The King’s Man
Music by Paul Moravec
Libretto by Terry Teachout
Setting: 1785 in the London library of William Franklin
At dawn, Mary and William’s manservant are preparing their London library for a visit from Ben.
William enters, visibly anxious and distressed. Mary, who only knows Ben from his reputation and is young and naïve, doesn’t understand. She asks the manservant to bring in a bust of Franklin as a surprise. William explodes, singing an arietta in which he pours out his resentment of his father (It was my kite) and reads from Ben’s chilly letter suggesting a meeting in London. Apologetically, William tries to explain to Mary that there is more to Ben than his public “statuarial” side and his proverbs, that Ben Franklin is in fact a worldly, self-interested careerist. Ben arrives and the resemblance between the two men is striking. Here we see the public Ben, genial and ceremonial. Mary excuses herself.
The conversation between the two men starts out stiff but cordial, then Ben brings up the subject of William’s debts. Ben says, “I paid for everything.” William: “You loaned me everything. You were never a generous father. Always the Puritan prig—and hypocrite.” Ben’s arietta: “What could you have expected of me? I was born on a Sunday, born in the long shadow of God.”
Anger mounts and we discover the real reason for it—the two men tried to kill one another. A flashback to see Ben signing William’s death warrant as William waits in prison, mourning the death of his wife and expecting to be taken out and shot at any moment.
Present day: Ben reminds William that what has come between them is more than merely personal, that William was a traitor to the land of his birth and that Ben’s first loyalty is to America—even beyond loyalty to his son.
The situation is clearly hopeless and Ben storms out of the library and the house, slamming the two doors behind him. An angry, then despondent William sweeps the bust of his father off his desk and falls into his chair with his head in his hands as Mary tries to comfort him.
Ben has returned to Philadelphia. His manservant brings in the letter from Washington. Ben reads it, then reads the disinheritance portion of the will. Manservant, a faithful retainer, says, “You owe it to him to tell him what you’re doing.” Exits, and Ben writes three false starts on a letter—the first cold, the second angry, the third an attempt at reconciliation. He can finish none of them and tears up the three letters.
The Forgotten Franklin
EVERYBODY IN AMERICA knows who Benjamin Franklin was, more or less, and most people even have a pretty good idea of what he looked like. But William Franklin, Ben’s illegitimate son, is known only to those who are well read in American history, even though the story of his stormy relationship with his famous father is a fascinating and disturbing tale. Unlike Ben, William was a Tory who chose to remain loyal to King George III throughout the Revolutionary War, a decision that got him tossed into prison and nearly cost him his life. It also led to a permanent break between father and son, who saw each other only once more after William fled to England in 1782. Their final meeting, and the complicated events that led up to it, are what The King’s Man is about.
Paul Moravec, my operatic collaborator, has long been fascinated by Ben Franklin, so much so that he composed a piece called Useful Knowledge that is based on his writings. When we decided to write a companion piece to Danse Russe, our second opera, a backstage comedy about the making of The Rite of Spring, Paul suggested that we might look to Franklin as a possible subject. It soon became clear to both of us that Ben’s break with William was not just dramatic but positively operatic. While my libretto is a fictionalized account of their quarrel that takes liberties with the facts, it is firmly rooted in historical truth. To be sure, we don’t know all that much about the particulars of the two men’s relationship—neither one of them left behind anything like a frank account of how they felt about one another—I think the way that we portray them in The King’s Man is entirely plausible. Few things, after all, are as fraught with tension and resentment as the relationship between a father of genius and a son who is merely talented, and that is what Paul and I have sought to explore.
The King’s Man was specifically written to be performed in tandem with Danse Russe. Yes, Danse Russe is a giddy farce with touches of tenderness and The King’s Man is a dark domestic drama, but both works are one-act historical operas of similar length that are performed by the same vocal and instrumental forces. We hope they add up to a satisfying night at the theater—one that is both entertaining and thought-provoking.
Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal and the author of Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, and Satchmo at the Waldorf, a one-man play about Armstrong. He has also written the libretti for three operas by Paul Moravec, The Letter, Danse Russe, and The King’s Man.
Music by Paul Moravec
Libretto by Terry Teachout
First performed April 28, 2011 at the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, PA with Center City Opera and members of Orchestra 2001
Setting: Before, during and after the May 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and the subsequent riot
Told in a one-act vaudeville style as Igor Stravinsky thinks back to the opening night of The Rite of Spring; the other players arrive including producer Sergei Diaghilev, ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky and conductor Pierre Monteux. Each discusses his role in the creation of the ballet and it is clear that none of them like Diaghilev.
Diaghilev suggests that this new work should create a scandal and he wants to be astonished. Stravinsky and Nijinsky agree. Stravinsky and Diaghilev rhapsodize about the Russian spring and Nijinsky recalls when he first met Diaghilev. Diaghilev continues to push Stravinsky and Nijinsky to make their new ballet brutal, crude, modern and scary. Stravinsky is still a little concerned over this approach but he and Monteux admit that they will do whatever Diaghilev asks. As Stravinsky composes, the others start to see the possibilities and they realize the audience will likely respond with “boos” and “hisses”.
Opening night and as the audience responds negatively to the ballet, the men tell them all to go to hell.
Stravinsky returns to his reminiscence of that partnership and realizes that all of the others are either dead (Monteux and Diaghilev) or in a mad house (Nijinsky). He is alone. He remembers the time before the war, a world of kings and queens and czars – destroyed by blood and iron. Although he has never returned to Russia, he tries to remember the Russian spring and how very beautiful it was.