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Opera works

Baa Baa Black Sheep

Duration: 120 minutes
Year of composition: 1993
Published by Oxford University Press

Audio samples:

  •     Baa Baa Black Sheep (Act 1 Scene 1: A Passage from India)
  •     Baa Baa Black Sheep (Act 1 Scene 2: In the House of Desolation)
  •     Baa Baa Black Sheep (Act 2 Scene 3: A Death in the House)
  •     Baa Baa Black Sheep (Act 2 Scene 1: The Ways of Man)

This opera, to a text by a distinguished Australian novelist David Malouf, is based on the autobiographical short story by Rudyard Kipling. It describes how, as young children, Kipling and his sister were brought to England from India and sent to live with a retired ship's Captain, his fanatical wife (Auntie Rosa) and their bully of a son, Harry.

Auntie Rosa took violently against Kipling and the boy was constantly beaten. In his short story, Kipling constantly referred to his new abode as the House of Desolation, and called himself Punch, and his sister Judy.

This childhood experience marked Kipling for life and explains a great deal of his later writing – the often terrifying elements of revenge, for example, and of course the escape offered by fantasy. In Something of Myself, Kipling acknowledged that it was during this ordeal that he first thought about children living amongst animals.

The opera marries up these two ideas using those elements of The Jungle Book that quite naturally seem to comment psychologically on the child's predicament. Each of the other characters from one world has its counterpart in the other, and thus a comparison of human and animal behaviour is drawn. So, for instance, the bully, Harry, becomes Mowgli's arch-enemy in the jungle, the tiger Sheer Khan.

David Malouf has further endowed the child with the power to effect his own 'wild justice' – a power borne of the imagination which was itself the product of abuse and the need to escape it. At first performances the work clearly appealed to adults and children alike.


An English family is on the eve of setting out from India for ‘home’, where the children, Punch, aged five, and Judy, aged eight, are to be left with foster-parents and reared at last as little English children. Punch is bid farewell by his three Indian friends, Meeta, the household servant, Bhini-in-the-Garden, and Salaam-Captain-Sahib-Snake-Man.

The children are introduced to their new family, Auntirosa, her husband, a retired ship’s captain, and their son Harry. Auntirosa, deciding that Punch is a spoilt little ‘baba’, sets out to teach him the elements of good behaviour and sinfulness, using Harry, a born tormentor, as her agent and spy. The Captain, on the other hand, has taken a fancy to Punch and makes a companion of him, telling the boy, secretly, that he is ill
and will soon die.

Punch, in his unhappiness, calls up the memory of India. Casting himself in the role of a Lost Boy, Mowgli, he finds his parents again in the form of Mother and Father Wolf, sees the Captain as Akela, leader of the wolf-pack, Judy as Grey Wolf, and his Indian friends as Baloo, the bear, Bagheera, the panther, and Ka, the python. These latter educate him in the ways of the jungle and prepare him to fight his enemy, the tiger Sheer Khan (Harry). Auntirosa and Harry recognize but fail to comprehend a new power in Punch, represented musically by his appearance in a second form as a baritone.


A shift of power occurs in the jungle when Akela misses his kill and is challenged by the younger wolves, who want to deliver Mowgli up to Sheer Khan. Akela prevails, but Mowgli, expelled from the jungle, goes in search of his own kind. Meanwhile, in the House of Desolation, the Captain dies. On the outskirts of the jungle Mowgli comes to a village and is recognized by one of the women, Messua, as the child a tiger took. She takes him in, but when Grey Wolf comes to visit him and they are seen dancing together by moonlight, Mowgli is once again cast out.


Punch is again in trouble, accused of having tried to kill a fellow-pupil who, egged on by Harry, as been taunting him as ‘Black-Sheep’. When Harry tells Punch he will go to Hell and threatens him with Hellfire, Punch seizes the idea of fire, and in his guise as Mowgli, kills Sheer Khan and dances on his skin. The other animals rejoice.

