befana: a christmas fable
Opera in One Act (may also be performed as a choral cantata)
Duration: 40 minutes
Libretto in English by the composer, adapted from Italian legend
Based on the novel by Jane Austen
Singers: 1 Sop or Mz, Ten, Bar, Bass, SATB & SA (children) choruses
Chamber Orchestra: 1221 2110 1 perc., harp, strings
Publisher: G. Schirmer, New York
Premiere: Cabrillo Choruses, Ensemble Monterey Chamber Orchestra, 2021
SYNOPSIS: Befana is an old woman in a small village. Her compulsive sweeping brings mocking from the children of the villagers. Long ago she lost her baby in miscarriage but believes that she must keep her house spotless for the miraculous return of her child. She is visited by the Magi, on their way to Bethlehem to deliver gifts to the new-born Baby King. They invite her to join them, but she declares that she is too busy with her housework, and promises to join them later. But when she sees the enormous, magical star in the Eastern sky, she realizes her mistake and is sure that the miracle of her baby’s rebirth has come to pass. But it is too late. Every year on Epiphany night Befana is doomed to fly on her broom, searching for the baby, giving gifts and candy to the children in every home. Finally she sings with the choruses, “Put off your toiling and let love in.”
PREFACE TO THE OPERA
Befana: A Christmas Fable
I have found more than a dozen different versions of the Befana legend, celebrated each year by Italian children and their families. The fables have much in common, but they offer varying details. Mine is a selection and expansion of the versions that most appeal to me. The only borrowed phrases are in the final stanza, which has been adapted from part of a poem by Phyllis McGinley (1905-1978), “The Ballad of Befana.” This was the poem that inspired me to find out more about this poignant parable.
For the music, I have chosen simplicity of expression. I have often used the styles of early music, especially Italian, including the ancient church modes. The introduction, for instance, is written almost entirely in the Phrygian mode, and is based upon the time-honored use of a descending scale.
The work is a reinvention of the 16th-century Italian madrigal comedies of Vecchi, Banchieri and others. Those were not always comedies — the name “madrigal comedy” was coined by a musicologist in the 20th century — but they were always stories with plots and various characters, using not only madrigals but other types of ensembles and soloists. Sometimes called the precursors of opera, they were performed with staging and costumes, which can be used in Befana. The work offers many opportunities for imaginative projections, whether performed as opera or choral theater. — K. M.