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Judith Weir

Publisher: Chester Music

The Black Spider (Hamburg version) (2009)
Work Notes
Oper in three acts Libretto (German) by Judith Weir translated by Benjamin Gordon
Text Writer
Judith Weir / Benjamin Gordon
Chester Music Ltd
Opera and Music Theatre
Sub Category
Year Composed
1 Hour 15 Minutes
SATB (11 smaller singing roles)
Solo Instrument(s)
3 main singing roles
Programme Note
Judith Weir The Black Spider (Hamburg version) (2009)
Christine – young soprano
Der grüne Jäger – young baritone
Graf Heinrich – boy’s soprano

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 opera 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 spider 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) tells 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

The yearly opera piccola production at the Hamburgische Staatsoper produced „The Black Spider” (Das Geheimnis der schwarzen Spinne) in February 2009. What originally began as a simple expansion of Judith Weir’s orchestration (augmenting the original clarinets, trumpets and percussion with strings, and replacing the guitar with harp) soon took on bigger dimensions. The children and young adults participating in the production initiated the transformation of the work. This led to expanding arias and ensembles as well as new orchestral interludes incorporating the existing orchestral music, thus making the work a bit longer, about 75 minutes in total. In some places the music became more Transylvanian, in others more sinister, while the “spider” music enables the orchestra share the limelight with the singers.
© Benjamin Gordon

YouTube Channel Hamburgische Staatsoper

Preview the score

[…] Her musicians and the young singers conveyed the opera’s tension and humour. Weir’s music, a melange from romantic opera-pathos, chorals, nursery rhymes and atonal effects, and a bit from Weill and a whiff of Viennese charm mirrored/reflected the drama. Mark Daniel Hirsch’s production holds a lot of the silent film’s black-and-white-magic and the music provides the echoes of the pictures.
Dietmar Kanthak, General-Anzeiger Bonn,08/03/2010
With the blessing of the composer, Benjamin Gordon made extensive alterations to the instrumentation, vocal lines and score: a “new” composition is a more fitting description, and quite a successful one at that. A threesome of double-basses in the chamber orchestra provides chilling suspense, while the spooky percussion sends shivers up one’s spine… The children sang the sometimes diatonic – sometimes chromatic vocal lines seemingly effortlessly and with astonishing accuracy.
Tom R. Schulz, Die Welt,31/03/2009
Judith Weir has created a real gem: alongside contemporary program music she has written dramatic arias for young singers that don’t make compromises.
NA, NDR Abendjournal,31/03/2009
[…] Conductor Sibylle Wagner confidently lead the orchestra of the Young Opera Bonn through the diverse score with its potpourri of romantic opera melodies, film music passages and echoes of atonality and jazz.
Christiane Wiegand, Kultur in Bonn,31/03/2009
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