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)
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