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Beasts of the Blackwood: Overview of a new Opera Composed by Jake Zualski

Doo-du-du-doo! It’s all fanfares at the moment as I immerse myself in writing my first opera!

It’s been a long time in development, (I think I started it back in 2016?) but only seriously got going on it in 2023 after a highly inspiring intensive study week on Strauss’ Ariadne Auf Naxos with Three Bridges Opera. It’s now at a stage where I feel ready to share this exhilarating process of creating a new world, with complex characters, love, hate, pain, hope, grief and everything in between.

In this very first blog post I’d like to stick to just the story, and characters, but don’t worry there will be audio mock-ups very soon!

Where to start…?

The story takes place in the Blackwood. A fictional dark forest with traditional fairytale mystery. It’s somewhere between Snow White, The Forbidden Forest, Fanghorn or possibly Narnia. Although, there is a distinct feeling that this particular forest is somewhere in Scotland.

There is an assumption that the creatures of the forest are somehow simple, or savage because they speak a strange language, or communicate without words. They are treated poorly by those in power, and pushed to the limit through poverty, scarcity of resources and the general ignorance of those in power. (Yes… this opera is probably is a product of it’s time!). I hope to incorporate some Scots Gaelic, with help from one of my students who is an excellent Gaelic teacher to capture some of the real-world feelings of struggle between Scotland’s cultural identity and the English. Although, that will not be the primary message of the work.

A major part of the difficulty for the creatures, or beasts if you ask the other side, is that the forest is dying. Drawing inspiration for Shakespeare’s Midsummer Nights Dream, the main focus of the opera is a quarrel between Diana, the queen of the fairies, and Herne (also named Cernunnos), her king. Their extreme emotions are poisoning the ground and water, and yet they are completely unaware of the impact for those around them. I’d also like to paint a subtext of blame being placed on Diana for being too emotional, or even hysterical to highlight the way that women are so often ‘blamed’ for expressing themselves in real life.

In fact, Herne has been abusing her for a long time. And throughout their relationship he has been manipulative and gaslighting her. The buzzword from popular media would be that he is a narcissist. However, because of the lens that the audience sees the work through, I’m leaving space for different interpretations…

Here’s the quote from Shakespeare to help set the scene:

Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain, As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea Contagious fogs; which, falling in the land, Hath every pelting river made so proud That they have overborne their continents[…]
The human mortals want their winter here. No night is now with hymn or carol blest. Therefore the moon, the governess of floods, Pale in her anger, washes all the air, That rheumatic diseases do abound. And thorough this distemperature we see The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose, And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds Is, as in mockery, set. The spring, the summer, The childing autumn, angry winter, change Their wonted liveries; and the mazed world By their increase, now knows not which is which. And this same progeny of evils comes From our debate, from our dissension; We are their parents and original.

One small deviation from Shakespeare’s play is that rather than a changeling boy, our two anti-heroes quarrel over a half mortal child. Cora is the daughter of her Herne. Her mortal mother has died, and her father has hidden her in the forest… Diana’s forest. Cora is the symbol of innocence, and although she is fearful of the beasts at first, she demonstrates a pure, childlike love that comes to represent hope for the future of the forest and she becomes loved in return.

Diana, quite unstable due to the emotional abuse of her relationship with Herne, searches for the child with the intention of killing her. Possibly an act of revenge, but more likely a desperate act of someone who is hurting. She asks the water nymph, Katrine for help, but the girl is protected by a spell which can only be broken by speaking her name. Good news for Cora, who’s name is not yet known in the wood.

At some time and in some way Herne will let slip the name, triggering the murder of his daughter and an uprising of the beasts of the Blackwood against Diana. It will never be explicitly stated in this opera, but I do have ideas for a second, that the entire scenario was devised by Herne himself, to seize total control of the realm. That he deliberately raised a half mortal daughter after priming Diana with years of abuse, so that he could rule without challenge. But… that’s a story for another day.

Please subscribe to the blog to receive regular updates on this exciting project. I’ll be posting sporadically on this, and on other topics relating to my work as a freelance opera director, singer and composer. Thanks for reading. Do let me know what you think in the comments!


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