“What’s past is prologue”, William Shakespeare said. So let us look into the past at the great stories that have captivated generations. Stories of courtship and love, loss and betrayal, palaces and princesses, suspension of disbelief. The thing is nothing really ever changes — stories of great emotion will always win our hearts. And the greatest stories of all are found in opera. Bring together stories of great emotion, music, art, light. Opera tantalises all the senses and transports us to a magical world — if only for a couple of hours. This is a story about our Hero and his search for True Love, facing the forces of darkness. Will the power of love win out?
Now our prologue is past, and you’re sitting comfortably, we can begin.
Our story begins in Italy (as so many operas do) in a villa with pink blushing roses climbing up the door. Our Hero and his Friend drink wine together in an four-square courtyard on a sultry, summer’s evening. That’s the thing with opera — it makes ordinary life extraordinary; barbers, servants and sailors become lovers and adventurers. Our Hero stares glumly into his wine-glass: there are no ladies of a suitable disposition in this small, ordinary Italian town, so his Friend urges him to set off on a journey to seek out True Love — that even the remotest possibility of love is worth the peril of a journey into the unknown.
Our Hero, depressed and lonely, feels there is only one thing worth doing and that is to make the journey. He takes himself down to the harbour and charters a yacht (this being opera, you need to suspend disbelief — ordinary people can afford yachts), and sails off into the sunset. His Friends look on from the harbour wall and sing him a song farewell, while aboard the yacht the stars rise and the moon wanes; the flowers on the shore nod in time to the breeze and sing a lullaby of their own.
Meanwhile, in a land across the seas, we meet our enemy, the evil Necromancer, who has always coveted True Love. He stares into his crystal ball and sees our Hero’s yacht approaching the shores of his island, so he conjures up a vicious storm that threatens to splinter the yacht’s mast into matchwood and dash it on the rocks. The Necromancer is selfish, twisted and lonely — he is only happy when he gets his own way.
In stories like these, there must be True Love. She is a beguiling woman hiding dark secrets. A long time ago, she had an affair with a Magician, and gave birth to two beautiful children — a boy and a girl. The problem with having children with Magicians is that they tend to be enchanted; these two were blessed (or cursed, depending on your point of view) to never age beyond twelve years old. Time marched on and lines etched True Love’s face, yet the children never aged. Unable to contain her grief, True Love abandoned her children. Back to the moment — True Love sees the forks of lightning from the Necromancer’s storm across the sky, and prays to the moon for peace.
Our Hero has survived his first ordeal with the storm and lands safely on the island. He sees the moon rising and follows its call across craggy, snow-covered mountains. He walks all night, and all the next day, before coming on a deserted village, high in the hills; our Hero sits down to rest his tired legs. And out from a run-down little hut steps the most beautiful woman he has ever seen — her eyes meet his and at that moment time seems to stand still. Our Hero begs True Love to join hands. Yet as we all know, True Love is rebellious and cannot be tamed.
Opera plots are rarely simple (is romance ever easy in real life?) and this is where our story takes a turn.
The evil Necromancer has watched our Hero woo True Love in his crystal ball and he doesn’t like it at all. I hope you’re paying attention because this is where it starts to get complicated. You see, many years ago, he was the magician that True Love met. It is his enchanted children that she bore. Refusing the life of a single mum and walking out cursed his soul for ever — so twisted was he with rage that he vowed to never use his powers for good ever again; he cast a spell and brought down everlasting winter upon the island. Gazing into the embers of his dying fire, his only reprieve from the bitter cold, the Necromancer plots a meeting where he will dig up the sins of True Love’s past, and find a Betrayer to turn our Hero against his True Love. Meanwhile, True Love is not frightened by the mistakes of the past — only by the prospect of losing her other half.
The Necromancer calls into his lair a temptress and a seducer — he enchants her with ancient and powerful spells as his Betrayer. Under the Necromancer’s control she tracks down our Hero and, while caressing his hair, tells our Hero that she will surrender herself entirely to him if he wants her. Into his ear she whispers incantations to ensnare him and stories about True Love’s affairs to disgust him. Our Hero does not know which way to turn. He feels crushed: in that moment, True Love is a lie; he thinks he is just another link in a chain of lovers.
