Theatrical Works - Operas

Chisholm is best known today in the world of opera as the man who organized the first complete performance in Britain of Berlioz’ opera ‘The Trojans' in 1934. Unbelievable this, when you consider he wrote twelve operas of his own, half of which were performed in his lifetime to considerable acclaim.

The most successful of these is his one act opera, Dark Sonnet, based on the play ’Before Breakfast” by Eugene O’Neill which had over 40 performances, including a television and radio broadcast in London. Opinions expressed by the critics were nearly all extreme which Chisholm took as a good sign. It was described as the "most sordid, repellent, seamy drama ever set to music and called ‘opera’". On the other hand it was described as "a beautiful piece of work, a brilliant achievement, even a masterpiece".

After an absence of nearly 50 years, it was staged again in 2004 in Cape Town along with ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’ and public reaction to it was as mixed as before. Surprisingly, it was perceived by some as a black comedy; perhaps with this approach to production, it may have a second life. Promotional DVD of both operas made in 2004 may be ordered from the Chisholm Trust.

The Feast of Samhain

Libretto by the composer: 1941 A Celtic romantic-comic opera in 3 acts after James Stephen.

The Inland Woman

1951 Opera in 3 acts after Mary Lavin’s ‘ The Green Death and the Black Death’; a story of death at sea in a fishing village. Libretto by the composer. First performed at the Little Theatre, Cape Town in 1953.

Videotape in UCT archival collection.

Murder in Three Keys (trilogy): 1954

The three operas which make up the trilogy - Dark Sonnet, Black Roses and Simoon were all performed in New York 6 July 1954, where it enjoyed a six-week season. All 3 works were produced using 2 pianos instead of the orchestral score.

Dark Sonnet: dramatic 1 act opera about a nagging wife and faithless husband based on ‘Before Breakfast’ by Eugene O’Neill. Libretto by the composer. First performed Cape Town 1952. BBC London television production 1952.

Full Score (FS), Vocal Score (VS) and parts.

Listen to Music Clip: Extract from Dark Sonnet.

Black Roses: 1 act opera, uniquely has two libretti. When permission to use a libretto based on T.S. Eliot’s ‘Sweeney Agonistes” was refused, Chisholm wrote a new libretto for the music he had already composed. The action, set in a lively party atmosphere, is about a returning GI and his dark secret. FS, VS and some parts.

Simoon: 1 act opera based on a text by Auguste Strindberg; set in Algeria,the simoon,a violent hot desert wind’ is an aid to murder by suggestion in this psychological thriller. FS & VS. A A new typeset VS is now available.

The Midnight Court

Written some time between 1954 & 1961, 1 act ballad after “A Rhythmical Bacchanalia” by Bryon Merryman (1780).

FS is incomplete; orchestrated for instrumental trio & VS.

The Canterbury Tales

1961-2 Opera in 3 Acts after Geoffrey Chaucer. Words in Middle English.

Act 1 The Wyf of Bath’s Tale A knight in the court of King Arthur, goes on a journey to find the answer to the riddle ’what do women love most” FS & VS.

Act 2 The Pardoner’s Tale of 3 rogues and their fight to the death over a pot of gold. FS, VS & parts. Published VS by Studio Holland. The ECT has spare copies.

Listen to Music Clip: Extract from the Pardoner's Tale.

Act 3 The Nun’s Priest’s Tale of the contest between Chaunticleer, the rooster, and the fox. FS & VS.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle

1963 Opera in 3 acts Libretto by the composer after the play by Bertold Brecht. In the aftermath of war, a servant girl battles for her son’s life. FS (incomplete) VS.

The Importance of Being Earnest

1963 Comic opera in 3 acts. Libretto by Oscar Wilde with additions by the composer. FS & VS.

The Life and Loves of Robert Burns

1963 Opera based on poems of Robert, and his correspondence with brother Gilbert and other contemporaries.

VS and score for string quartet.

Unnatural Death, based on “The Spell by Mary Kelly, Casse Noisette and The Virtuous Isadora are three other operas in various stages of completion; these await cataloguing and further research.