The Ice Break

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The Ice Break is an opera in three acts by Michael Tippett, to an original English libretto by the composer. It was first produced at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 7 July 1977, conducted by Colin Davis, the dedicatee of the opera.[1]

One meaning of the opera's title is a reference to the actual physical breaking of ice on the frozen northern rivers, signaling the advent of spring. The composer has said that the subject of the opera is "whether or not we can be reborn from the stereotypes we live in." John Warrack has noted that the work "confronts questions of stereotype on a wider scale" compared to Tippett's earlier operas, and also in a contemporary setting.[2] Tippett himself put this line on a preface page to a published score of the opera:[3]

"Brother humans who live after us, do not harden your hearts against us."

Performance history[edit]

A German translation was given at the Kiel Opera House the year following its premiere. The Opera Company of Boston mounted the work in May 1979 under the direction of Sarah Caldwell, the first professional production of a Tippett opera in the USA.[4] It was revived at Covent Garden the same year, but was not thereafter seen until a 1990 concert production at the Henry Wood Proms in the Royal Albert Hall in 1990. A recording was made with the 1990 cast.


Lev, a 50 year old teacher
Nadia, his wife
Yuri, their son
Gayle, Yuri’s native-born white girlfriend
Hannah, a hospital nurse, Gayle’s black friend
Olympion, a sports champion, Hannah’s boyfriend
Luke, a young intern at Hannah’s hospital
Astron, a psychedelic messenger
Voice part (composer's descriptions)
lyric soprano
dramatic soprano
rich mezzo-soprano
lyric mezzo-soprano and high tenor (or countertenor)
Original cast
John Shirley-Quirk
Heather Harper
Tom McDonnell
Josephine Barstow
Beverly Vaughn
Clyde Walker
John Dobson
Roderick Kennedy
James Bowman


Prior to the action of the opera, Nadia had emigrated with her baby son, Yuri, after her husband, Lev, had been sentenced to the prison camps of Russia.

Act 1[edit]

The opera opens in an airport lounge, where Lev, a Russian dissident, arrives to join his wife, Nadia, and his son, Yuri, in the West in exile after 20 years in prison. In the airport also are Yuri's girlfriend Gayle and Gayle's friend Hannah, who are also waiting the arrival of the black athlete, Olympion, a Muhammad Ali-like character. Lev and Olympion separately arrive. Lev reunites with Nadia and Yuri, but Yuri feels distant from Lev, since he has never met his father as an adult. In the meantime, Gayle throws herself at Olympion, which angers Yuri and causes him to attack Olympion, who knocks him down. Back at home, Yuri expresses anger at his father.

Act 2[edit]

Among Olympion's fans, there are gang rivalries which crystallise into a conflict between blacks and whites. Gayle and Yuri wear masks and blend into the masked white chorus, while the same is true on the black side for Olympion and Hannah. The conflict explodes into a mob riot, and Olympion and Gayle die in the violence. Yuri is barely alive and is taken to hospital.

Act 3[edit]

Nadia, on the brink of death, asks Hannah to take care of Lev. In an interlude, the psychedelic messenger Astron has appeared, and a drugged-out crowd hails him as a saviour. Astron dismisses this and disappears. Back in the hospital, Yuri has undergone successful surgery, and is totally encased in a plaster cast. The cast is cut away, and Yuri stands. Yuri eventually embraces his father.


  • Virgin Classics 7 91448-2: David Wilson-Johnson (Lev), Heather Harper (Nadia), Sanford Sylvan (Yuri), Carolann Page (Gayle), Cynthia Clarey (Hannah), Thomas Randle (Olympion), Bonaventura Bottone (Luke), Donald Maxwell (Lieutenant), Christopher Robson, Sarah Walker; London Sinfonietta Chorus; London Sinfonietta; David Atherton, conductor[5][6]


  1. ^ Dean, Winton, "Music in London: Opera - The Ice Break" (September 1977). The Musical Times, 118 (1615): pp. 747-748.
  2. ^ Warrack, John, "The Ice Break" (July 1977). The Musical Times, 118 (1613): pp. 553, 555-556.
  3. ^ Birkhead, Jane, "Music Reviews" - The Ice Break and Flower and Hawk (December 1980). Notes (2nd Ser.), 37 (2): pp. 427-429.
  4. ^ Christopher Porterfield (4 June 1979). "Healing Spring". Time. Retrieved 2007-08-04. 
  5. ^ Malcolm Hayes, Record Review, Tippett: The Ice Break. Tempo (New Ser.), 181 32-33 (June 1992).
  6. ^ Antony Bye; "Closing briefs' (record reviews). The Musical Times, p. 84 (1992).