The Mystery of The Lighthouse by Wayne Lee Gay

by Megan Meister

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.

Composer Peter Maxwell Davies

For Those Who Love Grand Opera

by Suzanne Calvin

“…it just doesn’t get any better.”  Or so writes Terry Mathews, Arts Editor of the “Sulphur Springs News-Telegram” in her review of the Dallas Opera’s “Tristan & Isolde.”  She declared that the voice of soprano Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet (Isolde) “should be declared a national treasure.”  You can read it all here.

Meanwhile, over at the “Dallas Dance Examiner” (, Marilee Vergati hailed the “artistically triumphant and intensely romantic” production of Wagner’s masterpiece.  She went on to write: “The Dallas Opera’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’ continues the tradition of taking on operatic challenges and transcending even ardent opera lovers’ expectations. After budget cutbacks in 2011, an opera was dropped from the Tragic Obsessions season leaving room to expand Richard Wagner’s masterpiece. What emerged is one of the finest artistic productions to date showcasing a brilliant all-star cast and orchestra.”  Read her review here and, remember, just one performance left on Saturday.

And from SMU’s Alexander Hoskins for “The Daily Campus,” here’s his review of our production which ends with the question, “What’s not to fall in love with?”

Spot on!

Suzanne Calvin, Manager/Director Media & PR

The Critical Acclaim Continues for “Tristan”

by Suzanne Calvin

If you haven’t read all the initial reviews, please scroll down in order to do so. But it’s incredibly gratifying to be able to report that the applause hasn’t stopped, and rave reviews for our new production of Wagner’s transcendent masterpiece continue to pour in. The latest? From Mark-Brian Sonna at “Pegasus News” who writes:

“To describe this new technique in theatre is nearly impossible. It has to be seen and experienced to fully comprehend it. If this is the new direction for stage design, I welcome it. It gives the director and the designer the ability to create anything conceivable. You want to see the stage explode in a fireball? It can be done, and it does happen in Tristan & Isolde.

“To be able to work such a technological complexity into a production requires the imagination and the acute staging of a master director and Christian Rath truly comprehends the power of this new technology. There wasn’t one false moment in staging. It also requires him to push his performers to a level of performance that can compete with this visual wizardry and the performances given by the singers were stunning. Regardless of the spectacle, for us to be satisfied with this this opera we must emotionally connect. This is perhaps some of the best acting I’ve seen on this stage. The entire cast is flawless.”

Read the rest of his review here.

There are still some seats available for this evening’s performance (Wednesday) which begins at 7:00 PM.  Get ‘em now, because this is one that’s going to be talked about for a long, long time.

Suzanne Calvin, Manager/Director Media & PR

“Oh, Captain, My Captain!”

by Suzanne Calvin

Illness has forced tenor Ben Heppner to cancel his appearance in Tuesday evening’s performance of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s “Moby-Dick” at the San Diego Civic Center. Jay Hunter Morris, who sang the role of Captain Ahab in an earlier production of the work in Adelaide, Australia, will step-in for the ailing singer. Hunter had planned to sing two of San Diego Opera’s upcoming performances of “M-D.” We’ll see what happens now if Ben doesn’t make the much-hoped-for swift recovery from a bug that caused vocal problems on Opening Night. 

Here’s the sad story from the “LA Times” Culture Monster blog.

(Photo by Karen Almond, Dallas Opera)

Suzanne Calvin, Manager/Director Media & PR

From the Desk of Artistic Director Jonathan Pell

by Megan Meister

Leonard Foglia, Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer in San Diego for the opening night of MOBY-DICK, the opera's west coast premiere.


Basking in the glowing reviews for the Dallas Opera’s extraordinary production of TRISTAN AND ISOLDE, I got on a plane for San Diego to attend the west coast premiere of MOBY-DICK.  It was wonderful to be reunited with this magnificent work which we commissioned for the opening season of the Winspear Opera House and which premiered there in April 2010.  Most of the original cast and production team had been reassembled (only Stephen Costello and Jonathan Beyer of the principal singers were unable to join the crew for this “sailing of the Pequod”, and were replaced by Jonathan Boyd and Malcolm Mackenzie, respectively. The only other major change was conductor Joseph Mechavich who has ably succeeded Patrick Summers on the podium, and the production was just as stunning as we all remember it.

Ian Campbell, San Diego Opera’s long time general director, was the first colleague to “sign on” as a co-commissioner and co-producer of the five opera companies who share in the production (although the fourth company to present it, after Dallas, Adelaide and Calgary.) I am very grateful to Ian for his support of the project.  By the way, San Diego Opera was also a partner in our 2001 commission of Tobias Picker’s THERESE RAQUIN.

