Night Passage

 

NIGHT PASSAGE
an opera for men’s chorus and chamber ensemble
Music by Robert Moran
Libretto by James Skofield

“Night Passage” commissioned and composed in 1994
by the Seattle Men’s Chorus conducted by Dennis Coleman
was premiered in April 1995
exactly 100 years after the actual historical event had happened in London.

written for chorus, with various individual characters taken by
more than one singer; for example, one character might be sung by
10 baritones, another character by 15 tenors,
depending upon the size and quality of the chorus

The six performances of this 35 minute opera
were received by a most enthusiastic public.

The opera’s original source comes from the day that Oscar Wilde was
arrested.  According to historians, on the evening of this arrest, over
600 men of all walks of life boarded the train at London’s Victoria Station
taking them to Dover and the boat over to Calais, France.  Usually this
late-evening boat ride had a total of approximately 25 passengers.
These men, fearing a ‘witch hunt’ for by the authorities and press alike,
left homes, careers, families, lovers, property and titles to live in France
and away from such repression.
The opera ‘travels’ at many levels, with the numerous male characters
internal monologues representing the various personalities.
As the opera concludes, the passengers, traveling on this calm
channel trip, view the stars and then the arrival of the sun and
a new day.

The instrumental ensemble consists of:
flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, horn, harp, synthesizer,
string quartet (or, if possible, string section) and percussion (one player)

Percussion:  chimes, vibraphone, large suspended cymbal, 3 timbales,
2 timpani, bass drum, large tam

NIGHT PASSAGE had its second production via
the Heartland Men’s Chorus in Kansas City, MI;
the third production was via the Los Angeles Gay Men’s Chorus.  More recent new productions were via The Turtle Creek Chorale, Dallas, TX. and the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus.

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Libretto:

an opera for men’s chorus and chamber ensemble of ten players;
duration approximately 35 minutes

(The scene is the passenger deck of the Dover-Calais packet, underway,
late on the night of April 5, 1895.  It is a close and foggy spring night,
the kind of night when sound carries great distances.  Passengers stand
huddled against the damp.  Two dim, ship’s lanterns provide scant
illumination.  A group of young sailors sings…)

SAILORS
Star of the ocean,
star of the sea,
star of the evening,
shine on me.

I gave my love a diamond
to wear upon her brow;
I gave my love a ruby red;
I gave my love a bow.

Said she, “Bring me no diamond,
no ruby red, nor bow,
but fetch me down the evening star
and dress me in her glow.”

Star of the ocean,
star of the sea,
star of the evening,
shine on me.

CHORUS
(off, at first; entering slowly)
From darkness,
through darkness,
into darkness;
we voyage into exile.
Fear rides on our shoulders
as on the wings of storm.
We carry little in our hands,
but in our hearts there lies a weight
both blessing and a burden;
that it should be our love,
we do not understand.
We know it as we know our very souls.
For each of us, it tells a different tale:
each tale, a song;
each song, a heart;
each heart, a refugee.

FIRST GENTLEMAN
I just walked out the door;
I did not think…
I just walked out the door…

I told my wife I needed air…
Poor girl!  she must not know.
Across the park, towards Victoria Station.
The newsboys on the street were calling…

NEWSBOYS
(shrilly)
Wilde arrested!
Wilde sent to gaol!
Latest edition!
Wilde in disgrace!

FIRST GENTLEMAN
And then I was afraid
for I was sure
their jeering cries were meant for me.

VOICES
Quick now!  Hurry now!  Through the station door!

FIRST GENTLEMAN
Inside the station, as I crossed the floor,
I heard a porter speaking to his mates…

PORTER
An’ serve the  filthy bugger bleedin’ right!

VOICES
He had it comin’; he asked for it, he did!
Now let the bloody bastard rot inside!

FIRST GENTLEMAN
The porter jostled me as I passed by;
I waited for the blow…

PORTER
(respectfully, touching his cap)
Excuse me, guv’nor;
didn’t mean no harm!

FIRST GENTLEMAN
He did not recognize me…
did not know…!
To him, I was a toff in bowler hat–
a banker in the City, maybe, or a barrister…
a  gentleman at any rate… respectable…
a man of property…
a man to be deferred to…
not a sodomite.

ROWDY GENTLEMEN
(jaunty…almost a drinking song)
The ostler in the stables, Oh!
his hair is black as night.
He cracks his whip, and a horse runs up!
He smiles at me, and my heart leaps up!
Up to his outstretched hand!

The ostler in the stables, Oh!
his wife is soft as silk.
But me he loves with a love that’s rough!
Yes, me he loves with a love that’s rough!
Rough as his outstretched hand!

YOUNG WORKMEN
(sudden and violent)
“You musn’t!” said me dad,
“it’s proper wicked!”
And then he took the strap down from the door.
“I’ll beat it out of you, I will!” he said.
But I went out the window and was gone…

VOICES
Quick  now!  Hurry now!  Down the station steps!
Through the platform gate!  Aboard the train!
Avoid all eyes!  You musn’t be found out!
They’ll send you up the river if they know!

FIRST GENTLEMAN
I gained the safety of the railway car,
first class compartment, musty… dim… alone…
I sank down on the cushions, closed my eyes
and as the train pulled out, began to weep…

VOICES
Rest now… sleep now… the old life is destroyed…
and all your weeping will not bring it back…

KEPT BOY
(petulant)
When Reginald came in, he said no word,
but pulled his bag from underneath the bed
and started packing.

