An opera in two acts

Music by Amy Scurria

Libretto by Carol Gilligan and Jonathan Gilligan

Based on the story of the Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

If God is love, can love be sin?

Workshops and Excerpt Performances


UNC Chapel Hill

Excerpts

September 17, 2011

Shakespeare and Company, Lenox, MA

Piano / Vocal concert performance

August 13, 2012

Produced by Sara Jobin and the Different Voice Opera Project



​Greensboro Cultural Center Recital Hall

Excerpts

March 8, 2013



American Cultural Center at the University of Shanghai

Shanghai, China

Excerpts

March 15-25, 2013



Shakespeare and Company, Lenox, MA

Piano / Vocal concert performance

August 5, 2013

Produced by Sara Jobin and the Different Voice Opera Project

 

Cast:

Adult Pearl ~ Soprano or Lyric Mezzo-Soprano
Child Pearl ~ Child Soprano
Hester Prynne ~ Soprano
Arthur Dimmesdale ~ Tenor
Roger Chillingworth ~ Baritone
Reverend Wilson ~ Bass

Synopsis



This work draws on Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter but seeks to tell a different story, not Hawthorne's but one that uses Hawthorne's characters and circumstances, and is informed by a 21st-century feminist worldview. The feminist vision is not alien to Hawthorne. Although this novel is said to be the third most widely assigned novel in high schools, few people remember how radically feminist (for the mid-19th century) Hawthorne's language and ideas are. Hawthorne's tour de force lies in making an adulteress sympathetic. In contrast to the pious patriarchs (a word Hawthorne uses frequently) who judge her, he portrays her as not merely a pitiable repentant sinner, but one whose strength and clarity of vision is recognized by members of the community (many people said that the A meant “Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength.”). Her clarity of vision set her apart from the “Goodwives” and gave her "a more real life" in Puritan New England than she could have found by going to other lands, where no one would have known of her sin or her punishment.



The novel closes with Hester’s prophesy that "at some brighter period, when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven's own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness." However, in keeping with his time, to make Hester Prynne sympathetic to his readers, Hawthorne emphasizes her self-abnegation: ("Here had been her sin; here, her sorrow; and here was yet to be her penitence. ... Hester Prynne had no selfish ends, nor lived in any measure for her own profit and enjoyment.") . The prospect of a new relation between the sexes was to be denied Hester because, although "earlier in life, Hester had vainly imagined that she herself might be the destined prophetess, [she] had long since recognized the impossibility that any mission of divine and mysterious truth should be confided to a woman stained with sin, bowed down with shame, or even burdened with a life-long sorrow."



Hawthorne's vision of a revolution in relations between the sexes, based on mutual happiness, and his observation of the role of a puritanical patriarchy in opposing this vision inspired us to tell a similar story, in which we can see the truth Hawthorne denies her. In our research on the laws and customs of Puritan New England we discovered that, compared to anywhere else in 17th century Europe or its dominions, this was the most liberated and free place a woman might live. Early Puritans legislated more equality for women before the law (male and female adulterers were subject to the same penalties) and more affirmative rights (girls as well as boys were required to be educated in basic literacy so they might read the Bible, and single or widowed women were allowed to own and operate businesses). Moreover, a radical egalitarianism lay implicitly in their theology, with men and women having equal and direct access to God; as Anne Hutchinson and others brought this into the open and began putting it into practice, the authorities (Hawthorne's "patriarchs") were threatened, declaring that the primacy of a male leader in the family, the church, and government, was essential to God's order for the world. Thus they banished or hung women who challenged this, even for such minor offenses as a wife haggling over prices with a carpenter rather than leaving money affairs to her husband.  Hawthorne drew almost all the major characters in Scarlet Letter from history, and all but Hester and Dimmesdale (who were clearly inspired by Anne Hutchinson and her mentor John Cotton) are given their true historical names.

This opera revolves around an array of tensions: Hester Prynne and the minister, Dimmesdale, love each other and yearn to be together; their daughter Pearl longs to know her father and live in a nuclear family; yet coming together would also cost Dimmesdale his ambitions as the rising and charismatic minister of the community congregation and with it, the power he can wield to protect Hester and Pearl from the other patriarchs. More deeply, the marriage laws would destroy the equipoise of his relationship with Hester, making him her master rather than her equal. Pearl, seven years old as the events unfold, but also appearing in the opera as an adult remembering the events of her childhood and trying to make sense of them, struggles to understand why she could see everything so clearly, yet was pressed by her mother to keep her observations secret and why no one else seemed able to see what was so obvious to her. She wonders why her mother, after taking her out of the New England community that she found so oppressive, would have chosen to return once Pearl was grown. And she wonders where God was while all of this was happening in a community devoted to bringing His presence into every facet of daily life.

The opera focuses on Pearl, Hester, and Dimmesdale and the changes in Pearl's perception of the events she witnessed as a child and what she comes to understand looking back on them as an adult. The basic tensions----between the private and public aspects of erotic relationships, between one's role as a parent, as a lover, and as a citizen, and between moral codes and personal passion---are as fraught and important today as they were in the mid-seventeenth century, when the play takes place, and in the mid-nineteenth century, when Hawthorne wrote his novel.

© 2020 by Amy Scurria.

  • w-facebook
  • w-youtube
  • w-tbird
  • w-linkedin