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Daniel Steven Crafts

 

 

Sappho of Lesbos

 

An Opera in 3 Acts

 

Original story and libretto by Ben and Nancy Freedman

 

Sappho

Dramatic soprano

Kleis

High soprano

Doricha

Soprano

Gongyla

Mezzo soprano

Erinna

Mezzo soprano

Niobe

Contralto

Kharaxos

Baritone

Aesop

Tenor

Women’s Chorus with some small solo parts

Men’s Chorus

 

Orchestra:

2 Flutes

2 Oboes

2 Clarinets in B-flat

Bass Clarinet in B-flat

2 Bassoons

4 French Horns in F

3 Trumpets

3 Trombones

Tympani

Percussion

Strings

 

 

Sappho of Lesbos

SYNOPSIS  

 

In 6th century BC Greece, Sappho of Lesbos was celebrated as poet, singer, and the first fighter for the rights of women in the Western world.


SCENE I

 

Rapping at the massive but delicately carved doors to her mansion, demanding entry, is Aesop of Samos, famed fabulist and myth-maker.  He is greeted by Sappho’s brother Kharaxos, a wealthy ship-owner and trader.  Aesop insists on speaking to Sappho.  He has come with a warning of death.

 

Drawn by the disturbance, Sappho appears at a draped archway.  She is not perturbed by Aesop’s vision, and invites the old story teller to join the festivities.  It is graduation day for her students who come to her to be instructed in dance, song and the mysteries of Dionysos.

 

A drape is drawn to reveal the great hall which supple girls are decorating with garlands of flowers.  They dance and sing immortal lines from Sappho’s poems, each girl in turn kneeling before Sappho asking, “What is woman?”  To each Sappho gives a different reply meant for the ears of Aesop: “Woman is the warrior‘s reward, the adoring wife,   . . .”   Once the old man leaves, the dance becomes an orgy.  Sappho’s replies are now quite different.  “Woman is more than a warrior’s toy, more than man’s servant . . .”  

 

The light fades.  Niobe, foremost among the slaves, lights a taper. Three of Sappho’s pupils bring a statue of Apollo and continue their dance to him. Inviting him to join them, they climb enticingly onto his lap simulating intercourse.

 

Sappho gives each girl a prize for her outstanding talent.  One is nimble, another full of grace, and yet another velvet throated.  When Doricha, the White Rose, kneels before her, Sappho withholds the prize, demanding instead that the girl clear herself of a charge of stealing.  Doricha attempts to laugh it off as a prank.  Sappho does not find this amusing.

 

Brother Khar appears from his place of concealment behind the drape.  Dorcha has found her champion.  Quarreling with his sister, he takes the White Rose with him.

 

The girls clamor for fair Sappho to award the grand prize.  Sappho has long known who it is she will chose—Gongyla bosom friend of Sappho’s own daughter, Kleis.  Sappho breaks into the circle of girls and detaches Gongyla from her daughter’s arms, singing, “I long and I yearn.”

 

SCENE II

 

Niobe, with the help of a novice slave-girl, prepares Sappho’s bungalow for a night of love.  “The pillows,” she instructs, “must be sprinkled lightly with attar of roses . . . “.  The novice catches her breath in delight and slips something beneath the pillow, the testicle of a bull, “that great Sappho’s lover of the evening will find renewed manhood.”  To which Niobe replies indignantly that it is not a man for whom they have so diligently prepared the bedchamber.  “No man visits the songbird of Lesbos.”  To explain, Niobe sings her the fable of the three sexes and how Zeus split them down the middle to form heterosexuals and homosexuals, male and female.

 

Sappho enters and takes a seat at her makeup table, commanding Niobe to make her beautiful.  Looking into her copper mirror produces a burst of fury.  She strikes Niobe.  “That is for making me old.”  She strikes her again.  “And that is for making me ugly.”

 

Niobe tries once more, and suggests candlelight.  Sappho begs her beloved servant to forgive her.  She is ready to welcome her new friend.  But Gongyla is late.  Sappho, uncertain of her own dwindling power to attract love, sings a prayer to the Kyprian goddess, foam-born Aphrodite.

 

A small scratching sound at the door.  It is not Gonglya, but Doricha who has brought a peace-making gift: herself, with her trained peacock.  

 

A large screen projects in shadow an enormous bird, who, with beating wings, seizes the diminutive Doricha in his talons and carries her, heels dragging the floor as she struggles in his grasp.  He drops her to the couch and positions himself above her.  As he comes down, the orchestra screams, the girl screams and the bird screams.

