chamber opera (1992) 60′, one act
libretto by Paul Siskind
based on poetry by Suezkint von Trimberg
lead roles: tenor, baritone
secondary roles: soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass
chamber ensemble (9 players)
published by Sweet Child Music
- McKnight Foundation production grant, 1994
In Mighty Silence is an allegorical chamber opera that explores issues of societal marginalization from both historical and contemporary perspectives. Inspired by the life and poetry of Suezkint von Trimberg, a thirteenth-century Jewish minnesinger who struggled to gain acceptance in the German courts, In Mighty Silence freely extrapolates from the little that is known about Suezkint to reflect issues of societal marginalization that transcend era and locale.
There are two principal characters in the opera: the minnesinger (tenor), and his twentieth-century counterpart, a gay poet/performance artist (baritone). Suezkint remains a fragmentary, enigmatic character, singing for the most part only the poems of Suezkint that have come down to us. The Poet is more fully developed, continually reacting to Suezkint’s poetry in allegorical juxtaposition. Much of the Poet’s text is adapted from poetry by a variety of twentieth-century poets, creating a sort of Ur-poet characterization. There is one secondary character, the King (bass), who doubles as the Grant Panel Chairperson; additional incidental characters are drawn from the chorus of twelve.
The orchestra consists of nine players, from which a concertino of oboe, viola, harp, and percussion (i.e. analogues of thirteenth-century instruments) is drawn to accompany the minnesinger. When the scene shifts to the twentieth century, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano complete the ensemble.
The plot of the opera is divided into two parts. In the first part, both characters are seen running up against the forces that impose their respective oppression. The resultant conflict concerns the decision of how one should react to such situations: whether to submerge one’s anger beneath seeming acceptance of one’s situation (Suezkint’s approach), or to express one’s anger explicitly in one’s art, transforming thoughts and words into eventual actions (the Poet’s approach). In the second part, possible ramifications of this latter approach are seen when Suezkint, in a moment of impetuous action, loses all that he had struggled to attain. In the ensuing climactic duet, Suezkint vows never to return to sing in the courts, while the Poet comes to realize that there are times when brazen tactics may indeed be self-defeating.
Visual imagery plays an important role in the development of the allegory. For example, the particular coats that Suezkint and the Poet wear come to symbolically reflect their personal identities as well as their status in society. In similar fashion, the two parts of the opera are connected by an interlude, during which slides and a prepared tape draw together images of historical eras when both Jews and homosexuals have suffered systematic persecution. But the issues of societal marginalization transcend the specifics of the eras and situations presented, and In Mighty Silence presents a powerful and moving allegory reflecting ways in which artists of all sorts may respond to their situation in society.