The Black Swan

Chamber opera in two acts.

Music by Thomas Whitman, 1996.

Libretto by Nathalie Anderson.

( after Thomas Mann's novella The Black Swan and after Richard Selzer's "The Black Swan revisited.")

The Black Swan, Act I, scene i:

The young American, Ken [David Kravitz, baritone], meets the widow Rosalie [Freda Herseth, mezzo-soprano] and her daughter Anna [Tamara Matthews, soprano].


Act I:

The opera opens in the spring of 1922 in Düsseldorf, Germany. The widow Rosalie von Tummler lives placidly with her daughter Anna, an abstract painter --- though Rosalie wishes that Anna could be more vibrantly engaged with life. Hoping to kindle romance for her daughter, Rosalie hires a young American, Ken Keaton, to tutor Anna in English. Ken's romanticized enthusiasm for European traditions seems naive to Anna. Rosalie, on the other hand, finds Ken charming, much to her daughter's embarrassment. At the conclusion of Act I, Rosalie lies in bed, unable to sleep, imagining that Ken is calling to her. She awakens to her own desire, horrified to discover that it is she who has fallen in love.


Act II:

That autumn, as love returns, Rosalie grows radiant, her renewed vitality asserting itself as a waltz. Her vibrant emotion impresses Ken but troubles Anna. Rosalie first turns on her daughter all the doubt and shame she's internalized but then reveals love's seeming miracle: "It has come back to me, the blood of life." In the second scene, all three characters go on an outing to Holterhof Castle to see the famous swans. When Ken brings out the bread he's kept in his coat pocket to feed them, Rosalie snatches and eats it, warm from his body; she is shocked when a black swan attacks her. While Anna paints, Rosalie and Ken explore the ruins and find each other.

Act II reaches its climax as Rosalie discovers the true explanation for her apparent rejuvenation --- paradoxically, an advanced cancer has mimicked renewed youth. The final scene takes place in a hospital room. Despite her own weakness and the swan's looming domination of her dreams, Rosalie comforts her daughter with a vision of perennial natural vitality. With her new understanding of her mother's commitment to love and life in the face of mortal illness, Anna sets aside her fear of Ken's inadequacies, and leads him to see Rosalie as beautiful, youthful, desirable, desiring.

Audio clips [MP3 downloads]:

Act I, scene iii, beginning: Rosalie lies in bed, unable to sleep, imagining that Ken is calling to her.

[Freda Herseth]

Act I, scene iii, middle: Now fully awake, Rosalie confronts her image in the mirror ("deceitful, lying mirror that gives no sign the woman standing before it is afire.")


Act II, scene ii, Trio: Ken, Rosalie, and Anna gaze at the swans in the moat at Holterhof Castle.

Act II, scene ii, middle: Rosalie and Ken explore the ruins and find each other in a kiss.


Click here for detailed production information.


For a complete audio or video recording of the 1998 production, or for a perusal score, contact the composer.


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