This short chamber opera, for which I wrote the libretto (see below) and the amazingly talented Patrick Brown wrote the music, tells the story of a family which, bored one afternoon when the power goes out, decides to play with an old time machine that’s been lying around the house for years.
Click below – or visit Patrick Brown’s YouTube channel – to watch a performance of this piece.
An Opera in One Act
Cast of Characters:
Fiona, a woman in her ’30s – lyric mezzo
Cole, her husband, a man in his ’30s – lyric tenor
Adena, their daughter, a teenager – soubrette/light lyric
Werner, Cole’s father, a man in his ’60s – bass/baritone
[As the curtain rises, we see the family playing cards at a table. A small cabinet stands in the corner of the room. An unlit lantern sits atop it. Fiona and Cole sit across from each other. Adena and Werner sit next to each other. Clothing and furniture are non-descript – vaguely modern. Behind them stands a white backdrop. Pictures of windows are being projected onto it. They show a yard on a cloudy spring day. The characters all seem discontent.]
FIONA: Everything is always the same.
ADENA: Not for me. I could have had an exciting weekend camping, if dad hadn’t–
COLE: Please, not again. [To Fiona.] You talk about sameness? She’s always the same – unpredictable, dramatic. [To Adena.] It’s simply illogical to go on and on about it, Adena. It’s Saturday. It’s too late to change things now.
ADENA: Fine. I’m not talking to you.
COLE: [Sarcastically] Oh, that makes a lot of sense. [To Fiona] Well, Fiona, aren’t you going to play?
FIONA: Oh, is it my turn? [She lays down a card.] There. I’ve only got a three. [Sighs.] Everything, always the same.
WERNER: And cold. Why is it always so cold in here?
COLE: It’s not that cold.
WERNER: Did you turn the heat down again?
COLE: It was set too high. The human body can withstand–
WERNER: I don’t care about the human body–
ADENA: [Aside] Probably not, at his age.
WERNER: — I care about how I feel. And I feel–
ADENA: Cold. Yes, we know. [Throwing down a card.] Here, a two. Oh, I can’t believe I couldn’t go this weekend–
COLE: I thought you weren’t talking to me.
ADENA: I’m not! I’m just saying I can’t believe it. And the power is out. That’s even worse. No tv.
FIONA: Maybe I should do some work in the garden…
ADENA: Oh, no, mom. Please don’t. I don’t want to be left alone with him. [She indicates Cole.]
WERNER: Hey, I’m still here. You can talk to me. [The others ignore him.]
FIONA: Maybe you could come outside with me…
ADENA: Ugh! No! I’m not going out there.
COLE: You wanted to go camping this weekend! You do know that takes place outdoors, do you
ADENA: I’m not talking to you, so why do you keep talking to me? Isn’t that illogical?
COLE: No, because you’re talking back. Also, I win this round. I’ve got a queen. [They throw down their cards, which he takes.] Shall I deal again?
ADENA: No, I think I’ll die if I play any more card games.
COLE: Must you always be so emotional? I doubt you’d really die.
FIONA: What should we do, then? Nothing seems very interesting.
WERNER: I know. Let’s play with the time machine.
ADENA: We have a time machine?
FIONA: Yes. Come to think of it, we do. Cole and I got it years ago, as a wedding present. I think it runs on batteries.
ADENA: I guess that’s kind of like tv. Let’s try it.
FIONA: Cole, is it still in the attic?
COLE: No, I moved it the last time I re-organized the house. Let’s see. I think it’s in this cabinet. [He looks inside the cabinet and withdraws an instruction booklet and a small box with buttons, like a remote control.] Here it is!
ADENA: It’s a cheap model – doesn’t even go into the future. Everyone knows it’s better in the future.
COLE: [Studying the instruction booklet.] It has a cruising mode. If we don’t have a particular destination, we can just float around a bit.
ADENA: Oh, let’s do that. I couldn’t handle anything too intense unless it advanced my social standing.
