In 1993 Peter S. Beagle revisited his first published short fantasy, "Come Lady Death," and worked with San Francisco-based composer David Carlson to turn it into an opera called The Midnight Angel. Beagle wrote the entire libretto. If you've ever felt that his words leap off the page and could almost whisper in your ear, wait until you hear them actually put to music.
I was lucky enough to get a chance to listen to Mr. Beagle's own copy of a live reference recording from one of the original 1993 productions. (The cassette was not marked, so I don't know which one.) There is no commercially available recording at this time.
The opera opens to find the aging Lady Neville growing increasingly bored with her money, her elaborate parties, and the endless gossip that she formerly treasured. Her house guests find themselves having a conversation about death and the grim reaper, which gives Lady Neville an engaging idea: she will give "one last ball...and the guest of honor shall be Death himself!"
When the fateful night arrives, Lady Neville and her guests gather to nervously await the arrival of Death. They wonder what they should say and how they should act if he actually does appear. Imagine their surprise when Death shows up in the form of a lovely young woman, and apologizes for her late arrival! She so thoroughly charms the group that they beg her to stay. This she can do, but at a price — she has to pick someone from the assembled group to take over and become Death in her stead.
Peter's magical writing style comes to life in this stage production. New phrases, expressions, and angles distill the original story down to its most graceful and powerful elements, while expanding events, offering deeper characterizations, and adding a surprising amount of humor into the mix. These funny bits are more common in the first act than the second, such as when the Contessa dei Candini, observing someone else leave following a disagreement, pointedly comments:
How wonderful to be a man!
You can walk away whenever your pride is wounded,
and everyone runs after you.
If we women did that,
we'd never get to sit down.
Yet later in the same act, we find the emotional depth that Peter delivers so well. Lady Neville delivers a solo while she considers how fearless she is to meet Death, singing:
Have I ever loved?
As simply as the grass grows...
Have I been betrayed?
I cannot remember.
Thank my cold star, at last I cannot remember....
David Carlson composed over 90 minutes of music to express this haunting story. Sometimes threatening, sometimes darkly calm, his score is continuously dramatic. As passions rise, a swelling passage of full strings sweeps through; in other moments the orchestra drops out and the lines are sung completely a cappella for emphasis. Most of the score is in a minor key, with varying degrees and kinds of dissonance during moments of conflict, clearly painting an ominous backdrop for events. Soaring vocal lines carry the story from character to character in a way that captures our attention and keeps the plot moving. Carlson's thoughtful music leads the listener full-throttle through the intense moments of the story, yet also provides space in which to consider the nuances of each character in their turn.
The music and Beagle's libretto fit together seamlessly and flow quite naturally, all the way from the initial character introductions through the initiation of a new Death, and the wisely observant epilog that follows.
production photo from The Midnight Angel by Ken Howard
Some Notes From Behind The Curtain [courtesy peterbeagle.com ]: