My name is S. O’Duinn Magee and I’m a writer, but to tell you the absolute truth, I never dreamed that I’d get a chance to collaborate on an opera and write a libretto.
This is how it happened.
Composer Christopher Weiss and I became friends some six or seven years ago. We both loved movies, music, art, poetry, drama, fiction – anything and everything that was dramatic in presentation.
One day while we were talking, Christopher told me that he’d always wanted to adapt Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott” as an opera. I immediately said Let’s do it! and we agreed that we would.
You probably know the poem?
A Lady (we named ours Elaine) is locked in a tower on the Island of Shalott because of a mysterious curse. According to the curse (this is in medieval times, when mysterious curses were a fact of life), the Lady will die if she looks out of her window. All she can do is sit at her loom and weave a magical fabric (Tennyson calls it a “web”), always alone, looking in her mirror to see reflections of the world outside.
As you can imagine, the Lady is bored to death and becomes annoyed with her situation. One day, seeing beautiful Sir Lancelot reflected in her mirror while he canters by outside, she falls in love and defies the curse by running to her window to gaze in rapture at His Gorgeousness. Here’s how Tennyson describes what happens next:
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me!” cried
The Lady of Shalott.
At this point the Lady knows the jig’s up anyway so she might as well leave the tower. Reaching the base of the tower, she climbs into a boat that’s conveniently docked on the riverbank (it’s apparently a very small island), pushes off, and floats down the river to Camelot.
By the time the boat runs aground at Camelot she’s dead, of course (those medieval curses were nothing to fool with). As Tennyson puts it in the poem, her blood was frozen slowly. Also according to Tennyson, all the knights at Camelot were spooked by the corpse in the boat, except for Lancelot:
But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, “She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.
So that’s it for Tennyson’s story-poem, and therein lay the problem for Christopher and me.
The problem? Yes. The problem was that Tennyson’s poem doesn’t really tell much of a story. The poem’s iconic, often alluded to, visually dramatic (check out Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his Pre-Raphaelite chums who immortalized it in their paintings). But the story itself just doesn’t support a full-length opera. A short one-act opera, maybe. But not the whole kibosh.
Christopher and I fiddled with Tennyson’s story, added a Benedictine priest and an evil Sorceress, even devised a nice phallic symbol (Lancelot’s empty scabbard, conveniently hanging on the wall in the tower). But we still didn’t have enough to sing about. Especially since the Mirror doesn’t talk.
At the time, we were both reading Michael Cunningham’s novel Specimen Days, which is a composite novel. That is, it comprises three separate novellas that are connected through similar narrative patterns, character types, themes, and images. The fun for a reader of such a composite novel is to discover the links that effect a coherent whole.
Inspired by Cunningham’s three-part composite novel, Christopher and I decided to write a three-part composite opera. The result (five years and twenty-two drafts later) is In a Mirror, Darkly — our full-length opera composed of three one-act operas that are titled “The Lady of Shalott,” “A Woman Scorned,” and “That Dame.”
Like Cunningham’s three novellas, our one-act operas take place in different eras and different locales. Also in our opera (as in Cunningham’s novel), the stories cohere into one story. How can three very different stories become one story? Think about Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story. Different eras, different locales, but essentially the same story about star-crossed lovers whose circumstances conspire against them.
The bottom line is that just like stories, life happens. Over and over and over again.