a two-act opera for male voices by Mark Springer and David Flusfeder
Our opera is based on the legend of the Sacred Band of Thebes: 150 pairs of male lovers, the single greatest fighting force of the Classical age. The strength of the army was due to the strength of the individual bond between each of its lovers, as well as, Plutarch related 400 years later, the shame that would result if a lover showed cowardice in front of his beloved. The army’s combination of love, loyalty and passion made it fearsome and unbeatable.
It is possible that the Sacred Band of Thebes did not actually exist. Maybe it is a legend of an idealised, eroticised past. But there’s no point having legends unless we can choose to believe in them. Our opera takes as true the Band that Plutarch wrote about, founded on an erotic principle that defied tyrants. Sparta has been defeated, and now Thebes is allied with Sparta and Athens against Macedonia. The action begins in the aftermath of the Band’s penultimate battle and ends in the ruins of its final one, at Chaeronea against Philip II’s army in 338BCE.
This is a world of war and gods and prophecy, where the greatest good—personal, national, religious, military—is embodied in physical love. Plutarch gives us the fixed number of lovers that comprised the Band but doesn’t tell us what would happen when an individual soldier died in combat. Considering this question prompted the opera. Laius’s lover has fallen in the previous battle. He must take on a new lover to make the army whole but he cannot separate himself from his grief.
Both Mark and I generally work alone. I write novels; he is a virtuoso pianist who also writes sonatas and string quartets. I would send Mark words, and receive in return an audio file of Mark playing piano and singing to an aria in progress. These voice memo files were like sketches of something from the composer’s imagination, made shakily real. Generally, he would set the words as I wrote them. When there was a significant change, as at the very end, when the chorus sings its grief without words, rather than in the last lines of summing-up that I had written, it was so clearly an improvement.
The provisional result, when the first, one-act, version of this piece was performed at the Potentino Music Festival in 2018, was more exciting and dramatic than I could possibly have expected. A largely Italian audience, listening to and watching an opera in the foreign (and, to many of them, unoperatic) language of English, was moved by the rhythms and melodies and resonances of Mark’s music in ways beyond even what we had hoped for when we had first discussed working together on this project. The Potentino version was given a further, staged life in November 2019 at the Playground Theatre in Latimer Road, London.
The full-length, two-act opera that premiered 29 September 2022 has a greatly expanded text, with the action opened up and the story developed, and set to entirely new music (largely composed in a piano shop in Siena in a covidy winter). It is given expression by a hugely talented cast of singers and world-class musicians, the Tana Quartet and trumpeter Steve Fishwick, under the rigorously benevolent eye and hand of the conductor David Crown.
Working on this opera has been a privilege and a pleasure for me. The story of Laius, the private world of his grief, his flight into the wilderness, the attempts at coercive love imposed by his General, and innocent love offered by Third Suitor, his return in an act of dooming bad faith by taking on a new lover for form but not for love, has been lifted into an astonishing sound world of lyricism and power.