Benjamin


138

Lorraine Ernest as Madame Brillon and Stephan Kalm as Benjamin


Music by John Carbon; Libretto by Sarah White
*Listen*

The opera explores facets of the legend called Benjamin Franklin. A printer-publisher by trade, Franklin respected the written word, used it to achieve his goals, and worked industriously toward the creation of his own persona, keeping copious notes, writing thousands of letters, and composing an Autobiography.

Three of our five scenes emphasize verbal signs, and show them combining, like the composer’s musical phrases, to invent a character we name “Benjamin”. In two other sequences, the Prologue and the Paris scene, we highlight a different type of Franklin invention, the Glass Harmonica, to suggest those playful, non-verbal, less purely rational traits that he had in abundance but did not always sufficiently cherish. A pervasive theme, involving orchestra, principals, chorus and dancers, arias and ensembles, is that of the Gulf Stream. For us, its color, warmth and speed embody the best intellectual, aesthetic, political and personal currents of Benjamin’s life, and perhaps of our own lives as well.

The Franklin texts that most influenced libretto and score were: The Autobiography, Poor Richard’s Almanac, letters of Benjamin and Deborah Franklin, and the Bagatelles.

Synopsis

Prologue:

About 1715. A playful Child solves a problem and becomes Benjamin, while the Chorus explains his game and warms up for the opera. Grown-up Benjamin Baritone, impatient to proceed, puts a stop to the Child’s playfulness.

Act I, sc. 1:

Benjamin Baritone, in about 1730, begins his notebook. He tells what a serious young man he is, and reveals his plans to become a person of Prosperity and Civic Importance. With the help of his artisans, he founds the Pennsylvania Gazette. He meets a serious helpmate, Deborah, and meets Benjamin Younger, whose plans have more to do with pleasure than with Civic Importance. B. Baritone is as severe with him as he was the Child. He meets the Virtues and learns how difficult it is to attain Moral Perfection. We hear an evening prayer.

Act I, sc.2:

A decade or so later, having attained Prosperity and Civic Importance, if not Moral Perfection, B. Baritone reacquaints himself with B. Younger, and declares that together they will undertake a life of Philosophical Amusements, a change that Deborah fails to understand. During a storm, he discovers a novel purpose for lightning, and receives two invitations to London, which he accepts, to the joy of B. Younger, and the sorrow of Deborah. Philadelphia bids farewell to Dr. Franklin.

Intermission:

The Harpsichord plays Hide and Seek.

Act II, Introduction:

1757. The Atlantic voyage provides Benjamin with a new Philosophical Amusement, but sailing is not everyone’s Cup of Tea.

Act II, sc.1:

In London and Philadelphia, for nearly 15 years, B. Baritone and Deborah write each other faithfully. His life, though, is full of movement, while hers is “sort of hollow”. Seasons pass for them both, but not at the same speed. In 1774, Politics force B. to leave London; only it is too late to rejoin Deborah. B. Baritone, in a moment of despair, seeks to blame her death on somebody, and puts the lid on B. Younger, again.

Interlude:

1776. It seems the lid was not locked. B. Younger emerges, and finds he is on his way to Paris!

Act II, sc. 2:

In the salon of beautiful Madame Brillon, we meet the Mâitre de Musique; B. Younger enjoys translating, conducting and hypnotizing, while B. Baritone practices his French, expresses his love, hears a song of praise and a song of rebuff, which sends the Benjamins back to Philadelphia with sad resignation.

Interlude:

1785. The last Atlantic crossing.

Act II, sc. 3:

1790. Dying B. Baritone expresses his regrets and loneliness. He finds one of his letters to Deborah and regrets not having returned while she was still alive. B. Younger, failing to console him with words, stages two wordless encounters, each of which brings some reconciliation and peace to our hero. We hear the Epitaph he wrote for himself sung by all. A Childish hand closes Benjamin’s notebook.