The future of MOBY-DICK seems assured now, since four other companies have expressed interest in presenting MOBY-DICK after the last original partner’s performances in San Francisco this October.

It is now 6:30 on Sunday morning and I am at the San Diego Airport awaiting my flight back to Dallas in time for today’s matinee of TRISTAN— I certainly wasn’t going to miss one of the performances of this incredible production if I could help it, and maybe I’ll be able to sleep on the plane…

First and Goal

by Suzanne Calvin

Yes, there’s still time to sign on the dotted line and ensure your FREE reserved seat or seats for the Dallas Opera’s April 28th 7:30 pm simulcast of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” at Cowboys Stadium!  More details from Rodger Jones at “The Dallas Morning News” about your chance to, as he succinctly put it, “get something free from Jerry Jones.”  AND the Dallas Opera…don’t forget the Dallas Opera.

All that really matters is that you sign up, mark your calendar, show up, and cheer for Papageno!!!!

Suzanne Calvin, Manager/Director Media and PR

Tristan & Isolde – What a Night!

by Suzanne Calvin

Okay, I confess: by the end of the evening, I was struggling with tears (and for all the right reasons). Were you there at last night’s opening of Christian Rath’s stunning new production of TRISTAN & ISOLDE?  Was I the only sentimental slob out there who found the overall experience transcendent?

The reviews are already coming in, starting with D Magazine’s Wayne Lee Gay who found our TRISTAN ”an unforgettable and thrilling operatic experience.”  Read his review here.

And over at “Theater Jones,” arts writer Gregory Sullivan Isaacs writes that “Rarely has a better cast been assembled.  All of the singers did more than make it through Wagner’s superhuman demands…they even looked their roles, so much so, that a film of the opera could not have been better cast on purely visual merits alone.”  Click here for his review.

Classical Music Critic Scott Cantrell of “The Dallas Morning News” opened his review of the production with a statement of fact: “Thursday night’s Tristan und Isolde just might have outdone even last season’s Boris Godunov as the most glorious performance I’ve witnessed from the Dallas Opera.”  Read more of Scott’s review by clicking here.

David Weuste of Everyday Opera offered praise of the production design: ”The near-minimal sets from stage director Christian Räth aided the never-ceasing vision of Wagner to come forth as it presented each Act with little need for set changes, thus never breaking the momentum.  His ability to keep such a minimal staging with such vivid and ever-moving settings was the direct result of the stunning projection crew headed by Elaine J. McCarthy.  These projections not only “set the scenes,” they also added another level of intensity to already tense moments.”  Read it all right here.

Olin Chism of “The Star-Telegram” compared the production to a 1975 classic and found it wanting.  Read more here.

Sherri Tilley of “The Flash List” Entertainment Guide compared the production to an extremely tall roller coaster with most of the evening spent tick-ticking your way to the crest of the ride before the final whoooooosh!  Read more here.

Trevor Neal of “Operagasm” thought that “everything came together” in this production.  Read his review here.

More to come…I’m sure!  Please feel free to share your thoughts.

(Photos by Karen Almond, Dallas Opera)

Suzanne Calvin, Manager/Director Media & PR

Buy Your Ticket but Hold the Applause

by Suzanne Calvin

Keep your hands to yourselves -- if only for a moment. That’s the opening salvo of Classical Music Critic Scott Cantrell’s piece published in today’s edition of “The Dallas Morning News,” on the new production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” opening tomorrow night (Thursday) at an uncharacteristically early hour: 7:00 PM, and the code of audience conduct he hopes will prevail.  

Read more here.

(Photo of Clifton Forbis as Tristan by Karen Almond, Dallas Opera)

Suzanne Calvin, Manager/Director Media & PR

The View from Below Deck

by Suzanne Calvin

Time always puts a little different spin on things and it’s only now, nearly two years after its Dallas Opera premiere, that the participants appear completely at ease discussing the process of “birthing” a new opera of the caliber of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s “Moby-Dick.” Check out this very interesting piece on the co-production by James Chute, as The Pequod and its crew prepare to come ashore next weekend in San Diego.

(Photo by Karen Almond, Dallas Opera)

Suzanne Calvin, Manager/Director Media & PR

The Cowboys Stadium Clock is Ticking

by Suzanne Calvin

Or perhaps I should say, “the Dallas Opera free simulcast clock is ticking.” Either way, if you are planning to attend the free live simulcast of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” (for one night only -- April 28th at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington), you should act now.

Did I mention that even the parking is free?  Don’t look for that perk at a home game!

More details from The Flash List entertainment guide.

Suzanne Calvin, Manager/Director Media and PR