Men always make the wrong choice, don’t they? Swayed by the Betrayer’s sweet nothings, and stories of treachery in his ear, our Hero has spent the night in her embrace; the evil Necromancer has spent his night cackling into his crystal ball, watching True Love’s dreams be crushed once again.
Jilted, alone, betrayed: once again a man has destroyed everything True Love wanted. She sings to the moon, asking her spirit-guardian to show her the way back to our Hero’s arms.
As he awakes from the Betrayer’s hot embrace of the night before, and her incantations of black magic wear off, our Hero realises too late he has made the wrong choice. The temptress has fled back to the Necromancer to report on her success — our Hero is alone in an empty bed with nothing to show for it other than sweat-drenched silk sheets; he had found True Love and now he has betrayed her. This is where our story begins to unwind. True Love becomes hate; she is too unhappy to even weep while our Hero expresses remorse for his treachery to anyone who will listen.
True Love flees back to her village and roams the icy mountainside, looking under rocks and beside the frozen river to find the few shrivelled specimens of powerful, magical herbs still surviving in this perpetual winter. She dusts off an ancient book she stole from the Magician’s library many years ago and begins to brew a potion that will help her forget all her hatred towards the Hero. True Love sings a song of a land of death where she will go to escape her pain.
True Love swallows her potion, opens her front door and steps out into the swirling winds of the night. Back in the village on the other side of the island, True Love’s friend and confidante Pauline tells her story to the people.
Our Hero realises that his real calling is not to be with True Love, but to pursue her and all that is right and proper in this world. In a foreign land, alone, but with a seemingly bottomless bank account (this is an opera…) he vows to set off on a second quest. He will seek out True Love’s twelve-year-old children and give them the father’s love they never had. Although his heart is broken, he promises to mend it by doing good. He must put on a brave face and start his journey. This is the price he must pay for sin.
Word of our Hero’s relentless decency reaches the ears of the Necromancer. The years of winter have seeped into his bones and frozen up his joints; solitude has tortured him; endless whiteness has blinded his judgement. Staring once more into the dying embers of his fire, he begins to question whether he made the right choice — should he have punished True Love for his own greed? Wasn’t leaving her to bring up the children by herself as a single mum, hard enough? Was his fixation on thwarting the Hero just jealousy that he could gain in a moment what the Necromancer had rejected for years? All these thoughts of treachery and regret twist and turn in his mind.
Time passes. We resume our tale of woe twelve years after the events of those fateful nights. For twelve years, our Hero has roamed the island, searching every village for a beautiful boy and girl who looked twelve years old but seemed precociously educated about modern history and the perils of romantic liaisons. At long last, in a tiny squat house on the cliffs, he found them singing innocent songs.
But what of True Love? Surely she died of a broken heart after swallowing her potion? Not so — so true, so pure, so all-consuming was her love for our Hero that she brewed a potion to forgive him, even after he betrayed her, just like every other man in her life.
True Love was not well-schooled in the complex science of potion-making. Not for nothing had the Magician studied his books for years. Her potion did wipe her memory clean of our Hero’s sins, but she failed to take account of a side-effect: twelve years’ dreamless sleep. For twelve years, the icicles grew outside her front door and the birds songs grew quieter and quieter; her village, high in the hills, was locked tighter and tighter into the grip of the perpetual winter.
This being opera, there must be a happy ending. And so our Hero, in finding the enchanted children, without realising it set in motion a chain of events that will bring our tale to a close.
Hand-in-hand with the two children, our Hero trudged through the snow to reach the little village where he first set eyes on True Love so that he could kiss her gravestone and wish her farewell. The family walk all night, and all the next day; our Hero sits down with the children to rest his tired legs. And out from a run-down little hut steps the most beautiful woman he has ever seen — her eyes meet his once more and at that moment time seems to stand still. The silence is broken by a trickle from the stream and the call of a blackbird; spring is coming to the mountains. Our Hero, by finding his True Love, and bringing the family together has broken the Necromancer’s spell.
There is one final twist to this story. True Love’s potion had another unintended side-effect. As well as thawing the land and breaking the Necromancer’s spell, the potion brought eternal youth to the whole family. Our Hero, True Love and her children will be together for ever. Beside the river, they joined hands and wept tears of happiness.
Apologies to Joseph Campbell, author of “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, and to the Brothers Grimm.