Context Songs

Included on the Navona Records release Rapport, available from Amazon.

These three songs are taken from my chamber opera The Context of Love Lives written in 2004. The work is based on the lives and writings of poets Elizabeth Bishop and Oscar Wilde. In particular, how they were told in Colm Toibin’s fascinating survey of gay and lesbian artists, Love in a Dark Time: And Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature.

While Wilde and Bishop had nothing to do with each other—they didn’t even live at the same time or in the same country—their lives share much in the way of tragedy. Wilde’s public humiliation and Bishop’s life-long battle with alcoholism are certainly the stuff of opera. Rather than narrate their stories on stage in the traditional operatic way, however, I chose to craft a libretto derived solely from their own words (with a small amount of other historical material). The opera is about the the tenor and trajectory of their lives—not necessarily the events. Each stood in a curious place with their respective societies, each was homosexual, each suffered. Different times, different circumstances, yet both ultimately tragic. Why did it have to be this way? We have come far in terms of human rights and dignity, but we can’t forget the past lest we be doomed to repeat it.

All forms of art exist in the context of the society they’re created in and within the context of the lives of their creators. I won’t simplify by saying all art is biographical—that would be too easy. Rather, the context instills something in the work, becomes a part of it and is still there, perhaps only an echo, even when the work is taken out of its original time and place.
These three songs are from the beginning, middle and end of the opera respectively. The first two are poems by Oscar Wilde and the third by Elizabeth Bishop. The texts are reprinted here, and I hope you’ll not only read them but explore the works and lives of these two writers further.

"Wasted Days" by Oscar Wilde
A fair slim boy not made for this world’s pain,
With hair of gold thick clustering round his ears,
And longing eyes half veiled by foolish tears
Like bluest water seen through mists of rain;
Pale cheeks whereon no kiss hath left its stain,
Red under-lip drawn in for fear of Love,
And while throat whiter than the breast of dove—
Alas! alas! if all should be in vain.
Corn-field behind, and reapers all a-row
In weariest labour, toiling wearily,
To no sweet sound of laughter, or of lute;
And careless of the crimson sunset-glow,
The boy still dreams; nor knows that night is night,
And in the night-time no man gathers fruit.

"Yet Each Man" by Oscar Wilde
(Adapted from The Ballad of Reading Gaol)
Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word.
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave with a sword
Some love too little, some too much
Some sell and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
And some without a sigh
For each man kills the things he loves

"One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. Its evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

from The Complete Poems 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop. Copyright © 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Used by permission.



Poem 1, from Context of Love Lives, performed by Rachel Carter-White, soprano, and Jill Waycie, piano

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