The Stronger

Opera in One Act, after the play by Strindberg.

Hugo Weisgall

Rental
Text: Libretto by Richard Hart.
Publisher: Theodore Presser Company
Print Status: Rental

Quick Overview

The Stronger was written in the late spring and summer of 1952 expressly for the Hilltop Opera Company of Baltimore, a small, professional cooperative group which I had helped organize and directed for a number of seasons.

From the first I regarded this piece as an experiment, a kind of operatic exercise. My primary task was to find ways to translate Strindberg?s psychological monodrama, with its rapid, constantly changing moods and its almost total lack of sustained moments, into musical terms. The chief problem was that the music had to function alternately as background and foreground?at times pure atmosphere, then shifting between characterizing the protagonist, Estelle, and picturing the physical movements of the wordless Lisa.

Also I sought somehow to balance the two roles more equally. Rather than conform to the traditional theatrical interpretation in which ?the star? plays the silent role and comes out on top, I tried to leave open the question as to which of the two women is really ?the stronger?.

Finally, because of our limited production resources (and not without Schoenberg?s highly complex Erwartung in mind as a model not to be followed) I tried to achieve my objectives as simply and economically as possible. Hence the small physical set up?an orchestra of eight (although with considerable doubling in the woods), and the deliberate use of very limited and highly stylized musical material. Almost all of the music evolves from the first twenty measures, played before the first words are spoken.

The first four performances (with piano, on consecutive days) were hair-raising and almost convinced me that the ?experiment? would not work. For the first one on a Thursday, the final fifty or sixty bars had not yet been written. I begged the indulgence of the tiny audience, told them about the piece, had the soprano sing snatches of it, sang bits of it myself, and more or less improvised the end.

I finished the vocal score by Friday noon and we rehearsed for several hours in preparation for that evening?s performance. I had been convinced for some time that the original Estelle had been miscast. Although she looked and acted well she could manage neither the somewhat difficult vocal intervals nor the trickier rhythmic passages. The fact that the end of the opera had remained unfinished until Friday?s rehearsal did not help matters. The tension was pretty high all around.

Friday?s so-called performance was a total disaster. Estelle broke down practically at the first bar, though our wonderful ?cocktail pianist? (the composer, Dominick Argento), chain smoking and doubling as prompter, managed to get her through to the curtain. Afterwards there were tears, hurt feelings and hysteria, and my role as villain became clear when Estelle?s husband threatened to beat me up. Saturday?s performance had to be cancelled and another work substituted to make up our double bill.

At this point I decided to make a clean sweep. I fired Estelle and asked Eva Bober, the understudy, if she would undertake the role for Sunday?s matinee?our most important performance of the run. She agreed. After singing Saturday evening?I no longer recall what role?Eva sat with Dominick and me, fortified by endless supplies of coffee, Dominick still chain-smoking, Nathalie, my wife, giving moral support as well as sitting in for the silent role, and proceeded to work all night to get the music memorized and to make major staging adjustments. We quit about five in the morning, not so much because of the 4 o?clock performance as because of the dress rehearsal called for 1 p.m. The performance went off as scheduled and somehow seemed to work. The Stronger has remained my most frequently performed opera.

Though The Stronger was originally designed to be coupled with my first opera, The Tenor, I later decided to make it one of a trilogy of short works to fill an evening. One of these has been composed to date, my verbatim setting of Yeats? Purgatory (1958).

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Additional Information

Cast Voices Soprano, mute female part, Waiter, Patrons (optional)
Duration 00:25:00
Orchestration Eb AltoSax.(BbCl./EbCl.) Ten.Sax.(BbCl. B.Cl.), Tpt. 1Vln. 1Vla. 1Vcl. 1Cb. Pno.

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