Army of Lovers

‘Heads’ by Mark Springer

an opera for male voices by Mark Springer and David Flusfeder

These notes were written to accompany the publication of the libretto of the first, one-act, version by Muscaliet Press, 2019. We are currently working on expanding Army into a full-length two-act opera.

It is possible, maybe even probable, that, as Professor Leitao says in his essay, the Sacred Band of Thebes did not actually exist. Most likely, the bodies found beneath the battleground at Chaeronea did not belong to the army of lovers that Plutarch wrote about, which was most likely 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, the single greatest fighting force of the Classical age, founded on an erotic principle that defied tyrants—exemplified by the Spartans, who were defeated at Tegyra and Leuctra, and Philip of Macedonia (father of Alexander the Great), whose forces ultimately destroyed the Thebans. The strength of the army was due to the strength of the individual bond between each of its 150 pairs of male lovers, as well as, Plutarch relates, the shame that would result if a lover showed cowardice in front of his beloved.  

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.  

The action of Army of Lovers takes place in a hospital ward in the aftermath of one battle and on the eve of the next. Our hero Laius has watched his lover fall and now must take on a replacement, for the good of the Army, for the good of Thebes. 

The Army must be made whole but Laius insists on turning away all suitors. He is mourning the loss of his lover, he feels responsible for his death (‘His glory was my envy/My glory his undoing’) and cannot countenance taking on a new one. There is no shortage of aspirants for the honour, because in this world, moral virtue, human goodness, national identity, civic pride, civility, truth, and love are all embodied in the Band.

Also in the ward are the chorus, Strophe and Antistrophe. Strophe’s tendency is to believe in the State, and its providence; whereas Antistrophe’s faith, less optimistically, is in Nature. When they are in agreement, they sing together.

As Strophe tells us, ‘The glory of the army/It has unified fate/Body and nature in/Agreement with the state.’

Laius continues to reject the suitors, even when the General himself comes to plead with him. They have known each other through previous campaigns. Their duet implies a previous intimacy. Laius cannot bring himself to do what he knows he must do. He initiates a duet with his fallen lover, or at least tries to; he longs for a ghost to respond to him, to instruct him, but he is on his own, there is no answering word or sound or song. 

And now he is decided. He will take on a replacement but it will only follow the outward form. It will not be the real thing. They are doing it for the sake of the army, for the sake of Thebes, not for love, ‘We will fight together/But not be lovers… /If you prove yourself/I will praise you/If you fall/I will not mourn you’.

It is this act of bad faith that condemns the Army, obliterated at Chaeronea. 

A brief note on the collaboration. Both Mark and I generally write alone. I write novels; he is a virtuoso who improvises on the piano and also writes sonatas and string quartets. Working together on this opera has been a privilege and a pleasure for me. I would send Mark words, and receive in return an audio file of Mark playing piano and singing to an aria in progress. As I said, Mark is a pianist and composer, he’s not a singer—but 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 opera received its first, semi-staged, performances, 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 several years ago.