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The Other Voice
A Portrait of Hilda of Whitby
in Words and Music

Libretto by Gail Godwin
by Robert Starer

Notes for The Other Voice
Reviews of The Other Voice
Download Scene 1
Performance rights information

St. Hilda was the 7th century Abbess who founded the Monastery of Whitby. Under her wise rule, it became the most celebrated religious house and center of learning in Northeast England. Several of her charges became bishops and abbesses, and it was through her guidance that Caedmon, a humble farm laborer on the monastic estate, became known to us as the first English poet. The Other Voice presents a scenario of how Hilda might have brought this to pass.

This dramatic work calls for a cast of four who speak and sing. Hilda of Whitby is a Mezzo-soprano, the princess Elfleda is a lyric Soprano, Rolf the Reeve is a Baritone and Caedmon is a light Tenor. The accompaniment may be played on the organ, on a piano, or a synthesizer. The chorus in the final scene is optional. It's an accessible work, scenery needs are minimal, and yet it will be a rewarding production for your audience.

ISBN 0-9622553-7-8
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Gail Godwin's ten novels include A Mother and Two Daughters, the Odd Woman, and Violet Clay, all of which were nominated for the American Book Award. Her most recent novels are A Southern Family, Father Melancholy's Daughter, and its sequel, Evensong, published in March 1999. She has been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The Other Voice is her eighth collaboration with composer Robert Starer. She and Mr. Starer received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to write the opera Apollonia.

Robert Starer's orchestral works have been performed by major orchestras in the U.S. and abroad under such conductors as Leonard Bernstein, Erich Leinsdorf, and Zubin Mehta. His stage works include several scores for Martha Graham. The recording of his Violin Concerto (Itzhak Perlman and the Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa) was nominated for a Grammy. Interpreters of his music include the sopranos Roberta Peters and Leontyne Price, violinist Jaime Laredo, cellist Janos Starker, and flutist Paula Robison. Starer has taught at the Juilliard School and the Graduate Center of C.U.N.Y. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1994.

Reviews of The Other Voice
"Another work which really caught my eye is a relatively small-scale dramatic work by Starer entitled The Other Voice: A Portrait of Hilda of Whitby. The text for this little opera is by Gail Godwin, who may be recognized as the author of Father Melancholy's Daughter. (If you haven't read this charming book, let me recommend it to you.) There are four roles: Hilda, abbess of Whitby (mezzo); Elfleda, princess and nun (soprano); Rolf, the Reeve (baritone); and Caedmon, cowherd and poet (tenor). Production notes state that "The accompaniment may be played on an organ, on the piano, or on a synthesizer with judiciously selected sound images." --the italics are mine. I do not think I have ever seen this rubric before, but will be surprised if I do not see it--or something similar--again. The chorus used (very briefly) in the last scene is optional. One of my cherished hopes is that my parish will be able to present occasional musico-dramatic productions. It's published by Selah." --The Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians, December 1999

Notes on The Other Voice
Scene I
Scene II
Scene III
Scene IV
Scene V

Scene I
It is the late 660's, and spring is finally on its way to the cold coast of Northeast England. Hilda, beloved abbess of Whitby, esteemed far and wide as the most influential woman in Anglo-Saxon Christendom, is where she most likes to be: alone with God, taking refreshment and courage from her prayers. She is in her mid-fifties. Her early adult life remains undisclosed, but we know that at age thirty-three she took vows as a nun, ruled over the monastery of Hartlepool as abbess, and went on to transform a desolate Whitby cliff overlooking the North Sea into a thriving monastery for men and women, a center of learning, and a place visited by kings, princes, bishops and other seekers of her wisdom and advice. The famous Synod of Whitby where Celtic and Roman-trained Bishops argued their differences before King Oswy to settle the date of Easter, took place at Hilda's monastery in 664.

Hilda has also raised the Princess Elfleda, whose father, King Oswy, gave the baby princess to the Christian God as a thank offering for letting him defeat the heathen king Penda in battle. Elfleda, who will soon be taking her first vows as a nun, interrupts Hilda's prayers. The teenage princess has just come back from an ecstatic evening walk along the cliff, where she heard the ice cracking, saw Caedmon the herdsman delivering a new lamb, and stopped to chat with Rolf the Reeve, who oversees the workings of the monastery estate. The Princess admires Rolf because he "says interesting things," but Hilda is angered when she hears that the oversociable pagan reeve has raised doubts in the princess about her forthcoming marriage to Christ. Hilda reassures Elfleda, and they sing a Sixth Century Latin hymn, "To Thee Before the Close of Day."