FIONA: Well, what about the Renaissance? It might be nice to go.
COLE: The Renaissance it is. [He scans the buttons, then pushes one. The spring scene disappears from the windows. One of the windows begins to show various objects and scenes from the Renaissance.]
ALL: Confusing was the Renaissance, most strange.
The old, the new – they raged and reconciled
Most every day that nature could arrange.
Quite steeply were the paradoxes piled.
[They stop at the end and look at each other perplexedly.]
WERNER: What the heck was that?
COLE: I think this explains it. [He holds up the instruction booklet.] It says, “May produce glaring oversimplifications.” [He shrugs.] Anyway, I think we’ve arrived.
ADENA: Oh, look, some knights are fighting over there. Yow! That had to hurt. In fact, I think he’s dead.
WERNER: Don’t feel bad. It happened a long time ago.
ADENA: Oh, I don’t feel bad. I just wish I could see the winner better. [Cole fiddles with the time machine.] Hey, go back there!
COLE: No. That was too violent.
FIONA: Oh, look! A masquerade. People dancing all around, full of color. With masks of so many sorts. I see lions, bulls, and ravens. There’s a prancing unicorn. And what is that? I think – oh, yes, a phoenix. That one is my favorite. And look at the ancient dances they’re doing. To think that people lived this way.
ADENA: I wonder what they think of our house floating by.
FIONA: They don’t seem to mind. Perhaps they think we’re faeries.
COLE: Oh, my goodness! Those young lovers! Kissing without shame!
ADENA: Oh, yes.
COLE: Let’s go. I think we’ve seen it all.
WERNER: Good – be quick about it.
ADENA: But we haven’t seen much at all. We should stay and study the social customs–
COLE: Oh, please. I know what you want to study. Besides, I want to visit the neo-classical age. [He presses several of the buttons. The images begin to change, so that they reflect the neo-classical period of history.]
ALL: Perfect logic doth rule in the age of reason,
Doth rule in every home and in every season.
All must be done precisely without failing.
Get sloppy and you just might earn a jailing.
FIONA: Look. Some men are building a machine over there.
COLE: Look how well they build it. It’s so symmetrical. Adena, this is more the thing you should be watching.
ADENA: How boring! How stifling! It’s like getting the television back, just to find out it will only show documentaries.
WERNER: [Shivering.] How could reasonable people let it get so cold?
FIONA: What do you think they think of the house? Surely they can’t believe we’re faeries?
COLE: They probably think we’re something logical – like a cube or a globe or God’s protractor. And I like it very much. Everyone acting just as standard dictates. Everything done according to rigorous planning and research. Think of the inventions that were made. Think of how the light of knowledge filled the minds and hearts of men. Such magnificent order! If only we could learn to live this way.
FIONA: An age of God and Man. I haven’t seen a woman since we arrived.
COLE: I’m sure they’re around somewhere, staying efficient in the background.
ADENA: I can’t take much more of this. Someone down there has got to break a rule or I’m going to faint away.
WERNER: I’m sure someone will if you look closely enough. They didn’t like to do it in public.
ADENA: No, I can’t stand it. Give me that machine! [She runs after her father.]
FIONA: Oh, Cole, let her have it. We’ve seen this age enough.
WERNER: If we stay, I’m setting all the telescopes on fire for the heat! [He blocks Cole so that Adena can grab the time machine.]
ADENA: Ah ha! Let’s move this thing forward… to the Romantic age! [She pushes several buttons. The scenes on the backdrop now reflect Romanticist culture.]
ALL: All passion! Every rapture! Such delight!
Truly we will burst at every seam.
O! Let us languish all the dying day!
O! Let us burn forever in the night!
COLE: Give me a break.
WERNER: I’m with you on that one.
FIONA: Look at those paintings! They almost hurt my eyes.
COLE: And their music hurts my ears.