Selected performances of Benjamin:

Premiere: April 23, 24 and 25, Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, PA. Stephen Kalm (Benjamin Baritone), Constance Beavon (Benjamin Younger), Pamela King (Deborah), Kristin Samuelson (Madame Brillon). Musical Director, Steven Edwards, Stage Direction, Edward Brubaker, Choreography, Lynn Brooks, Stage Design, John Whiting, Lighting, Reid Downey, Costumes, Nancy Whiting, Vocal Coach, Joan Krueger

Concert version (unstaged): April 17, 1990, University of Pennsylvania 250th Celebration, Philadelphia. University of Pennsylvania Chamber Singers, William Parberry, Director. Concerto Soloists. Stephen Kalm, Tanya Courier, Constance Beavon and Kristin Samuelson.

Narrated Concert Version (unstaged): 2000, F&M College, Lancaster, PA. Stephen Kalm (Benjamin Baritone), Constance Beavon (Benjamin Younger), Pamela King (Deborah), Kristin Samuelson (Madame Brillon). Musical Director, Simon Andrews

Chamber Music Version (unstaged): 2001, Merkin Concert Hall, NYC, Stephen Kalm, Tanya Courier, Constance Beavon

Benjamin was fully staged once again in January 2006 at F&M College, as part of the Franklin Tercentenary Celebration.

A recording of the 2006 production can be found on the Zimbel label.

Reviews of Benjamin:

Daniel Webster, Philadelphia Enquirer:

“...glimpses, half-parodistic allegorical tableaux and brightly telescoped scenes of Franklin’s achievements. The intimacy of the vision of Franklin ....allowed the composer to equate a bassoon melody with a voice and to create transparent instrumental atmospheres to match the stage music. Pamela King made the letter scene telling...through its shadowed melody and the starkness of solo piano accompaniment. Carbon has even included a coloratura aria for the French woman who beguiled Franklin’s Paris stay. The aria sketches a bright, tempting character who appears only for a moment in this vignette. Her scene, however--set in a salon for a musical evening--is one of the opera’s wittiest. Franklin declares himself inventor of the glass harmonica and also composer of a string quartet. When the orchestra quotes the quartet, harpsichordist and all, the guests fall into hypnotized sleep, leaving Franklin and Mme. Brillon to wonder at their own feelings. Constance Beavon’s role [Benjamin Younger] was nervously active, urgent really. Kalm’s Franklin passed through moments of poignance and high comedy.”

Jon Ferguson, Lancaster Intelligencer Journal:

“...Soaring success...a charming opera that rings with an emotional resonance...carried along by a wonderful score containing many memorable melodies. It is a deft portrayal of a man both creative and pragmatic who often finds he’s at odds with himself. The opera is extremely moving throughout...the authors deserve nothing but plaudits. The tension between the [three main characters] gives the opera its movement and its great depth. [The letter writing scene] is an extremely poignant scene, made more so by the solo piano piece which accompanies Ms. Beavon’s aria. Especially effective was [Lynn Brook’s choreography in] the dance of the four seasons.”

Joe Byrne, Lancaster New Era:

“From the opening scene’s first pure notes of an oboe, “Benjamin: An Opera of Our Own Invention,” is less drama than it is a complex, entertaining and colorful portrait of the mind of a legendary man. The show is intriguing...Franklin is a kind of Everyman in the opera. Using three characters to portray various aspects of Franklin’s personality, the opera crisscrosses from his near-obsession with moral perfection to a boyish, irresponsible fascination with the mechanisms of nature. Franklin’s humanity, particularly his self-centeredness and eye for the ladies, provides tension and provides a needed contrast to his otherwise boring tendencies toward regimentation, civic responsibility and all personal virtues. Carbon’s music electrifies Ms. White’s libretto and carries the history from scene to scene. [The letter scene] is poignant....made more bittersweet by lovely arias. There are truly comic parts, too. In one scene, Ben returns home after experimenting during a fierce electrical storm--carrying aloft an electrocuted turkey.”  

© John Carbon 2015