In May of 2003, the New York City Opera performed the first act of my opera Frankenstein, with full orchestra, as part of its annual new-opera workshop. This was a happy day for me -- my most visible reemergence yet as a composer, and the performance was a wonderful success, with cheers and bravos.

That performance was recorded; unfortunately, because of an agreement City Opera made with the musicians in its orchestra, I won't be able to share that recording here. Still, you can hear the music, in a recording made at a workshop production when the opera was new, in 1981. You can also read the libretto, and look at scores -- either the full score of the first act, or the vocal score. And you can hear A Frankenstein Overture, a seven-minute orchestral piece based on the opera, and look at the full score.

But first, here's an overview.

I wrote Frankenstein from 1979 to 1981, to a libretto by Thomas M. Disch, the wonderful science fiction writer, poet, and critic who'd earlier written the text for my first opera, The Fall of the House of Usher. Frankenstein was the last of the four operas I wrote in this first stage of my composing career, and the only one that never got a formal premiere. Instead, it was workshopped three times, first just one scene, at the Lake George Opera Festival, then three scenes, at C. W. Post College, and finally the whole piece, again at C. W. Post. All these workshops were done with piano accompaniment; the New York City Opera workshop will be the first time any of Frankenstein has ever been performed with orchestra. (Though I did orchestrate parts of it in 1998, with some creative adaptation of some of the vocal lines, to create the Frankenstein Overture).

The source of the opera is the original Mary Shelley novel, which isn’t much like the movie everybody knows. The Creature isn't silent, for instance -- he speaks, with fine and touching bitter eloquence. Nor is there any lightning bolt, or hunchbacked assistant. At the end, the Creature dies (or we’re led to conclude he does), all alone on the polar ice, a scene that inspired me to write the opera -- imagine a huge, misshapen figure, dwarfed by the ice around him, his heartbeat in the orchestra, dying off to nothing. (That's what you hear at the end of the third act, and also at the end of the Frankenstein Overture.)

Another inspiration was Italian opera. Mary Shelley’s wrote her book in 1816. I wondered how Bellini or Verdi might have treated it, and you’ll hear a lot of Italian-opera style (especially in the soprano aria at the start of the second scene, above all in the orchestral interlude before the soprano's cabaletta). I’d stress, though, that neither Tom Disch nor I meant our piece to be an ironic imitation, or pastiche. We drew on the past, with great love and respect, but our opera stands on its own. One thing that's not at all like Italian opera is a lot of thematic repetition. There aren't leitmotifs, exactly (though a major triad dying off into its parallel minor does seem to symbolize death). But Frankenstein is knit together by the recurrence of lots of large and small musical themes.

Here's a synopsis of the first act:

Scene One: A remote Swiss village. Victor Frankenstein, working all alone, has built his Creature, then fled in horror when it came to life. He’s rash, and weak; nobody knows what he has done. Now he lies, sick and raving, in his bed, tended by his dear friend Henry. A letter arrives from Elizabeth, his fiancée. Mingling hope with almost angry scorn, he rouses himself, and says he’ll go back home.

Scene Two: A graveyard. Victor’s brother William, a child not ten years old, was murdered; a servant has been convicted of the crime, and hanged. At the servant’s grave, Elizabeth meets Charlotte, her confidante, and a chorus of her friends. The servant, she insists, is innocent; her friends must all lay flowers on the grave. Suddenly there’s news: Victor has returned. Elizabeth, rejecting any thought that he has changed, prepares to greet him. When he comes (with Henry, and his proud and doting father), he’s pale and weak. Here there’s a quintet, as time stops, and everyone is lost in thought. Elizabeth faints. Charlotte, worried that a storm is coming on, organizes everyone to leave. Victor stays; he says he has to be alone. Night begins to fall. A voice speaks to Victor from the darkness; it’s the hurt and vengeful Creature, who has followed Victor ever since he was abandoned. He learned to speak, by watching Henry talk to Victor, and also learned the torments of the human heart. He killed Victor’s brother; as the storm begins to rage, he says he’ll kill again, if Victor doesn’t build a mate for him. Victor, frightened, cries that he will do it, if only to protect Elizabeth.

Here's the music and text:

The complete first-act libretto (plus the second and third acts)

A complete performance of the first act, from the second C. W. Post workshop. (32:50) You can also hear excerpts, along with the complete second and third acts.

Cast (in order of appearance):


John Absalom

Victor Frankenstein 

Allan Glassman


Carolyn Mallory


Cheryl Littell

Victor's Father

Joseph Warner

The Creature

Robert Stephens

Stage Director

Richard Getke

Music Director and Pianist

Ralph Zitterbart

 [The music files are MP3s, which should play easily on Windows and Mac systems. They're large files, though, especially the full acts. If you don't have broadband, they might take a while to download. The shorter excerpts, of course, will download fastest.]


Vocal score of the first act

Full score

Musical excerpts from the first act (from the C. W. Post performance):

Prelude  (1:32)

vocal score, page 5; full score, page 1

Tenor aria: "See where he lies" (1:17) 

text   vocal score, page 7; full score, page 8

Baritone monologue and scene: "I will not look at it"  (2:27)

text   vocal score, page 10; full score, page 13

Chorus: "Just as, my dear, each day at dawn"  (2:30)

text  vocal score, page 20; full score, page 30

Soprano recitative and aria: "Dear friends, I thank you…A child not ten years old"  (7:26)

text   vocal score page 25; full score, page 36

Quintet: "Elizabeth, I have been near to death…Love swells through my heart"  3:31

text   vocal score, page 37; full score, page 60

Creature entrance and storm scene: "Oh, that I might cease to think…And even in the air you breathe"  (8:59)

text   vocal score, page 53; full score, page 75

The rest of the opera:

Libretto: Act 2  Act 3

Performance:  Act 2  (29:26)  Act 3  (19:05)

And finally A Frankenstein Overture:

Synthesizer version  (6:41)

Full score