The disappearance, in December of 1900, of the staff of three keepers at a remote lighthouse in the Flannan Isles of Scotland attracted attention not only throughout the British Isles but across Europe and the English-speaking world. No human suspect emerged, and no logical scenario entirely explained the obvious fact that three men, presumably living their lives routinely and doing their appointed tasks, were suddenly and simply no longer where they were supposed to be, or, for that matter, anywhere else.
After an initial report from a passing vessel that the lighthouse was not operating, a follow-up investigational landing from the British lighthouse service discovered an eerily calm scene. A single upturned chair in the kitchen of the living quarters provided the only clue of any disturbance; other than that, the lighthouse and living quarters were completely in order, except for the absence of the occupants. Although a mutual accidental death on the storm-wracked coast provides the most reasonable and likely explanation, the public has, in the ensuing decades, created narratives ranging from a murder-suicide to speculation of supernatural intervention and even extra-terrestrial abduction.
In 1979, increasingly fascinated by and attached to the wild, isolated islands of northwestern Scotland (where he still lives), English-born composer Peter Maxwell Davies turned to the mystery of the Flannan Isles lighthouse as the subject for an opera. Already internationally renowned for his Eight Songs for a Mad King, a hybrid song cycle-chamber opera inspired by the insanity of Britain’s King George III, Maxwell Davies wrote the libretto himself, fictionalizing the historic mystery by creating three original characters to represent the missing men and inventing a location closely resembling the Flannan Isles.
The result, The Lighthouse, is a theater piece that questions and destabilizes reality on several levels. The viewer is pulled almost without warning—in an effect that might be characterized as either cinematic or surrealistic, or both—from a Court of Enquiry in Edinburgh to the island at the moment of discovery and, eventually, to the events leading up to the mysterious disappearance. Adding to the dreamlike quality of the piece, the questions at the enquiry are delivered wordlessly, by the horn (which Maxwell Davies suggests to be placed in the audience); as in a dream, in which the individuals one encounters may unexpectedly shift or become ambiguous, the same three singers portray the officers who arrived on the scene to investigate as well as the three keepers of the lighthouse. And each of these three characters represents an extreme but credible human personality trait: blasphemous sociopathy, religious fanatacism, sentimental eroticism.
Musically, The Lighthouse is rich with the often engaging, frequently disturbing combination of whimsicality, dissonance, parody, and borrowing—both of musical styles and melodic material—typical of Maxwell Davies’ music. The chamber orchestra, including banjo, guitar, “out-of-tune upright piano” and referee’s whistle, along with an entourage of traditional winds, strings and percussion, is at times blatantly descriptive, at times coldly abstract. Vocal and instrumental lines are disjunctive in the extreme (octave leaps are common, and the bass is required to reach up into the soprano range at one point); references to popular music and hymnody abound (the alert listener will notice the bass whistling a fragment of the naval hymn, “For Those at Peril on the Sea,” for instance).
Structurally, the heart of the opera lies at the center, in a set of three “songs” corresponding roughly to the development section of a symphony or sonata. The baritone Blazes delivers a searing, confessional ballad of abuse, murder, and betrayal; the tenor Sandy presents an ironic romance that transforms, as the other two pick it up, trancelike, into a bawdy joke; the bass Arthur piously narrates the murderous vengeance of Jehovah on the idolatrous Children of Israel.
The deliberate confusion Maxwell Davies introduces resolves, however, not in rationality, but in hallucination and insanity, and in an unexpected—and horrifying—solution of the mystery of the disappearance at the lighthouse.
The Lighthouse premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 1980, conducted by the late Richard Dufallo (who eventually settled in Denton, where his wife, pianist Pamela Mia Paul, currently serves as Regents Professor of Piano at the University of North Texas). Resonating through the obvious metaphor of the lighthouse, a symbol both of guidance and isolation, the work holds a secure place both as one of Maxwell Davies’ most frequently performed pieces and as one of the most frequently presented of all contemporary operas. As with so many of the most beloved works in the operatic repertoire (e.g., Peter Grimes, Traviata, Butterfly), its story can be traced to a real occurrence; in the case of The Lighthouse, it was a real occurrence that resonated on a deep level, masterfully realized by Maxwell Davies both as librettist and composer, concerning the disturbing fact that any of us can at any time, and all of us will, eventually, disappear.
Wayne Lee Gay, a regular contributor to Playbill, writes award-winning fiction and teaches in the English Department at the University of North Texas.