 

Khar rushes in, furious at his sister.  He pulls Doricha after him as he strides out. Sappho throws herself on the bed and is weeping when Gongyla steals in.  She assumes Sappho’s distress is because she has kept her waiting.  “I stopped to pick a flower for you,” she sings, and goes on to say she is on her way to Kleis, Sappho’s daughter, to celebrate winning the grand prize.

 

Sappho’s wiles are now tested.  “Let me prepare you for such a gala meeting.”  She plies the girl with sweet Lesbian wine, rubs her with priceless unguents and murmuring sweet words gently urges her against soft cushions.  As the girl becomes drowsy, she begins to remove items of clothing.  Each garment she replaces with a jewel, then kisses the ornamented spot.

 

She does not hear Kleis, who has come looking for her friend.  Kleis is stunned by what she sees and lays a daughter’s deepest curse upon her mother.  Gongyla crumples to the ground.  Sappho is as one turned to stone.               

   

SCENE III

           

Plague has struck the city.  Gongyla confides to a friend, Erinna, that it is her fault.  And she tells of Kleis’ curse.  Erinna consoles her saying she too in her time came under the spell of the enchantress, Sappho.

 

The people in the town square take up the lament.  Aesop advises them to go home and lock their doors.  “Can you lock out plague?” they chant back.  “Sing woe!  Sing woe!”


SCENE IV

           

Erinna reclines on her sickbed.  Sappho, who loves her still, kneels beside her and holds her hand.  She sings how she will make her well with strengthening broths and eggs of duck and peahen.  But Erinna knows she is dying.  Sappho cannot bear to lose her, she begs forgiveness for following after every comely form.  “In my heart it was always you.”

 

Erinna seizes on this and wrings from Sappho a promise that she will give Gongyla up.  Sappho swears by the Ever-living One, the Kyprian herself.

 

Erinna then asks Sappho to kiss her.  Even before she finishes speaking blood gushes over her face.  Sappho draws back in horror.  Then looks more closely, the girl is dead.


SCENE V

           

Sappho steps from her bath to receive a towel from the hand of Gongyla, who urges her to rouse herself from Erinna’s death.  She sings to encourage her, “The gods gave us each day fresh.”

 

Soothed, Sappho settles back when she beholds a light that as she watches transforms itself into Erinna.  The apparition has come to see that she redeem her promise. But she cannot do it.  She cannot give up her love.  

 

Erinna sings:  Do not betray me twice.  Sappho replies in despair, “I would I were dead.”

 

Gongyla:  “You did not like my little song?”

 

In answer Sappho replies: Erinna is dead.  My brother I have driven from my side.  My daughter, I am told, has gone to the priestesses of the cave to live with snakes.  And you whom I loved, I love no more.  Go to Niobe, she will show you my woman’s box of jewels.  Take what you please and leave my house.”  Gongyla backs slowly away.

 

Sappho speaks to the empty room.  “Are you satisfied, Erinna?”  There is a scream in the darkness.  Gongyla’s feet are seen dangling from the lintel.

 

BLACKOUT

 

Sappho runs distractedly about her bedchamber.  She is dressed for travel.  Pulling coan dresses, shawls and scarves from neat piles she loads them into Niobe’s arms.

 

Sappho tells her slave to take what she wants, including her most precious possession, her lyre.  “Also your freedom.  I give you that too.”

 

Niobe does not want these things, nor her freedom.  She wants only to follow where her mistress goes.  Sappho relents. They will travel together aboard her black ships.  And she sings the legend of the island of Leucas, where truth-telling Apollo gazes from his shrine atop the highest peak.  Prisoners were commanded to jump into the sea without fear.  If they were innocent, Apollo’s birds would fly to their aid and lift them to safety.  If guilty they would be dashed upon the rocks below.  Niobe is appalled. 

   

SCENE VI

 

Niobe is climbing.  She has lost sight of Sappho, who is far ahead along the steep path.  As she climbs her lovely girls climb with her.  Sappho pauses to speak to each in turn, to hug them, to kiss.  Before reaching the top she pauses to pick flowers.  The god, cast in stone, waits for her at the top.  She lays the small bouquet at his feet.  

 

Sappho walks to the edge.  The birds come in and circle over her head.  Holding out her arms to them Sappho takes an upward step before falling into blackness and disappearing from view.  The birds continue to circle.

 

 

THE END