Thursday, December 09, 2004

Wonderful Clockwork - An Opera in One Act

peter HILLIARD, composer
matt BORESI, librettist

Originally created under the auspices of the
Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program,
Tisch School of the Arts
New York University, 2001.
What is Wonderful Clockwork?

Wonderful Clockwork is the working title for a chamber opera about the discovery of the laws of planetary motion. It is at once a work unto itself, and a third of a larger work in progress about scientific discovery.

The characters in the opera are based on historical figures, and represent 3 world-views. The excessive astronomer Tycho Brahe represents hedonism and extravagance, the pious Johannes Kepler represents a deeply religious and devout perspective, and the Dwarf Jepp represents a mystical approach to the same problem.

Because Wonderful Clockwork (and eventually the complete work) is about 3 opposing and complementary ideas, every aspect of the work is tripartite. There are three characters representing those ideas, three scenes divisible by three musical sections each, and all the music is in meters, the goal of the writers was to match in the microcosm the ideas of the macrocosm.

Lyrically, the libretto follows trends of modern American opera, utilizing direct and impassioned poetry. Some of the libretto is paraphrased or even quoted from the writings of the historical characters. The speech in the text is in an elevated, non-rhyming mode of expression, revealing the passions of the characters through energetic and active language.

Musically, the score is very much in the tradition of American Neo-Romanticism as practiced by Samuel Barber. Stylistically, the piece also bears the stamp of American students of Nadia Boulanger, expecially Aaron Copland and David Conte.

Jepp, a mysterious dwarf, reveals to us that the "Crystalline Spheres" model of the cosmos, taken as scientific fact since the time of the Greeks, has been shattered, and that astronomers are struggling for a model to take its place in the history of science.

It is the year 1600 AD, and the most accomplished living astronomer is one of Europe’s richest, and most decadent, men, Tycho Brahe. Brahe is an eccentric and a despot, lording over a palace of oddities (while wearing a solid gold nose, to replace his own, which had been lost in a duel). His cosmographic model, in which the sun circles the earth, has gained favor with the Emperor and the Church.

Into his castle comes Johannes Kepler, a severe man, devoutly religious, seeking to make use of Tycho’s celebrated celestial maps. Kepler touts his own map of the cosmos, a sun centered model in which the orbits of the planets correlate with a number of "perfect" geometric shapes. He believes that the geometric perfection of these orbits reflect the perfection of their Creator. The model is Kepler’s hymn to God, a hymn which Tycho finds foolish.

Tycho dares Kepler to solve the mystery of the bizarre orbit of Mars, and Kepler replies that he can explain Mars’s orbit in eight days. The dwarf Jepp (Tycho’s pet) responds cryptically that eight days will give way to eight years, and in "eight minutes," Kepler’s vision will be undone.

A year passes and Kepler has still not solved the problem of Mars. According to his model, all orbits form a perfect circle, but no circle will encompass Mars. Thundering into Tycho’s chambers in frustration, Kepler finds the old bombast dying. It seems that Tycho has been at a regal dinner party, drinking heavily, and refused to rise to relieve himself, for fear of insulting his host. As a result, Tycho’s bladder had burst, leaving him poisoned, hallucinating, and at death’s door.

Tycho dies in Kepler’s arms, but not before making an uncharacteristically desperate plea, "Let me not seem to have lived in vain." Kepler records his words, takes up the mantle of Imperial Astronomer, and returns to his work.

As Jepp predicted, eight days does give way to eight years, and Kepler is still working on the orbit of Mars in 1608. The discrepancy between the mapped orbit of Mars and Keppler’s model is… eight minutes of arc. The dwarf’s prophecy has come true! Kepler is visited by the ghost of Tycho, who lambastes him for being enslaved by the geometric model. Taunted by the ghost and the dwarf, Kepler is forced to realize that there is no circle to fit the orbit of Mars, because Mars does not travel in a circle His "perfect" model is a failure.

Tycho’s ghost asks if both men have, then, failed in their life’s work Kepler responds that neither men have lived in vain, because their efforts (Tycho’s observations and Kepler’s computations) have combined to uncover the true nature of the solar system (a sun centered model with elliptical orbits), and that there could be no finer tribute to God and Man than revealing the hidden truths of the Universe.

Friday, November 26, 2004


TYCHO BRAHE – a celebrated astronomer
Lyric Baritone

JOHANNES KEPLER – a pious neophyte
Lyric Tenor

JEPP – a clairvoyant dwarf

Running Time: Currently 40 minutes – projected expansion to one hour.