REGINALD
Our lot’s been buggered
and I’m shoving off.
If I were you, I’d do the same.

KEPT BOY
So it has come to this, I thought,
he’s found some other lad he fancies more.
Well, sod off, chum; there’s plenty more like  you!
I’m still quite young; I’ve got me looks;
don’t wait for me to come all over weepy.

REGINALD
Don’t play the bloody fool!
Just pack your bag!

KEPT BOY
And so we left together for the train.
But in the station, somehow  I got lost
and hopped on board, alone.
Ah well, I thought, I’ve got me fare and then some.
If Reginald shows up I’d like that fine.
But if he doesn’t, who am I to weep?
The night is fine for sailing on the sea;
The Channel’s smooth as glass…
besides…
I hear the French boys like a pretty face!

CHORUS
We met inside the park when lamps were low.
I touched your face;
I took your hand;
I kissed you.

I did not think it odd inside that dusk
to draw so close,
to so embrace,
to kiss you.

The snow was whispering through freezing air.
Your hand was warm;
your lips were soft
in kissing.

And when we said good evening and passed on,
the falling snow
soon smoothed away
our footsteps.

And now I wander in the April night;
the night is calm.
Where have you gone?
I miss you.

I would be glad if winter and swift dusk
would suddenly
descend on me
and kiss me.

FIRST GENTLEMAN
The evening light blurred past me through the window.
At length the railway lights were lit
my scared reflection gazed right back at me,
out of the glassy dark.
It was as though a stranger stared at me;
it was not I who fled, but someone else…
But at each station I shrank back in fear
lest I be seen by someone I might know.
And when a constable passed by
upon the station platform, then I froze
as rabbits freeze when, over them, the hawk
sculls softly, hunting, through the savage air…

CHORUS OF UPPER-CLASS MEN
(sentimental)
Oh papa, tell me, why is mama weeping?
Be still, my darling boy; do not ask why.
The evening shades are softly stealing;
they make your mama cry…

Oh papa, tell me why the cab stands waiting?
Be still, my darling boy; I must be gone.
The cab man’s horses stamp a warning
upon the cobblestone…

Oh papa, tell me when you’ll be returning?
Be still, my darling boy; when you are grown,
you’ll not remember this sad parting
and I’ll lie under stone…

APPRENTICES
(simply)
At five, I was sent out to work,
apprenticed to a blacksmith.
I liked my master fine;
he rarely spoke.
The man was strong, but gentle, somehow, too…
and when I came of age, he bedded me.
He was so big, he hurt me and I cried out…
but it was I who came to him, next night,
and crept beneath his sheets and lay with him.
And so we lived for six years, up to now…

We heard that blokes like us was being pinched;
my master put me on the next train out.
“I’ll stay and take what’s comin’ if it comes,” he said,
“but you are young and have a life to lead.”
He gave me half a sovereign and godspeed;
he stood upon the platform and he watched
and, as the train pulled out, he raised his hand,
his tired, gentle, big hand…
and was gone.

FIRST GENTLEMAN
At last I fell asleep;
at last I dreamed;
I dreamed another life, another time…

YOUNG NOBLEMEN
My father will come home to dark and quiet.
He’ll pace the hall, until he sees the note
I left upon the table…

FIRST GENTLEMAN
…a life out in the open,
in the light…

STUDENTS
My mother will be waiting
by the window on the stairs…

FIRST GENTLEMAN
A time to banish sorrow…
banish fear…

CURATES
At evensong, tonight, there was no music;
I pushed the stops all in and slipped away…

FIRST GENTLEMAN
…a dream of safety
and security…

YOUNG HUSBANDS
My wife won’t know until the morning post…

FIRST GENTLEMAN
…a dream of freedom
and of dignity…

SHOP CLERKS
Now handsome Jack
will sleep with some new boy…

FIRST GENTLEMAN
…the sweetest dream
that I had ever known…

GENTLEMEN OF DOUBTFUL CHARACTER
The only one who’ll miss me is my landlord…
he’ll miss his silver trophy cup as well…

FIRST GENTLEMAN
But it was just a dream.
I woke to night,
the train, stock-still,
and then I heard the shouting…

CONDUCTORS
(from a distance)
Dover, Gentlemen, Dover!  Final stop!
All disembark for Dover and the boats!

FIRST GENTLEMAN
I fumbled for my hat;
I disembarked.
And with these faceless
and familiar others
I went on board in night, and fog, and silence…

CHORUS
Look at us!
Do not pity us!
We have names!
Imprison us, or take from us our freedom,
and in our hearts, we still will hold a gift
the murderous world cannot comprehend.
And when we die,
it will continue, growing and alive.
For it is love and love can never die.

(There is a sudden pause, as if the night, the sea, the fog, were all
listening.  And then, slowly, the various voices of the chorus come in until
the entire chorus is singing.  The fog disperses and we see a dawn sky
above, with a few faint stars.)

CHORUS
(softly)
Love, let love lead,
love will follow;
over alder,
under willow;
up on hill
or down in hollow.
Let love lead;
love will follow.

Let love lilt,
song will follow:
light as leaf;
or bright as meadow;
High as lark,
or swift as swallow;
Let love lead, love;
Love will follow…

Love, lie down…
leave your sorrow.
Lay your head
upon the pillow;
‘though today
become tomorrow,
love, lie down, love,
leave your sorrow…

SAILORS
(softly)
Star of the ocean,
star of the sea,
star of the morning,
shine on me…

 

 

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