ERIC HERMANNSON'S SOUL


Libretto:
Chas Rader-Shieber

Cast:
Eric Hermannson (tenor), a Norwegian farm-hand
Margaret Elliot (soprano,) a beautiful city girl
Wyllis Elliot (baritone), Margaret's brother
Asa Skinner (tenor), a fundamentalist preacher
Lena Hanson (mezzo-soprano), a local girl, quietly in love with Eric
Jerry Lockhart (bass), a neighbor and Wyllis's friend
Eric's mother (mezzo soprano)
Minna Oleson (dancer), Eric's friend
The Frenchman (baritone/dancer), one of Eric's saloon friends
Quartet of soloists, SATB
Chorus: members of the congregation, townspeople, and dancers

Instrumentation:
Flute (doubles piccolo), oboe, Bb clarinet (doubles bass clarinet, Eb clarinet), bassoon (doubles contrabassoon), horn, 2 percussion, keyboard/synthesizer, strings, pit chorus of 16-18 singers, 1 violin on stage

Text: After the short story by Willa Cather

Duration: 120 minutes

Commissioned By:
Opera Omaha

Premiere:
November 11, 1998 by Opera Omaha, Hal France, conductor, at The Rose Blumkin Performing Arts Center, Omaha, NE

Available From:
Oxford University Press, rented by C.F. Peters.

Composer's Notes:
Eric Hermannson, a young Norwegian with a deep love for music and dance, is converted to Free Gospellism by Minister, Asa Skinner. During the conversion, Eric destroys his violin and vows never again to dance. Henceforth, he will devote his life to the teachings of the Free Gospel disciples. Two years later, the beautiful and refined New Yorker Margaret Elliot arrives in the Nebraska Divide accompanied by her brother Wyllis. This trip is to be Margaret and Elliot’s final adventure before Margaret weds her East Coast fiancé. Quietly, Margaret and Eric fall in love. Margaret learns that love brings joy to life, even if only for a moment. Eric learns that love is a greater truth than fear. Margaret leaves to marry. Eric reclaims music in his life.

Eric Hermannson's Soul, which is based on the short story of the same name by Willa Cather, draws on many of the ideas that she explored throughout her literary career. The individual as an outsider in his own community, the struggle to find a sense of self, and the importance of selfless love are the thematic through lines of this work.

In a Prologue, the three main story elements of the opera are introduced. Margaret Elliot, with her brother Wyllis, is on the train to Nebraska to visit her late father's ranch which has been left to the siblings. She is excited to have a final adventure before returning to New York to marry her fiancé, Jack.

In the local saloon, Lena Hanson and The Frenchman remember the fiddler, Eric Hermannson. A dance tune reminds Lena of the friend whose joy of life has been taken away from him, through his conversion to the church.

Eric's mother pleads with Asa Skinner, the fundamentalist preacher. She is concerned for her son and his quiet unhappiness.

Act One Scene One begins on the front porch of the Elliot ranch. Margaret has fallen in love with her new surroundings and finds in them more a sense of "home" than her city diggs. Wyllis dismisses her passion for the ranch as a romantic notion, but her feelings are genuine. Eric passes by and an immediate connection is made between Margaret and the young Norwegian without a single word spoken. Margaret questions her neighbor Jerry Lockhart about the young man. In an extended flashback, Jerry recalls the day of Eric's conversion and tells of the hold that Asa Skinner has over the town.

Asa Skinner is preaching. He singles out Eric as his goal for conversion. As Eric slowly falls under the pressure of the orator, his friends pass by the church, mocking the preacher with laughter and fiddle playing. Eric raises his "instrument of the devil" above his head, and in a moment of terror, breaks the fiddle across his knee. As his mother collapses at Asa's feet, Eric realizes his conversion is complete. Margaret has found a goal for her time at the ranch.

The sound of a wax cylinder recording of the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana attracts Eric's attention at the beginning of Scene Two. It comes from the parlor of the Elliot ranch, where Margaret is trying to write a letter to her fiance. She tells Eric that she is planning a dance and wants him to attend. A recently converted Eric doesn't flirt with Margaret the way she expects but weeps at the sound of the music. He tells her the story of his younger brother who died as a child. Unable to control his emotion, he runs from the room. Wyllis enters and finds the letter to Jack on the table. He encourages Margaret to write of the recent sale of the Elliot ranch. This is a shock to Margaret, who refuses, claiming the property is half hers. Realizing that all her plans and dreams of Eric and the ranch are crumbling around her, she sings of her life without its "one great moment."

Act Two Scene One finds Wyllis on the porch of the ranch, musing on his love of the city. Margaret confronts Wyllis about the sale of the ranch, but it is too late. Final plans for Margaret's dance arrive. Unable to face the thought of it, and her imminent departure for the city, Margaret runs off as a storm approaches. She meets Asa Skinner, who reminds her that Eric belongs to the church.

Scene Two takes place in a field where Eric has come to save Margaret from an approaching storm. He tells her of his desire to go to the city to hear music like he heard the night before in the parlor. She discourages him, knowing that his home is in the country. We hear the sound of the church choir praying for the safety of the town. As the storm passes over them, Eric pulls Margaret to the ground to protect her. He pledges his love to her, but she cannot accept, and in silence, they return to the ranch.

In scene three, Wyllis brings Margaret a letter from her fiancé. The city calls for her. He asks if she is ready for the evening's dance and if she has yet told Eric of the engagement. Lena Hanson, one of Eric's friends from the saloon arrives to help Margaret prepare for the dance. She tells Margaret of her concern for Eric and his loss of passion. Perhaps Margaret can help him, as he is fond of her. Margaret denies any closeness with Eric and explains to Lena that she will soon be returning to the city. Dressed and ready for the dance, Margaret strikes a bargain with Wyllis. She will return to New York and marry Jack, if Wyllis will let her have a final moment with Eric. She insists Wyllis must know that although she marries out of duty, she will leave her heart at the ranch with Eric. They agree never to speak of the matter again.

The act ends with an extended scene that includes a series of Norwegian dances. Margaret's dance is going full swing as Eric arrives. Much to everyone's surprise, he embraces his old fiddle, now repaired, and begins to play. Margaret's love has given him back his passion and his power over fear and the church. Margaret and Eric dance, and, pulling him away, she tells him of her engagement. Eric is shocked but understands that she must go. They return to the dance and find Eric's mother, seated quietly in the corner, her eyes on her newly reborn son. As the sun comes up and the dance ends, Margaret and Wyllis are seen leaving for the train station. Asa, who has waited all night to confront Eric, tells him of his damnation. "And it is for foolish things like this that you set your soul back a thousand years from God!" Eric responds, "And a day shall be as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day."

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Synopsis:
Eric Hermannson, a young Norwegian with a deep love for music and dance, concerts to Free Gospellism. He is forced to give away his violin and cease to dance, devoting his life to fundamentalism. The beautiful and refined Margaret Elliot visits from the East Coast. Quietly, Margaret and Eric fall in love. Margaret learns that love brings joy to life, even if only for a moment. Eric learns that love is a greater truth than fear. Margaret leaves. Eric plays and dances again.

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