Hagen and Muldoon elected to dramatize together events that occured between 1903 and 1914 during the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright's life. After Hagen and Muldoon co-wrote the story, Muldoon created the libretto; Hagen then adapted the libretto as he created the music. Wright's determination to leave his wife and children, his relationship with Mamah Cheney, and the subsequent murders and conflagration at Taliesin, are all part of the historical record.
ACT ONE, PROLOGUE
The Cliff Dwellers' Club, Chicago, 1903. Architect Louis Sullivan, erstwhile mentor and friend of Frank Lloyd Wright, sits alone. He has been drinking all afternoon. He muses on his estrangement from Wright, who was once a "pencil in my hand." The estrangement has cost Sullivan dear.
ACT ONE, SCENE ONE
Wright's office, Oak Park, Illinois, 1903. Wright brings prospective clients Edwin and Mamah Cheney into his busy studio. He enthusiastically outlines his plans for their house. He and Mamah are clearly taken with one another; Edwin is leery of the cost of the house. Shortly after the Cheneys depart, Wright's staff leaves for the day. Wright's reverie about Mamah is interrupted by his wife, Catherine, who in frustration, and with some bitterness, urges him to come home to his family. But he is preoccupied and distant, so there can be little real communication between them. After Catherine leaves, Wright's thoughts return to the Cheneys. At the same time Sullivan, visible at the Club, reflects again on his falling out with Wright.
ACT ONE, SCENE TWO
The Cheney construction site, six months later. As workmen begin their day, several townswomen discuss the rumored affair between Wright and Mamah Cheney. Edwin comes to inspect the progress of the building and realizes that as his house is being built his marriage is being destroyed. Wright and Mamah appear, exchanging intimacies, and are surprised by Edwin. Mamah and Edwin clash, and she announces her intention to leave him. Edwin is crushed, Mamah determined to throw off the chains of a conventional marriage. Wright urges Mamah to escape with him "to make our mark on the well-worn slate of Europe." They leave Edwin inside the four open walls of the half-built house.
ACT ONE, SCENE THREE
Mamah's apartment in Berlin, 1910. Mamah has for several years been working on translations of German and Swedish literature. A she translates some verses from German (the "Hymn to Nature") Mamah thinks about Wright, who is away at work in Italy. She comes to terms with her strongly ambivalent feelings about her life with Wright, recognizing, despite her love for him, that her dream of an equal partnership with him must remain a dream; his hunger for wealth and fame will always eclipse her. For all the romance of rejecting her conventional former life she has ended up, like Catherine before her, waiting on Wright. Sullivan, still brooding in the Club, echo's her disappointment in Wright.
ACT TWO, SCENE ONE
Taliesin, Spring Green, Christmas, 1911. Wright, with Mamah at his side, greets a crowd of reporters, photographers, and townspeople at a Christmas Morning Press Conference in his living room. He delivers a prepared statement attempting to explain his living out of wedlock with Mamah while still married to Catherine (who will not grant him a divorce). His audience seems unconvinced that "the artist must take a harder, higher road." When Mamah and Wright speak privately, it is clear that she is dissatisfied with the imbalances in their life together, though he doesn't really seem to hear her.
ACT TWO, SCENE TWO
Taliesin, Summer, 1914. At a party hosted by Wright and Mamah, her children play among the guests, employees and neighbors of Wright's who express a variety of opinions about his worth as a man and as an artist. Mamah realizes incontrovertibly that she and Wright are living separate lives; they are not the picture of connubial bliss they seem.
ACT TWO, SCENE THREE
The Cliff Dwellers' Club, later that summer. Wright visits Sullivan, apparently hoping for reconciliation. Their conversation is at first strained and indirect. Ultimately neither is able to reach out successfully to the other; it is hard for Sullivan to let down his guard. Edwin Cheney enters with a telegram: Taliesin has been destroyed by fire. Wright is stunned; Edwin hauls him off to catch a train to Spring Green. Alone, Sullivan cries out in anguish - he seems to feel Wright's loss, as well as the loss of Wright.
ACT TWO, SCENE FOUR
The ruins of Taliesin, deep in that night. There is great despair. The dead are laid out on the ground. The victims are seven in number, including three employees, the child of one, Mamah's two children, and Mamah herself. Some died in the fire; the latter three were hatcheted to death by the man who started the fire, Julian Carleton, Wright's chef, who is missing. Edwin takes away the bodies of his children; Wright bids him a contrite farewell and mourns Mamah. The Maid, in hysteria, announces that the Chef has been found, his throat burned from drinking hydrochloric acid. Wright finds a a paper in his coat with Mamah's translation of the "Hymn to Nature": "She sweeps us off our feet, and dances round and round, then flings us back, exhausted, on the muddy ground." Wright imagines rebuilding Taliesin in Mamah's memory.
Wright (Robert Orth) places flowers on the body of Mamah Cheney at the end of the opera during the Chicago Opera Theater production.
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Workman #1 / Guest / Photographer / Last Draftsman (bass)
mixed chorus (18+ voices)
(ideal for schools, young artists programs, etc.)
(no chorus, no supers, no supporting roles)
large version (50 players)
2 Flutes (I,II=Piccolo) 2 Oboes (II=English Horn in F) 2 Clarinets in Bb (II=Clarinet in Eb / Bass Clarinet) 2 Bassoon 2 Horns in F 2 Trumpets in Bb (II=Flugelhorn in Bb) 2 Trombones Tuba Timpani 3 Percussion Harp Piano (=Synthesizer) Strings (players: 7-6-5-4-5-2)
small version (31 players)
2 Flutes (I,II=Piccolo) 2 Oboes (II=English Horn) 2 Clarinets in Bb (II=Clarinet in Eb / Bass Clarinet) 2 Bassoons 2 Horns in F 2 Trumpets in Bb (II=Flugelhorn in Bb) 2 Trombones Tuba Timpani 1 Percussion Synthesizer Strings (minimum, in players: 3-3-3-3-1)
"fallingwater" version (7 players)
Oboe (=English Horn)
Clarintet in Bb (=Clarinet in Eb / Bass Clarinet)
Wright (Robert Orth), Mamah Cheney (Brenda Harris), and Edwin Cheney (Bradley Garvin) in the Chicago Opera Theater revival. (Dan Rest)
Opera Theater of Pittsburgh's cast takes a bow after a performance of Brow for high school students in Pennsylvania. The "Fallingwater" version of the opera runs 70 minutes, requires five singers, a single rudimentary set, and works excellently with piano accompaniment. It has proven highly effective with young people.