With another Metropolitan Opera premiere fast approaching — Tan Dun's The First Emperor — it's a good moment to revisit the first American opera that the Met presented: Frederick Converse's The Pipe of Desire. The US Opera site gives details about this legendarily obscure piece, which had its premiere in 1906 and three Met performances in 1910 and then dropped from sight. You can even read the first fourteen pages of the vocal score. The bucolic-tragic flavor of the plot is indicated in the dramatis personae, which includes Iolan, a peasant; Naoia, his betrothed; The Old-One, keeper of the Pipe; First Sylph; First Undine; First Salamander; and First Gnome. On that historic night in 1910, Louise Homer, Samuel Barber's aunt, sang Naoia, while Glenn Hall was the Salamander. The New York Times review commended Converse's score as "poetical and often beautiful in itself" but lamented "a great dearth of action upon the stage of any dramatic sort." Here are the final lines of the libretto, and if you can read them while remaining dry-eyed then there is probably nothing wrong with you.
The leaves fall softly from the trees
Dead, before dropping,
Like my old desires.
struggles to his knees in bewilderment
Not among men I lost--
Springs to his feet. With realization.
'Twas in myself I failed.
He stands behind Naoia looking heavenward as if seeing her there. Intense light.
It is not cold.
(He dies, falling upon Naoia's body.)
(The light gradually fades until at the last chord there is absolute darkness, during which the curtain falls.)
CHORUS OF ELVES
Nothing is wasted.