Premiere performance July 18-26, 2014 at the Kansas City Fringe Festival.

Starring Nathan Granner and Devon Barnes. Featuring dancers Chelsea Anglemyer, Josh Atkins, Amy Hurrelbrink, Tiffany Powell, Tyler Parsons, and Coleman Crenshaw as the uninvited guest. Accompaniment by Michalis Koutsoupides. Choreography by Amy Hurrelbrink. Directed by Tara Varney.

Red Death

In a plague-ravaged land, Prince Prospero and his friends lock themselves in his abbey in an attempt to avoid death. Prospero promises them pleasure and entertainment, but a servant woman who has lost her family to the plague brings sorrow to the abbey, and challenges Prospero's love of life.

Red Death is a chamber opera adapted by Bryan Colley from The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe, with additional selections from Lucretius, Ecclesiastes, and Montaigne.  Music composed by Daniel Doss.

Libretto

Red light.

THE TICKING OF A CLOCK.

Curtain on Prospero, a finely dressed prince.

Dancers enact the process of dying from the Red Death as Prospero speaks.

The TICKING CLOCK continues under.

PROSPERO (speaking)
The Red Death had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its avatar and its seal - the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.

The clock CHIMES eight times and the dancers die.

Blue light.

Prospero addresses the audience.

PROSPERO (speaking)
Greetings, my friends. Welcome to my castle. While the Red Death ravages the land beyond these walls, you will remain here with me, safe from the deadly pestilence. From this moment on, none may leave, and none may enter.

He gives the dancers heavy chains, and they use them to lock the doors.

PROSPERO
(to the dancers)
Go, my servants, and lock all the doors.
Bar the entry, so that the Red Death will not find us.

(to the audience)
Now we may live without fear of death, and our lives will be joyful. The external world will take care of itself, and I will take care of you. I will provide entertainment, and there will be no sadness.

(singing)
Hale and light-hearted friends,
Welcome to my castellated abbey.
I am Prince Prospero,
Dauntless and sagacious.
I bid defiance to contagion.
Let massy hammers weld the bolts
Of my heavy gates of iron
No means of ingress or egress.
The Red Death shall stay without.
I call for a masqued ball
of unusual magnificence.
Revel in joy, life, and security.
We have all the appliances of pleasure.
It is folly to grieve or to think.

The music continues as dancers take the stage and entertains the audience. At the height of revelry, everything pauses as the CLOCK CHIMES again nine times.

Purple light.

As the CLOCK CHIMES fade, there is a SERVANT, weeping in sorrow.

PROSPERO
Why do you weep, fair lady?

SERVANT
Forgive me, my Prince. I cannot help it.

PROSPERO
There is no place for tears within these walls.

SERVANT
I cannot find joy. I have lost my husband and my children to the Red Death. I have nothing.

PROSPERO
You have life.

SERVANT
To what purpose?

PROSPERO
Life is to be filled with pleasure.

SERVANT
Is pleasure enough?

PROSPERO
Pleasure is all there is.

SERVANT
No more shall my house admit me with glad welcome,
nor most honest husband and sweet children run
to be the first to snatch kisses
and touch my heart with a silent joy.
With a sorrow that cannot be sated I weep for thee.

PROSPERO
One disastrous day has taken from thee,
luckless woman in luckless wise,
all the many prizes of life.
Yet when the seasons come round
and bring their fruits and varied delights,
we are ever filled with felicity.
All the opinions of the world agree in this,
that pleasure is our end,
And of all the pleasures we know,
even the very pursuit is pleasant.

SERVANT
There is nothing more which you can contrive
and discover for me to give pleasure:
all things are ever the same.
I seek only to be sunk in the sleep of death,
for all time to come, freed from all distressful pains;
No longer does any craving for these things beset the withall.
If you could rightly perceive this in thought,
you would release thyself from great distress
and apprehension of the mind.
We have nothing to fear after death
He who exists not, cannot become miserable.

She grabs Prospero's dagger and attempts to kill herself, but Prospero is quick and stops her.

PROSPERO
Banish this curse of the mind
Troubling you from its inmost depths
over-spreading all things with the blackness of death,
allowing no pleasure to be pure and unalloyed.
Through dread of death does hate of life seize upon mortals,
that they commit self-murder with a sorrowing heart.
What is in death so passing bitter,
if it come in the end to sleep and rest,
that you should pine in never-ending sorrow?
Why bemoan and bewail death?
Why not take thy departure like a guest filled with life,
and with resignation enter upon untroubled rest?

Green light.