Hearing now that Messua and her husband are to be burned alive for taking him in, Mowgli sets out to free them. To punish the village for its crimes against him, Mowgli, with the help of Bagheera, calls in the elephants, Hathi and his sons, to trample it flat and let the jungle in.

Mowgli, on the edge of adulthood, is stirred by the presence of a village girl, and in the excitement of spring, with all the animals pairing, recognises at last his alienation from the jungle world he has been at home in. Reluctantly he accepts that he must leave it and return to the world of men. His friends, Akela, Baloo, Bagheera, Ka and Grey Wolf send him forth with their blessing.

Punch’s parents return to collect their children. Judy responds immediately, but Punch at first cannot.

Baa Baa Black Sheep was commissioned by the Cheltenham International Festival of Music (with funds from the Arts Council of England and BBC Television) and received its world première on 3 July 1993 in Cheltenham, performed by Opera North.

© Michael Berkeley

For You

Duration: 140 minutes
Year of composition: 2008
Published by Oxford University Press

Audio samples:

  •     For You (Act 1 Scene 3: The Frieths' London House)
  •     For You (Act 1 Scene 6: Charles's Study)
  •     For You (Act 2 Scene 4: The Rehearsal Room)
  •     For You (Act 2 Scene 4: The Rehearsal Room)

Act 1

The opera opens with the chaotic sounds of tuning as Charles Frieth, pre-eminent composer and prodigious womaniser, prepares to rehearse one of his early works. He begins to conduct and muses on how this music no longer touches him. As his frustrations rise, he is struck by a wrong note. Charles accuses and berates the horn player, Joan, while his assistant, Robin, fears that this will be another of his episodes – humiliation, forgiveness, then seduction.

At home, Charles's wife Antonia is visited by her doctor, Simon, a long-standing friend. She is ill and needs further urgent tests, but she is terrified of another general anaesthetic. There is a deep unspoken attraction between them. Unnoticed, Maria, the Frieths' Polish housekeeper, watches the end of their conversation. Left alone, she reveals her passionate idolisation of Charles and her contempt for Antonia and Simon.

Robin enters. He resents working for Charles and tries ordering some coffee from Maria, but she's having none of it. She is proud and sings about her homeland with a melody that is a recurring theme in the opera but is here treated like a folk-song.

Charles arrives home in a state of excitement, accompanied by Joan. He has written a 32-bar cadenza for horn to be inserted into his new work, Demonic Aubade, due to be rehearsed tomorrow. Robin will have to stay up all night writing out the parts. Charles flatters Maria, who can barely contain her excitement, and asks her to bring supper for two to his studio. She is all too willing to serve the great man. Charles then asks for a word with her in private. He enquires how Antonia is and becomes disturbed when Maria reveals that Simon has visited the house. She finally declares that the Doctor loves Antonia and leaves Charles alone to reflect on his situation. Jealous but sickened, too, by his own behaviour, Charles decides to change his ways and calls Maria back to witness his promise that Joan will be his last fling. Unfortunately, Maria believes he is making a promise to her. She is almost delirious with delight.

Charles's Studio. Charles can't understand why he isn't able to make love and persuades Joan to try again. Maria bursts in with supper, separating the lovers and tidying the bed around them. She is followed by Robin, who has found a problem with the music he's been asked to copy, and then by Antonia, with a bag packed for hospital, and closely followed by Simon. Everyone is experiencing confusion and pain – mixed with a degree of self-righteousness.

Act 2

The Hospital. As Antonia comes round from the operation she remembers the beginnings of her love for Charles. He sits in the shadows listening. He loves her and is full of remorse, and when he tries to convince her of this she reveals how hurt she has been. Charles becomes agitated and accidentally knocks over a monitor, just as the Doctor and nurse arrive. Simon and Charles finally confront each other. As Simon asserts his authority, Charles states his claim over his wife and storms out.

