asks what it would take to be able to play like that. Years of study, George replies. Somerset persists: study to train the fingers, maybe—but to create that effect on people, what would that take? George hesitates: a musical gift, vision, genius… but the thing with the piano is that you can’t be sure you have it until you have put in all that work to train the fingers. Ferdy remarks that his nephew does not seem to have been much interested in hard work so far, but George replies hotly that with the piano it would be different. Indeed, if he could only take lessons in Munich, he would think of nothing else. George’s intensity makes the others look at him in a new light (brief quartet).
The change in attitude is most striking in George’s grandmother, causing a marked softening in her previously imperious manner (arietta). She suggests that he call on her if he can ever use her help. She tells him that her own father played the violin, and her mother used to sing. She recalls one of her old Yiddish folk songs, to George’s mingled fascination and embarrassment.
With almost malicious delight in the boy’s discomfort, Ferdy launches into one of the ethnic stories for which he is famous. Before he gets very far with it, however, the concert resumes.
Piano music once again, leading from the formal repertoire of Lea Makart’s recital to something expressing the urgency of the preparations for George’s upcoming party.
Act I, scene 4. The library at Tilby
The library, a private room of medium size used by the family. A table to one side is set out with drinks and a few wrapped presents. It is the late afternoon of George’s twenty-first birthday party, ten months later. Throughout the scene, there is a sense of great bustle going on in the rest of the house, and the voices of Muriel and Bertie Bland are heard from time to time offstage, frantically giving last-minute orders. Bertie enters with Somerset, apologizing for his preoccupation. When Hannah Rabenstein enters with Ferdy, a moment later, Bertie immediately whisks the older man off for his advice on some minor detail.
Alone with Hannah, Somerset expresses surprise that Ferdy should once more be persona grata with the Blands. Ah, but they can accept anyone when they are necessary, the old lady replies. In a monologue, she explains that the birthday party very nearly didn’t happen. All the plans had been set, and the county invited, when George wrote that he could not possibly return from Germany. Apparently serious in his plan to become a concert pianist, he claimed he was too busy working. Originally his parents blamed Ferdy for putting these ideas into his head, but when he protested that he was as opposed as anyone, the Blands turned right around and embraced him as a lost sheep. Eventually, though, it was not Ferdy who prevailed on George to come home, but Hannah herself, who had been quietly paying his musical expenses for almost a year.
The family now begin to gather in the library before the guests arrive. George is the last to enter, and is immediately greeted with a coming-of-age toast, which launches the act-finale. The formal presentations will come later, but various members of the family offer him personal gifts to mark the occasion. George’s increasing embarrassment reaches a peak with his father’s present, a pair of matched Purdy shotguns. What is the point of giving him guns, George bursts out, when he won’t be around to use them? There is a shocked silence. His mother asks what he means. George replies that he intends to return to Munich the next day; he has missed enough work already. Somerset slips out of the room unnoticed.
Bertie and Muriel berate George with their plans—but George rejects them: he doesn’t want to hunt and shoot; he doesn’t want to enter parliament; he doesn’t want to be a millionaire; he doesn’t even want to be a baronet. Now Bertie loses his temper completely. He forbids George to return to Munich; George defies him. His father will cut off his allowance; George will work for a living—selling old clothes if he has to. “What, like a common Jew?” Sir Adolf asks. “Well, am I not one?” George hurls back, and goes on to say that he has found out the true family name—Bleikogel—and intends to use it from now on.
George turns to storm out of the room, bumping into the returning Somerset, who holds him for a moment. But George breaks free, shouting “You can’t stop me—none of you!” The orchestra is heard playing salon music from inside the house. Somerset informs them that the first guests are arriving.
Act II, scene 1. The morning room at Tilby
It is the next morning. The lights go up to reveal Ferdy Rabenstein in an unusual state of exasperation. The sound of a piano being played loudly and angrily is heard from offstage. Hannah comes in, realizing that the interview must have gone badly. Ferdy says he spent half the night arguing with the parents, wringing out concessions, then putting things to the boy. If he will only agree not to oppose his parents so blatantly, they would not insist on his entering politics or the diplomatic service. He could be free to set up his own place in London, pursue the arts as an amateur, meet everybody, do anything. But George rejected him.