The dancers return wearing masques, and the dance is decadent.

Prospero revels in the dance, but the servant reacts in horror.

They sing a duet.

PROSPERO
Whatever my eyes desired I kept not from them,
nor withheld not my heart from any joy,
for my heart rejoices in all my labor.
Come now, I will test you with pleasure;
Eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart.

SERVANT
What use is laughter and mirth? It is madness.

PROSPERO
Much of the beautiful.

SERVANT
Much of the terrible.

PROSPERO
Much of the wanton.

SERVANT
Much of the bizarre.

PROSPERO
A multitude of dreams.

SERVANT
They are grotesque.

PROSPERO
The movable embellishments of this great fete.

SERVANT
Delirious fancies such as a madman fashions.

PROSPERO
Glare and glitter and piquancy and phantasm.

SERVANT
This decadence does not abate my sorrow.

PROSPERO
Here is life. We are alive.

SERVANT
So empty and meaningless.
All things are full of weariness.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
what has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is no new thing under the sun.

PROSPERO
I have found something more bitter than death:
a woman whose heart is snares and nets,
and whose hands are fetters.
There is nothing better for a person
than to eat and drink and find enjoyment in life.
What happens to the fool will happen to me also.
Why then have I been so very wise?
How the wise die just like the fool.
They all have the same breath.
All are from the dust, and to dust all return.

The clock chimes midnight.

Orange light.

Everyone freezes as the Red Death enters.

The dancers scramble in terror as the Red Death passes amongst them.

SERVANT
Behold the tears of the oppressed;
they have no one to comfort them.
Yet their oppressors hold the power,
and there is no one to comfort them.
The dead who are already dead are more fortunate
than the living who are still alive.
But better than both is he who has not yet been
and has not seen the evil deeds that are done.
It is better to go to the house of mourning
than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
and the living will lay it to heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter,
for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.
Tis a certain kind of pleasure to weep.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.

The clock chimes once.

White light.

PROSPERO
Who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and unmask him - that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise, from the battlements!

Nobody moves to seize the Red Death.

PROSPERO
Must I do it myself!

He draws his dagger and seizes the Red Death, and immediately removes his hand as he feels it paralyzed by death.

Prospero clutches his arm as death slowly travels through his body.

PROSPERO
Death! It has me in its grip.
What purpose is there in living
If our lives are merely vanity?
The race is not to the swift,
nor the battle to the strong,
nor bread to the wise,
nor riches to the intelligent,
nor favor to those with knowledge,
but time and chance happen to them all.
For man does not know his time.
The living know they will die,
but the dead know nothing,
and they have no more reward,
for the memory of them is forgotten.
Death comes to us all.
Death comes to me!

Prospero falls dead as the clock chimes twice.

Violet light.

The dancers die from the Red Death in a grotesque dance as the servant sings.

SERVANT
No night has followed day,
no day has followed night,
in which there has not been heard sobs and sorrowing cries,
the companions of death and funerals.
In this last scene of death,
there is no more counterfeiting:
we must speak out plain,
and discover what there is pure and clean in the bottom of the pot.
The remedy the vulgar use is not to think on it;
but from what brutish stupidity can they derive so gross a blindness?
They must bridle the ass by the tail.
Every day travels toward death.
There is no way by which it may not reach us.
We should all look forward to our last day;
no one can be called happy till he is dead and buried.
I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care.

The servant dies.

The Red Death vanishes.

Red light.

Ticking clock.

Prospero rises.

PROSPERO (speaking)
And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And darkness and decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.

The clock chimes three times.

Curtain.

Reviews

"The show is a beautiful blend of story, singing, and dancing. Not enough credit can be given to those who performed and produced this entry in the Fringe Festival." - Bob Evans, examiner.com

"Here's one that I'd call a gem, cut and polished, all its facets working together: Red Death is an operatic diamond." - ChaimEliyahu, KC Stage

"Red Death... lived up to some early hype" - Liz Cook, The Pitch

"Red Death is, as operas go, about as accessible as it gets." - kellyluck, KC Stage

"Red Death should be on your 'to see' list for this year’s Fringe." - Lee Hartman, KC Metropolis

"Those who have attended performances at KC Fringe though the years expect to see something unusual, but few of us have seen anything quite like Red Death.” - Robert Trussell, KC Star

"I am not an opera fan, but this presentation could convert me." - Detailer, KC Stage

Media

Interview with Julie Denesha on KCUR

Source Material

On the Nature of Things by Lucretius

Ecclesiastes

The Essays of Montaigne

The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe

The "Red Death" had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal -- the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.

