Tales of thwarted love frequently do well on stage, and the story of Heloise and Abelard is no exception. This dramatic tale, discovered by scholars through recovered love letters, is all the richer for being true: passionate love between a tutor-philosopher, Abelard, and his brilliant student, Heloise; an unexpected pregnancy; a violent castration. It is cinematic or—as composer John Austin ’56, LL.B. ’60, thought—operatic. His first opera, Heloise and Abelard, premiered in semi-staged form at Memorial Church on Sunday, January 29, in a collaboration among Boston-area soloists, the Harvard University Choir, and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.
Sunday's debut filled the central pews of the nave. A friend, familiar with Memorial Church-as-concert-space, insisted we sit on the right side, where the acoustics are stronger. Audience members followed along with the printed libretto, some learning about the story even as they were listening to Austin's musical interpretation for the first time. The church captured the competing instrumentalists and singers with richness and resonance. There was tension in the juxtaposition of the opera's coherent melodic lines in the strings and winds with some of its more adventuresome moments, such as the myriad spoken parts by the soloists (of whom six were alumni) and the chorus. The striking voice of soprano Tony Arnold, who played Heloise, rang with particular purity and strength. One concertgoer observed that Austin's style is not modern and wondered what fresh insight such music could add to a medieval tale. Angelo Mao '10, writing in the Boston Classical Review, called the opera "uneven yet compelling."
The premiere was not the first time Austin's work had been performed at Harvard. He wrote his first orchestral piece for the Bach Society Orchestra in 1954 and also composed chamber music during his student years. "The music at Harvard was essential to my growth," he says, adding, "You can't do better than attending the Boston Symphony." Though he became a lawyer (now recently retired), he explains, "My law practice was always part-time," because he composed throughout his life to pursue his first love, music.
Austin is also no stranger to Memorial Church. For his fiftieth College reunion, in 2006, he composed a piece for the memorial service held there in remembrance of deceased classmates. After the service, Edward Elwyn Jones, Gund organist and choirmaster of Memorial Church (and the conductor for the opera's debut), approached him about performing future compositions. Austin seized the opportunity, because he and his wife, Christine Froula (who wrote the Heloise and Abelard libretto), had already planned to collaborate on the opera. Due to "a stroke of scheduling luck," the Boston Modern Orchestra Project signed on; Jones recruited the University Choir and Boston-area soloists to the project. Tony Arnold, who was scheduled to be in residence at Harvard the week before the premiere, joined the company as Heloise.
"It took a lot of planning and work," says Froula, a professor of English, comparative literature, and gender studies at Northwestern. But the composer and librettist eagerly tackled the task. For Austin, Memorial Church is "a marvelous musical pace." "I just feel incredibly fortunate," he says. "You don’t just assume that if you write an opera, you'll get a performance."
With the planning underway, all they had to do was write the opera. Choosing the story of Heloise and Abelard was perhaps the easiest part. "It's just so intrinsically operatic," Froula says. "This is not just a love story." The protagonists confronted love in a time of difficult church politics and gender dynamics. "This story has dimensions that Romeo and Juliet doesn't have," Austin says. "These people surmount difficulties that other people never dream of."
Austin and Froula immersed themselves in the letters and documents. "Both of us were reading everything and passing it to each other. And then we would go to dinner and talk about it," Froula says. She had never written a libretto before, but her experience studying and writing about feminism, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce prepared her for the work. Austin built off her completed libretto, completing the opera about a year before the January debut.
Sunday's performance was recorded, and the couple is eager to develop potential staged performances. But for the premiere, Austin favored the semi-staged version, without the costumes and blocking typical of fully staged operas. "As a first go, I certainly prefer this," he says, "because everybody can concentrate on the music."