ADENA: Well, I love it here! Alas! I wish I could stay here! Here, I could die of a broken heart if I didn’t get my way – what would you do then? Or, better yet, just run away with some dashing young poet – with lovely eyes and an even better– [Turns and stares at them all.] Well, I could. Here, they see us blazing through the sky, our house like a star fallen to earth, and they know we are fallen angels – and that our broken hearts brought us here!
WERNER: I think I’m going to vomit. I can do without the passion very well. Just give me a stove.
ADENA: But we could live like Bohemians and endure the cold for love!
WERNER: Have you ever endured the cold for love?
ADENA: Well, no.
WERNER: Trust me, Adena. It’s overrated. Better to read about than to accomplish.
FIONA: It’s not such a bad place. Colorful and free. But it would be so easy to get lost in all the spectacle. Is that really what I want?
COLE: See? You’re upsetting your mother—
FIONA: I didn’t say that.
COLE: But you meant it, Fiona. I’m sure you did.
FIONA: Oh, I see. You think you can decide how I should feel, just because it’s historical. Well, it still hurts, no matter the year!
COLE: Everyone’s overreacting. I blame the century! Give me that remote!
FIONA: Don’t be so bossy, Cole.
WERNER: I know just where to go! [He grabs the machine from Adena and starts pushing buttons. The images on the backdrop change from nineteenth-century ones to twentieth-century ones.]
ALL: Here we are in the twentieth century.
Everything’s upside down, and nothing means anything.
No one cares about anyone. No one cares about care.
Everything’s falling apart, but no one stops.
COLE: So, here we are in the twentieth century. There are lots of machines, which is logical, of course…
FIONA: But everywhere I look is war, disease, torture. Money that people will die for, but which no one cares about. So much of it is stained with blood.
COLE: Look, a factory. People acting like machines. I suppose it’s not so bad.
ADENA: Not so bad? I don’t see how you can stand it! It feels dead here. Apathetic.
FIONA: Why did you bring us here, Werner?
WERNER: Why are we here? Don’t you see? That doesn’t matter. We know everything. Nothing to be discovered, embraced, denied. Nothing to make you care. We know we’re in an opera, but it doesn’t matter. We know it isn’t very good, but we know that no one will notice. We’ve read all our lines. There’s nothing to wonder about. When they see our house going by, they say, “Oh, another troupe of time traveling opera singers.” Nothing special. It’s comfortable. Safe as death itself. I could stay here until I die.
ADENA: No, you couldn’t. Global warming or not, this is the coldest age possible.
FIONA: They can see what they’re doing. Why don’t they do anything about it? It’s like they’re living for death.
COLE: [Sarcastically.] Oh, that’s rational.
FIONA: I don’t want rational, or passionate. I don’t want to explore new places, or destroy them. Why are things always the same? Couldn’t we change it?
COLE: I just don’t think you’d be happy anywhere. Makes sense. You don’t fit in anywhere. Even Adena fits in somewhere, but not you!
FIONA: And what about you? You fit anywhere all too easily! Give me that thing. [She takes the time machine from Werner and dashes it on the table, breaking it. The backdrop images shift rapidly, then settle back to the scene from the beginning of the opera.] I’m so glad postmodernism is dead.
ADENA: It is?
FIONA: Oh, yes. For several years now, I think.
WERNER: Then what is it now?
FIONA: It’s… It’s… I don’t think we’ll know until we’re looking back at it.
WERNER: If we live that long. Oh, I don’t care, anyway. Turn up the heat, Cole.
COLE: I told you. It’s not rational– We must be ordered, hierarchical. Oh, never mind. Shall we play cards again? [He picks up the deck and begins to shuffle.]
ADENA: Why not?
WERNER: I guess so. Who cares?
COLE: [Passing out cards] Hello? Fiona? Earth to Fiona!
FIONA: Oh, sorry. Yes, deal me in. No. No! Don’t deal me in.
COLE: What is it now?
FIONA: Everything is always the same here. But I think I’ll go out to the garden anyway…
[She exits, leaving the others to their card game. The lights fade. The curtain closes.]