Hannah retorts that the life Ferdy is describing is his own; the boy would be stifled by it. George does not care for mere displays of wealth or taste. He has an urge he barely understands, to find his life before it is too late. George is a voyager. The image is developed into a duet, as they recall the example of their own parents, coming to England from overseas. Brother and sister differ, however, in their approach to their new country. As Hannah says, “The wanderer believes he owns the land around him; the voyager knows otherwise….”
The question at hand, however, is what to do about George. Hannah agrees that it would not be enough for him to be a second-rate pianist. His only justification would be genius. And to find out whether he has that, he will have to work. Hannah offers to pay all expenses for him to study full-time in Munich for two years, provided that on his return he will play for Lea Makart and agree to abide by her verdict. Ferdy is amused by the Machiavellian astuteness of his sister’s plan. Of course the Blands will agree: a genius or a gentleman, what do they have to lose? He goes to fetch George as the lights fade out.
The interlude which follows is longer than most, and very different from any we have heard so far. The piano breaks into a raucous polka and we are in a Bierstübe in Munich. Soon, however, this breaks up into scales and finger exercises, musical fragments jumbled together in almost abstract fashion, before returning to the Bierstübe style once more.
Act II, scene 2. George’s rooms in Munich
The scene is George’s bohemian attic in Munich. The furniture is dilapidated and second-hand; books, papers, and music lie everywhere; and there are three or four unframed student paintings on the walls. George and Somerset come in, singing a snatch of some beer-hall song; both appear in good spirits. George’s appearance is every bit as bohemian as the room, quite different from the cool English elegance which he had presented before: he has allowed his hair to grow down to his shoulders and put on some weight; his clothes are unpressed, casual, and none too clean. But George is ebullient, asking Somerset how he liked his friends, their jokes, and their debates. Somerset replies that it takes him back to the endless conversations of his own student days; it is good to be young again-even if only to pretend to be young. There is a pause, as though each is aware of something hanging over them. Somerset says that he promised to let George know how he liked his playing, which clearly took place before they went out. George brushes him off, however, and excuses himself to change.
In an aria, Somerset reflects on the changes which have come over George. He seems so happy, but will he be fulfilled? It is clear that he has found a new life, shaking off the constraints of England, but what will happen when he must return? Clearly, he has worked like a dog, but to what end? The Beethoven Appassionata, played before they went for dinner, its coruscating notes evidence of passion and titanic struggle… but where is the beauty, the rose at the thicket’s heart? He seemed so brave; brave and yet so vulnerable; laughing in the face of ancient magic, whose power he cannot understand. Yet Somerset envies him; it is better, surely, to seek and not to find, than have given up seeking altogether…?
George returns, dressed in a curious old brocade robe with a fur collar. The effect is to banish the last remnants of his Englishness. Somerset begins to laugh, but thinks better of it, realizing that George is trying to share with him something important. He asks him where he got the clothes; in a dusty shop in the Jewish quarter, George replies—and then goes on with a curious remark: “I wanted you to see me in my home.”
This is the cue for an aria. George says he feels so at home here, freer and more alive than leading a purchased life in a purchased house. His father expects him to play the English squire, but there is not a drop of English blood in his body. He is German through and through and, what’s more, a German Jew. Some of the most interesting hours have been spent in Munich wandering through the Jewish quarter, trying to imagine himself into the lives of these people—though he held back from talking with them for fear of being thought an impostor here too. He pulls out an embroidered Jewish prayer shawl which he had bought at the same time as the robe, saying that he has never learnt or dared to wear it, but means to one day.
There is no answer to this. Instead, Somerset talks of his own life, the excitement of travel, to China, Borneo, Malaya. He was young, and the world was his oyster. Then, young no more, he was looking in at other people’s lives from the outside, an honoured guest in gracious homes, with no roots of his own. This begins a duet. George says this is his home; he wishes he could stay for ever. Somerset replies that one cannot live the student life for ever; one’s friends grow older and move away; there is nothing more lamentable than the older man tyring to be a boy among boys. He feels old and sad in the light of George’s bright hopes.
Changing the mood, Somerset reminds George that he has given his solemn promise to return after two years. He asks George what he will do if the verdict goes against him. “Shoot myself,” George replies gaily, pouring out some beer. They drink a toast as the lights go out.
The piano-concerto interlude which follows starts with the polka music once more, though now with a disturbing quality to it. It gradually changes into repetitive scale passages and exercises, which continue even over the opening of the next scene.
Act II, scene 3. The drawing room at Tilby
It is after luncheon on the day of George’s audition for Lea Makart; from time to time he is heard offstage playing exercises. Sir Adolf and Lady Bland, Ferdy Rabenstein, and Somerset are finishing their coffee, entertaining the pianist, but it is she who dominates the conversation. She has gained in authority since the opening scene, while losing little of her charm. It is not of music that she speaks in her brief arietta, but of a little cottage that she is buying on the South Downs, behind Brighton; when she is alone there, she seems to breathe another air. Suddenly, she looks at the clock, and changes her manner to one of pure business. Proclaiming that George must have had time to practice enough, she leads the company out of the drawing room to listen to him.
The interlude which follows covers the time of George’s audition for Lea Makart, but it does not represent it literally. The piano drops out altogether, making way for an orchestral adagio which dissolves time.
Act II, scene 4. The drawing room at Tilby
It is thirty minutes later. The company returns to the room, making small-talk. George is the last to come in. He sits opposite Lea Makart. For a long time, nobody speaks. “What is it you want me to tell you?” she asks. “Whether I have any chance of becoming a pianist of the first rank?” “Not in a thousand years,” is her reply.
For a moment there is dead silence. The orchestral piano begins to play once more… something exquisitely simple. Speaking with unusual gentleness herself, Lea Makart begins to explain her verdict. She has not been influenced by the circumstances; all the wealth in the world would be as nothing if George truly had the makings of an artist. He has worked hard; he will always understand and enjoy music as no mere amateur could; but he has not the hands of a true pianist and, alas, he has not the ear. Lea offers to arrange for him to get another opinion, but George says it is unnecessary; he accepts her verdict which, truth to tell, does not differ much from that of his teacher in Munich. Lea Makart gets up to go, and Somerset goes out with her to her car. Before he leaves, however, George shakes his hand, thanks him for all he has done, and shyly gives him a small wrapped parcel which he hopes he will remember him by. When Somerset has gone, George sinks to his seat once more as though all the spirit had gone out of him.
Although he has won, Bertie is devastated by George’s obvious misery and his bravery in accepting his failure. He offers to send him back to Munich for a further year; he offers him a world tour to distract him; but George refuses everything. He gets up, saying that he would like to go for a stroll in the park. He stands for a moment, looking around the room, then goes over to his father and kisses him, before walking out of the room.
Once more there is silence. Hannah suggests that they marry George to the daughter of another Jewish peer. Muriel is horrified, but her mother-in-law scolds her, calling her for the first time by her given name, Miriam, and saying that as long as she is around she will not allow her to commit any further foolishness. She gets up and, with great dignity, leaves the room, followed by Ferdy Rabenstein. Sir Adolf and Miriam Bland are left alone. The lights fade.
There is a brief orchestral interlude (without piano), at the climax of which a shot is heard, abruptly stopping the orchestra so that the epilogue opens in near-silence.
Epilogue. Somerset’s rooms in London
The scene is the same as for the Prologue. Very quietly, in a dead
voice drained of emotion, Somerset tells what had happened. George was in
the gun-room, preparing to go out… there was a shot… he was
found with a bullet in his heart… an accident, of course—one reads
about such things in the paper often. As he is speaking, he slowly unwraps
the folded material from the opening scene: it is, of course,
George’s Munich prayer shawl, given to Somerset at their last
meeting. Showing his feelings for the first time, he begins to sing:
“It was his death I mourned today, not only Ferdy’s. The death
of all he might have been; the death of all he never knew he was; his
death… and in a way my own.” Somerset sinks to his knees and,
holding the prayer shawl awkwardly between his hands, begins to pray as
the curtain falls.