Defiance: A One-Minute Opera

Nothing more than a musical joke, this “opera’s” libretto consists of a series of short sentences constructed with “ultraconserved” words (prehistoric language) found in the article “Linguists identify 15,000-year-od ‘ultraconserved words’” by David Brown, staff writer for The Washington Post, and based on linguistic research done by Drs. Rebecca Grollemund and Mark Pagel of the University of Reading, U.K. (Used by permission.) The sentences are: “You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!”

When a friend of mine (Megan McKamey Barrett) first showed me the article, I jokingly said that maybe I should make those sentences the libretto for my next opera. To my amazement she said, “Do it!” so that became the genesis of this little travesty. She also bears the burden of the opera’s dedication.

While perhaps not technically an opera, I nonetheless call it a “one-minute opera” as it calls for full orchestra, staging, a vocalist (soprano), and silent actors, and can be performed in less than 60 seconds. No live recording is available (and likely never shall be), but a computer-playback mp3 may be accessed below.


Woman (soprano)
Old Man (non-singing)
Woman with child (non-singing)
Younger Man (non-singing)

As the curtain rises we see a woman (soprano) sitting next to a fire in a primeval forest. Sitting some way off is an old man and also another woman holding a small child. Standing near the soprano is a younger man to whom all the singer’s words are addressed. The soprano delivers a series of instructions to the younger man (whom we presume to be her husband), the last of which is an admonition not to spit in the ashes. In response — as though fed up with the woman’s prehistoric nagging — on the last note of the opera he defiantly spits into the fire. Curtain.

Piccolo, Flute, Oboe, Bb Clarinet, 2 horns in F, 2 Bb trumpets, Trombone, Tuba, Timpani, Vibraphone, Strings (I&II violins, violas, cellos, basses). The score may be viewed here.

Click below for an mp3 playback:


Copyright © 2013 by John Craton (ASCAP)

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