The Singing Lesson
The Singing Lesson is a chamber opera in three acts with music and libretto by Matthew Davidson. Based on three short stories (The Garden Party, The Singing Lesson, and The Doll’s House) by New Zealand author Katherine Mansfield, the opera is very unusual in several respects. For instance, the three acts are not connected by a conventional plot, but instead by literary themes. Those themes are class conflict (Acts 1 and 3) and a marriage of convenience (Act 2). However, the overall literary theme for all three acts is delusion. 
- Laura (Lyric Soprano)
- Mrs. Sheridan (Dramatic Mezzo Soprano)
- Laurie (Laura’s brother) (Tenor Buffo)
- Workman/Mr. Sheridan (Basso Buffo) – same singer alternates
- Jose (Laura’s sister) (Dramatic Mezzo Soprano)
- Sadie (Servant) (Lyric Contralto)
- Woman (Lyric Soprano)
- Miss Meadows (Lyric Soprano)
- Science Mistress/Mary Beazley (Dramatic Mezzo Soprano) – same singer alternates
- Basil (Tenor Buffo) (Miss Meadows’ Fiancé)
- Choir Girl 1 (Lyric Soprano)
- Choir Girl 2 (Dramatic Mezzo Soprano)
- Choir Girl 3 (Lyric Contralto)
- Mr. Wyatt (Basso Buffo)
- Pat (brother to Kezia & Isabel) (Tenor Buffo)
- Kezia (Lyric Soprano)
- Isabel (Dramatic Mezzo Soprano)
- Aunt Beryl/Lena (Lyric Contralto) – same singer alternates
- Lil Kelvey (Dramatic Mezzo Soprano)
- “Our Else” Kelvey (non singing)
- Unnamed Tenor Buffo part
- Unnamed Basso Buffo part
Act One: Laura is helping her mother, Mrs. Sheridan, in the preparations for a garden party, when it is discovered that a death has transpired at a nearby working-class neighborhood. Laura is in favor of canceling the party, but other members of her family are not. After the party is over, Laura is instructed by her mother to visit the bereaved family, which results in an enormous personal change – or does it?
Act Two: Miss Meadows has been engaged, but now it appears to be over. How will she survive the embarrassment when this fact is discovered at the small school where she teaches? Or will it ever be discovered?
Act Three: The arrival of a new doll house at the home of Kezia & Isabel creates quite a stir among their friends at school. However, Kezia & Isabel’s desire to invite the Kelvey children (who are from a lower economic background) for a visit to see the new house, causes friction between the girls and their Aunt Beryl.
- QUARTET: Just the Thing
- TRIO: Far Too Near
- DUETTO: Isn’t it?
- LAMENT: We come here today
- TRIO: Can you see the lamp?
- DUETTO: Poor dear Aunt Beryl
The Lament, We Come Here Today, is a pastiche of Dido's Lament from Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, however, Katherine Mansfield’s original words are set to the music, and the aria is eventually put into a three-part polytonal canon with itself by means of two projected images of the singers and instrumentalists.
Instrumentation and musical structure
Each act is divided into six sections, and the recitative of each of those sections is based upon different western music styles dating from around 900 C.E. to the 19th Century as follows:
- Act One: (i) Florid Organum, (ii) Organum Duplum, (iii) Organum Triplum, (iv) Madrigal, (v) Canzon Villanesca, (vi) Quodlibet.
- Act Two: (i) Gavotte, (ii) Sarabande, (iii) Menuet, (iv) Fugue, (v) Bourée, (vi) Gigue.
- Act Three: Sonata Allegro – (i) Introduction, (ii) Exposition-First Group, (iii) Exposition-Second Group, (iv) Development, (v) Recapitulation-First Group, (vi) Recapitulation-Second Group, (vii) Coda (this deviates from the previous two acts)
The opera begins with the chorale harmonization by J. S. Bach of Herzlich Thut Mich Verlangen, and the first six notes of this melody (D, E, F, G, A, & B) becomes the basis for the entire opera. In keeping with Davidson's penchant for musical appropriation, the opera is filled with quotes - of his own works - applied chronologically from latest to earliest.
Notes and references
- American Composers Alliance – The Singing Lesson on the official website of the American Composers Alliance.