The Young King is based on one of the stories from Oscar Wilde’s collection of original fairy tales, long beloved of children for their fanciful imagery and by adults for their profound insights into morality and human nature.
The protagonist is the illegitimate son of a princess, originally exiled because his father was a commoner. When it becomes clear that the boy is the old king’s only heir, the dying monarch has him brought back to court from the hillside where he had been raised by shepherds. A free-spirited creature of the wood, the prince is enchanted by the artworks and riches of the court, and falls asleep on a silken bed the night before his coronation, anticipating the rich robe, golden crown, and jeweled scepter he’ll be wearing the next day.
But during the night he is haunted by three dreams that show him the human cost of these riches. An angry, destitute Weaver Woman struggles to finish the robe on time to avoid punishment; the ghost of a drowned pearl diver tells of his fatal descent to the ocean floor in search of the perfect pearl for the crown; and an allegorical struggle between Avarice and Death claims the lives of the miners digging for rubies for the scepter.
When the Prince wakes up, still haunted by these images, he refuses to wear the three beautiful adornments, since they were created at such a huge human cost. Dressed in his old shepherd’s weeds, he goes to church for his coronation, where he is castigated by the Bishop and heckled by the angry mob as unfit to rule. But he turns to faith for the answer, and in the final moments is miraculously transfigured as a new kind of King for the future.
This richly evocative and mysterious story has been translated into a compact seventy-minute opera, ideal either for a short evening or pairing with another one-act work. The timeless setting and magical elements provide plenty of inspiration for creative staging and design. Written for a cast of graduate students in the opera program at the University of Maryland, with an emphasis on female voices, the opera gives each of the vocalists a chance to shine. The sophisticated, intricate score provides rewarding musical challenges, with vocal writing tailored to the capabilities of developing voices.
Tom Rowan’s literate libretto, largely in rhymed verse, evokes both the whimsy and the mystical wisdom of Wilde’s original story, rendering it in theatrically active terms. Martin Hennessy’s elegant, colorful score weaves an atmospheric spell to beguile the listener; each of the dreams has its own color and musical character, and the final scene builds to a profound religious ecstasy. The jewel-like piano accompaniment frames the voices with an unfailingly light touch, bringing out the humor and magic in the story. This is a rewarding piece to perform and an enchanting listening experience for audiences of all ages.