Charles's studio. Maria and Robin are once again arguing about Charles. Maria declares he is a god amongst men. Just then Charles returns from the hospital and sees that Robin hasn't finished writing the parts. He dispatches Robin and bemoans the frustration and anguish his faithless marriage has caused, joking that if murder was amongst her household duties he'd send Maria to the hospital! When he goes on to ask if she has ever contemplated marriage her world is turned upside down. She is convinced he is asking her to marry him and starts to imagine a time when he will be hers alone, with the past wiped clean.

The Hospital. Antonia is still weak and Simon warns the staff not to leave Charles alone with her. He too struggles with his own guilt. Antonia wakes up and seeing Simon at her bedside it seems that at long last they can share their love. Simon leaves and as Antonia drifts off to sleep Maria emerges from the shadows, wearing Charles's coat. To a wild variation of the music of confusion, she turns off Maria's life support and departs, leaving the coat behind.

The Rehearsal Room, next morning. Charles begins conducting his Demonic Aubade. This is the work he has aspired to all his life. It is his artistic zenith and personal credo, a mixture of vision and hubris. As it reaches its climax Simon arrives, accompanied by two police officers with the coat. Charles is cross about the interruption and can't believe what they are saying. It just doesn't make sense. As he is arrested for his wife's murder he realises what must have happened. He begs Maria to reveal the truth but it is too late.

Now she finally has him all to herself.

Jane Eyre

Duration: 84 minutes
Year of composition: 2000
Published by Oxford University Press

Audio samples:

  •     Jane Eyre (Act 1: Paris)
  •     Jane Eyre (Act 1: Ah, Miss Eyre, there you are)
  •     Jane Eyre (Act 1: Jane, did you see no one, Jane?)
  •     Jane Eyre (Act 2: Beautiful, so beautiful)
  •     Jane Eyre (Act 2: Beautiful, so beautiful)
  •     Jane Eyre (Act 1: I can sing you know, Miss Eyre)

Act 1

A year after her flight from Thornfield and her discovery that Edward Rochester already has a wife, we find Jane haunted by voices from the past. As she recalls her arrival at Thornfield she begins to relive it. She is greeted by the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax, and her new charge Adele. She asks Adele about the master of the house whom she has not yet seen. Adele describes a man who is kind but also gloomy, a man who can find no peace at Thornfield, a man with a wound. Jane speculates about the strange laughter she has heard from behind one of Thornfield's locked doors.

Out on the ice Jane tries to imagine what Mr Rochester is like. Suddenly in the fog she is startled by a rider. His horse rears up and the rider falls. Later at the house Jane recognises him as Mr. Rochester, the master of Thornfield and they have their first unusual encounter.

Later Jane is wakened by a commotion. Someone has started a fire in Mr. Rochester's bedroom and torn his face. Jane is disturbed and frightened. He leads her outside and in the first light of day tells Jane the story of a young man seduced and betrayed in the West Indies and declares that Jane, if she is willing, might save him from a life of loneliness and exile.

A strange woman reappears and dares Rochester to free himself and be happy. Jane to whom the woman on this occasion is invisible admits her love and Rochester reassures her that there there is nothing to fear.

Act 2

The night before Jane's wedding to Mr. Rochester. Mrs. Fairfax and Adele bring Jane's veil and sing a wedding song. Mrs. Rochester is watching from the shadows. When Adele and Mrs. Fairfax leave, she approaches Jane and, semi-deranged, tears the wedding veil to pieces. Jane confronts her attacker and when Rochester arrives his secret is revealed. Vainly Rochester pleads with Jane to stay. He describes how he was tricked into marriage but Jane is adament. She leaves, declaring her love for him and asking him not to break her heart by calling her back. Once again Mrs. Rochester sets fire to the house and when Rochester attempts to save her he is blinded. Jane, struggling with her own tormented thoughts, now realises that the voices that she hears are not voices of the past but of the present. Edward Rochester is calling to her out of the darkness. Impulsively she responds. She approaches Rochester and they are reunited in their love. Now even the ghost of the dead Mrs. Rochester cannot rise up to part them.

© Oxford University Press