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Judith Weir

Publisher: Chester Music

The Black Spider (1984)
commissioned by Kent Opera with funds from the South East Arts Association
Work Notes
If wind instruments are unavailable, the opera may be performed with an accompaniment of piano and percussion only. All roles and chorus parts may be sung at any octave, by high/unbroken voices and/or tenor/bass (suitable for performance by secondary school pupils)
Text Writer
the composer
Novello & Co Ltd
Opera and Music Theatre
Year Composed
1 Hour 0 Minutes
chorus (with many small solo parts)
English, German
Solo Instrument(s)
2 main solo singers

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Programme Note
Judith Weir The Black Spider (1984)

The three acts of The Black Spider are framed by five spoken interludes. The interludes are set in the present day and are very closely based on news reports from Poland about recent excavations of a tomb in Krakow and the strange events that followed. The three (sung) acts of the opera are very loosely based on the Swiss-German novella Die Schwarze Spinne (1842) by Jeremias Gotthelf.


When Norman Platt of Kent Opera commissioned this piece from me (it was written in 1983-4) he asked me to write something that would be performable by school students with the most basic skills, but would be at the same time ‘like an opera’. By this, I took him to mean a musical stage piece with a preposterous plot, a heroic soprano who sings on her deathbed, a plainly horrible villain and a credulous chorus. ‘The Black Spider’ has all this and more. Its tone is somewhere between a video nasty and an Ealing comedy – I was aiming at a historical comic thriller – but it has received many productions in Europe and America since its first performances by pupils of Frank Hooker School, Canterbury, Kent in 1985.

‘The Black Spider’ interpolates two stories; one is a modern day, apparently ‘true’ story taken from a report in the Times (London) newspaper in 1983. The second story, set in the 15th century, is very freely adapted from ‘die schwarze Spinne’ (‘the Black Spider’), a notable Swiss-German novella by the 19th century writer Jeremias Gotthelf.

The 15th century story (sungs as an opera0 tells of some villagers oppressed by their wicked landlord, who sets them the impossible task of hauling a whole beech forest up to the top of the bald mountain where he lives. A mysterious green man appears to a young village girl, christina, and offers to carry out the work on condition that she will marry him. Christina is about to marry another villager called Carl, but she feels she can sort out this small detail later on, and agrees to the green man’s terms. He carries out his part of the bargain, but Christina understandably breaks her promise, and marries her sweetheart, carl. During the wedding, however, an evil-looking spder crawls out of her hand, and goes on to spread plague and pestilence about the neighbourhood. After many tribulations, it is Christina who saves the day by catching the spider and burying it deep in a churchyard tomb.

The modern day story (played as a documentary by actors) tellos of the happenings following the excavations carried out at the tomb of the Polish king, Casimir IV, in Wawel Cathedral, Cracow in the 1970s. An increasing number of the site workers and archaeologists were struck by a deadly virus. Scientists were unable to give a convincing explanation – but at the end of ‘the Black Spider’, a reason is offered by the denouement of the 15th century story.

© Judith Weir

I can't think of any piece of theatrical art for children that succeeds as both entertainment and genuine art any better than does 'The Black Spider'.
The Riverfront Times,01/01/0001
"Weir's 'The Black Spider'...studiously avoids the cute and the charming. It's a horror story from top to bottom, a creepy crawly ghastly thing that makes kids squirm in their seats even as they pay rapt attention... The musical language is tonal but liberally spiced with purposeful dissonance. ... The orchestration is both propulsive and rich in mood evoking effects.
St Louis Post,01/01/0001
If the ultimate test is the impact the opera has on a young audience, then 'The Black Spider' passes with flying colours. My own children, both of primary school age, loved every bit of it. Not a murmur, not a fidget, they were too engrossed even to ask for an ice cream. Praise indeed!
The Music Teacher,01/01/0001
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