Scene II
Alone again, Hilda warms herself into a fine, focused anger at Rolf the Reeve. She asks God why he sent her this troublesome man who, though he's a good manager, insinuates himself into people's personal business and forgets his station. Rolf is far too smart for his own good, "though not smart enough to see the good of you, Lord." Then she puts on her cloak and goes out into the night to confront the reeve, asking God to focus her wrath and sharpen her tongue to meet its target. Rolf apologizes for getting too personal with Elfleda, but explains that it's not easy for a communicative fellow like himself to live with his brother Caedmon, who prefers talking to animals. Hilda warns Rolf not to repeat the offense and is preparing to leave when she hears another voice, which is Caedmon making up a song to welcome a new lamb into the fold. She tells Rolf that a gift like his brother's is meant for more than lambs. If Caedmon were to sing the stories of the scriptures, she says, he would make more lambs for God. After she leaves, warning Rolf again to mend his ways or be fired, Rolf confronts Caedmon: If she asks you up there to sing, you'd better open your mouth and sing.

Scene III
Hilda and Elfleda are rehearsing for Elfleda's clothing ceremony on the morrow, when she will take her first vows as a nun. Elfleda confesses that she is uncertain and that she isn't ready to leave Hilda. The abbess shores up the girl's doubts and, during their duet, Hilda's stronger purpose slowly turns the girl's nostalgic lament at leaving the carefree world of a young girl wandering the cliffs into a joyful acceptance of her destiny as the future abbess. After Elfleda exits, Hilda droops as she realizes that tomorrow she will be losing the child who was her closest and dearest earthly companion.

Scene IV
Some months have gone by. Hilda has sorely missed her lost daughter who is now enclosed as a novice. One morning Rolf arrives unexpectedly at the monastery, dragging Caedmon. His brother has just had a heavenly visitor, he announces to the abbess. He prods the unwilling Caedmon to repeat to the abbess what the otherworldly voice instructed him to do. Hilda, that wisest of women, understands that she is being given a divine gift through her canny reeve. She has known God long enough to know He accomplishes His purposes through many voices, not all of them issuing from the mouths of the deserving or even the truthful. And she is seasoned enough in the ways of the world to know exactly how to put these "other voices" to work for God's glory. She laughs for the first time in months.

Scene V
It is the year 680. The Abbess Hilda is now 66 and close to death. The abbess has been ill for six years. As Bede, her only know biographer* writing within 50 years of her death, when memories of her were still fresh, tells us: "It pleased the Author of our salvation to try her holy soul by a long sickness, in order that her strength might be perfected in weakness." Knowing her time on earth is short, Hilda has sent for Rolf the Reeve, who has outlived Caedmon. We learn that Hilda taught Rolf to read so that he could "feed" the scriptures to his brother,** who was then inspired, as Hilda had foreseen, to make songs that reached the hearts of the unconverted. Through giving Rolf another voice, that of literacy, the wise abbess has given his irrepressible communicative energies a purposeful focus.

The concluding Requiem for Hilda, sung by the Abbess Elfleda, was inspired by text found in 2 Esdras 2:15­33 and by the final prayer of the Burial Service in The Book of Common Prayer.

Mother, embrace thy children
And bring them up with gladness;
Make their feet as fast as a pillar;
For I have chosen thee, saith the Lord.
Those that be dead will I raise up again
And bring them out of their graves.
Fear not, thou mother of the children,
For I have chosen thee, saith the Lord.

Be joyful, O thou mother, with thy children
For I will deliver thee, saith the Lord.
Remember thy children that sleep,
For I shall bring them out of the sides
Of the earth and shew mercy unto them.

Rest eternal grant to her, O Lord
And let light perpetual shine upon her.

--Gail Godwin, October 12, 1998

* The Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, was completed in 731 at the monastery of Jarrow, 50 miles up the coast from Whitby. In Bede's life of St. Cuthbert, he often quotes Cuthbert's special friend, the Abbess Elfleda of Whitby, who most likely was also a source for what we know about her spiritual mother, Hilda.

** Bede tells us that Caedmon's superior, the reeve, took him before the abbess to report Caedmon's dream of a man ordering him to sing in his native tongue about the creation of all things. We have made the reeve and the cowherd brothers, which is not at all impossible. Bede tells us Caedmon later became a brother in the monastery, but he apparently never learned to read. According to Bede, Caedmon stored up in his memory all that was read to him, "and like and animal chewing the cud, turned it into such melodious verse that his delightful renderings turned his instructors into his audience."


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Performance information

Purchase of copies of The Other Voice gives churches and other religious institutions right to public performance of this work as long as no admission is charged. Professionals and amateurs are hereby warned that other use of this material, being fully protected under the Copyright Laws of the United States of America and all other countries of the Berne and Universal Copyright Conventions, is subject to a royalty. All rights including, but not limited to, professional, amateur, recording, motion picture, recitation, lecturing, public reading, radio and television broadcasting, and the rights of translation into foreign languages are expressly reserved. Particular emphasis is placed on the question of readings and all uses of these plays by educational institutions, permission for which must be secured from the publisher.


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