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Heloise and Abelard Debuts as “Church Opera”


The 12th-century saga of Heloise and Abelard comes to us from many sources, though most importantly from the actual correspondence of the protagonists. The tale has been set in many literary, musical and theatrical forms, including a long-running Broadway play in the early 1970’s and at least twice before as an opera, but next week, for the first time, it will be the subject of a  “church opera.” Heloise and Abelard by composer John Austin, set to a libretto by Christine Froula, will debut at Harvard’s Memorial Church on January 29th at 4:00 PM. Tickets are available here.

This will be a concert performance with Harvard University Choir, an orchestra of 28 members from Boston Modern Orchestra Project, and soloists, Tony Arnold, soprano; Charles Blandy, tenor; Matthew Anderson, tenor; Sumner Thompson, baritone; and Paul Guttry, bass under the direction of Edward Elwyn Jones. According to the composer, “The players will be stationed between Mem. Church’s rood screen and the front pews (on the left, I believe); the solo singers will be similarly placed on the right. Ed and I have talked about movement in two places: (1) the scene in which two sets of thugs proceed through the audience with rope and knife on their way to castrate Abelard and (2) the movement of the choir from the risers to behind the rood screen — to the tolling of a tubular bell — which leads into the last scene in which the choir sings the Credo in the distance while Peter the Venerable, stage right, sings, and Heloise, stage left, reads, his beautiful letter informing her of Abelard’s death. I wouldn’t be surprised, given the solo roster, if some minimal movement between them emerged from rehearsals. (One of the best Wozzeks I ever experienced was at the Chicago Symphony, with very restricted but hugely effective movement.) No props or costumes are planned, but I suppose minor additions might develop in rehearsal (which reminds me, I must bring my astrolabe).”

John Austin met conductor Ed Jones during the Memorial Service for the composer’s Harvard class of 1956’s 50th reunion in June of 2006. A performance there of Austin’s duo on Li Po’s At Yellow Crane Tower Seeing Off Meng Hau-Jan to Yang-Chou, with Ed Jones’s wife, soprano Amanda Forsythe, and the BSO cellist Martha Babcock, apparently impressed Jones enough to suggest a subsequent collaboration. By coincidence Austin and his wife, librettist Christine Froula had been talking for years about doing an opera on Heloise and Abelard. According to Austin, “Ed’s spectacular Memorial Church performance of Handel’s Alexander’s Feast in late winter of 2007 supplied the motivation to actually start writing and left me no doubt that we would be fortunate indeed to entrust it to Ed.”

Now in his early thirties, conductor Edward Elwyn Jones, Gund University Organist and Choirmaster at The Memorial Church, Harvard University is excited about the project. Ed had also been Gil Rose’s chorus master and assistant conductor at the late and lamented Opera Boston. It was through that connection that the members of BMOP were engaged for this project and also the reason why BMOP agreed to lend its imprimatur.

Asked to describe the musical language of Heloise and Abelard, Jones answered,

The music is quite contrapuntal, both rhythmically and melodically, and is often built out of a few key cells that are layered on top of each other to create a dense structure in climactic moments. The orchestration has a chamber quality to it – utilizing combinations of sounds from the various instruments, and reserving the full group for a few powerful outbursts.

Much of the music is very lyrical, with soaring melodies for both Heloise and Abelard, and some beautiful ensemble writing. The music for the villains (for example Abbot Suger) is, as one might expect, rather more angular.

The story depicts one of the most interesting and controversial periods in church history. Though this will be a concert performance, the work is very dramatic and would indeed work very well on the stage. In the most powerful moment, the castration of Abelard, two groups of thugs intone recurring motifs against the beat of a drum; it builds in rhythmic and dynamic intensity until it is abruptly cut off…

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  1. Thanks to DL Rue for pointing out an error in this piece, now corrected.

    There are at least two earlier operas on the subject.


    Comment by Lee Eiseman — January 22, 2012 at 12:34 pm

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