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Classical notes

His opera is built on reconciling keys and cultures

Delvyn Case reworked 'The Prioress's Tale' as an opera. Delvyn Case reworked "The Prioress's Tale" as an opera.
Email|Print| Text size + By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / January 11, 2008

Every opera composer tailors a story to fit his or her needs. Rarely, though, do the adjustments involve a wholesale reformulation of the narrative, or a 180-degree turn in its message.

Yet that's exactly what Delvyn Case has done in composing his chamber opera "The Prioress's Tale." The Chaucer story on which the piece is loosely based is, among other things, violently anti-Semitic, an example of the notorious blood libel myths about Jews that flourished during the Middle Ages. That made using it as operatic fodder a dicey proposition, to say the least.

"The last thing I want is for anyone to misinterpret my actions," the 33-year-old composer says by phone from his home in Quincy, "If you know [the story], you can't believe someone is making an opera out of 'The Prioress's Tale.' "

Instead, Case and his librettist, Christopher Hood, have turned "The Prioress's Tale" into a story of religious tolerance, of the reconciliation of cultures deeply divided by mistrust. The opera - composed for piano and six singers - will have its first performances next Thursday and Saturday at Eastern Nazarene College, where Case teaches music.

Chaucer's story is about a young Christian boy who teaches himself to sing "Alma redemptoris mater," a hymn to the Virgin Mary. At the behest of Satan, Jews slit his throat while he is walking through the Jewish quarter of the city singing. (They are drawn and quartered for the crime.) At the boy's funeral his body miraculously begins to sing the "Alma redemptoris" again. When the abbot performing the funeral asks him why he can still sing, the boy says that Mary placed a grain on his tongue, and he will continue to sing until it is removed. When the abbot removes the grain, his voice is finally stilled.

What initially grabbed Case's interest was the crucial role that music plays in the tale. The boy's chant would run almost through the entire piece, which he says he found to be "a really interesting compositional challenge." He also saw a message about how the force of individual piety is stronger than a religious institution. "The boy continues to sing even after his throat has been slit and nobody, including the institutionalized church, can shut him up," he says. "On the one hand they have this boy who's praying to the Virgin Mary - that's all good - but on the other side it's too powerful. It's like a direct manifestation of a miracle."

These were all ideas Case wanted to explore, but he knew that, were he to set Chaucer's story straightforwardly, the anti-Semitic content would all but drown them out. So he and Hood rewrote the plot substantially. In their version, a Jewish man is falsely accused of murdering the boy after hearing him sing, and the boy's mother, convinced he is guilty, nevertheless pleads with the church to spare his life. "We wanted it to be about these two individuals who, rather than come to each other as a Christian and a Jew, do so as a father and a mother," says Case.

The church still executes the Jewish man, and at that point the boy's voice, which has been singing throughout the opera, falls silent. In a politically charged final scene, the Jewish man's body begins to sing the music of the "Alma redemptoris," this time with a Hebrew text. "The idea is that now this same music is going to be wafting through the town as a constant reminder of the injustice that has been perpetrated," Case says. "It's my way of saying [that] music is a political football, if you will."

Just as the sound of the boy's voice weaves its way through the entire opera, all the music was derived from the 12th-century chant melody for the "Alma redemptoris" that Case decided to use. The chant's melody is based on the note D; unusually, it also contains a G-sharp, which together create the dissonant interval of a tritone.

"This wonderful little wrinkle has actually been the genesis for the harmony of the entire piece," Case explains. The music is divided between two poles, a "Christian" one centered on the key of D major and a "Jewish" one centered on G-sharp minor. "The whole opera is about reconciling two keys which are fundamentally suggested by this theme that you hear all the time. In a very real way, the music is working out a reconciliation between things that initially seemed very different."

Though he and Hood changed the story considerably, Case still felt it necessary to reach out to Jewish groups and individuals to ensure he was honoring their tradition. He found widespread support and mentions in particular Rabbi David Jacobs of Quincy, who, he says, was enthusiastic from the start. "There's a community engagement that has to happen," says Case. "I would do the same thing if I were writing about a lynching in 1948 in Birmingham."

Case describes himself as a Christian with a strong commitment to social justice, and one of the things that he finds most satisfying about the project is the diversity of the support it has received. "The message of the story is to bring people together, and the actual event is modeling that. I'm extremely proud of that. It wouldn't have happened if there hadn't been Catholics, Protestants, Jews who wrote checks and promoted it through their places of worship. So in a very real way, there are people who are not only thinking about religious tolerance, but they're also modeling it."

At Cove Fine Arts Center, Eastern Nazarene College, Quincy. 617-745-3614, delvyncase.com

Stickel leaving ensemble

Peter Stickel, executive director of New England String Ensemble, plans to resign effective June 30, according to a press release. Stickel cofounded NESE in 1994 with cellist John Bumstead.

"Our president Roger Howlett continues to add talented and committed new board members," Stickel said in the press release, "and with a superstar like Federico Cortese on the podium leading 25 first-class musicians, [I] feel comfortable moving on and confident that the unique mission and successful programs of New England String Ensemble will continue to thrive."

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