But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys. This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince's own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress or egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the "Red Death."

It was toward the close of the fifth or sixth month of his seclusion, and while the pestilence raged most furiously abroad, that the Prince Prospero entertained his thousand friends at a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence.

It was a voluptuous scene, that masquerade. But first let me tell of the rooms in which it was held. There were seven -- an imperial suite. In many palaces, however, such suites form a long and straight vista, while the folding doors slide back nearly to the walls on either hand, so that the view of the whole extent is scarcely impeded. Here the case was very different; as might have been expected from the duke's love of the bizarre. The apartments were so irregularly disposed that the vision embraced but little more than one at a time. There was a sharp turn at every twenty or thirty yards, and at each turn a novel effect. To the right and left, in the middle of each wall, a tall and narrow Gothic window looked out upon a closed corridor which pursued the windings of the suite. These windows were of stained glass whose color varied in accordance with the prevailing hue of the decorations of the chamber into which it opened. That at the eastern extremity was hung, for example, in blue -- and vividly blue were its windows. The second chamber was purple in its ornaments and tapestries, and here the panes were purple. The third was green throughout, and so were the casements. The fourth was furnished and lighted with orange -- the fifth with white -- the sixth with violet. The seventh apartment was closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries that hung all over the ceiling and down the walls, falling in heavy folds upon a carpet of the same material and hue. But in this chamber only, the color of the windows failed to correspond with the decorations. The panes here were scarlet -- a deep blood color. Now in no one of the seven apartments was there any lamp or candelabrum, amid the profusion of golden ornaments that lay scattered to and fro or depended from the roof. There was no light of any kind emanating from lamp or candle within the suite of chambers. But in the corridors that followed the suite, there stood, opposite to each window, a heavy tripod, bearing a brazier of fire that protected its rays through the tinted glass and so glaringly illumined the room. And thus were produced a multitude of gaudy and fantastic appearances. But in the western or black chamber the effect of the fire-light that streamed upon the dark hangings through the blood-tinted panes, was ghastly in the extreme, and produced so wild a look upon the countenances of those who entered, that there were few of the company bold enough to set foot within its precincts at all.

It was in this apartment, also, that there stood against the western wall, a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to hearken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation. But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly; the musicians looked at each other and smiled as if at their own nervousness and folly, and made whispering vows, each to the other, that the next chiming of the clock should produce in them no similar emotion; and then, after the lapse of sixty minutes, (which embrace three thousand and six hundred seconds of the Time that flies,) there came yet another chiming of the clock, and then were the same disconcert and tremulousness and meditation as before.

But, in spite of these things, it was a gay and magnificent revel. The tastes of the duke were peculiar. He had a fine eye for colors and effects. He disregarded the decora of mere fashion. His plans were bold and fiery, and his conceptions glowed with barbaric lustre. There are some who would have thought him mad. His followers felt that he was not. It was necessary to hear and see and touch him to be sure that he was not.

He had directed, in great part, the moveable embellishments of the seven chambers, upon occasion of this great fete; and it was his own guiding taste which had given character to the masqueraders. Be sure they were grotesque. There were much glare and glitter and piquancy and phantasm -- much of what has been since seen in "Hernani." There were arabesque figures with unsuited limbs and appointments. There were delirious fancies such as the madman fashions. There was much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust. To and fro in the seven chambers there stalked, in fact, a multitude of dreams. And these -- the dreams -- writhed in and about, taking hue from the rooms, and causing the wild music of the orchestra to seem as the echo of their steps. And, anon, there strikes the ebony clock which stands in the hall of the velvet. And then, for a moment, all is still, and all is silent save the voice of the clock. The dreams are stiff-frozen as they stand. But the echoes of the chime die away -- they have endured but an instant -- and a light, half-subdued laughter floats after them as they depart. And now again the music swells, and the dreams live, and writhe to and fro more merrily than ever, taking hue from the many-tinted windows through which stream the rays from the tripods. But to the chamber which lies most westwardly of the seven, there are now none of the maskers who venture; for the night is waning away; and there flows a ruddier light through the blood-colored panes; and the blackness of the sable drapery appals; and to him whose foot falls upon the sable carpet, there comes from the near clock of ebony a muffled peal more solemnly emphatic than any which reaches their ears who indulge in the more remote gaieties of the other apartments.

But these other apartments were densely crowded, and in them beat feverishly the heart of life. And the revel went whirlingly on, until at length there commenced the sounding of midnight upon the clock. And then the music ceased, as I have told; and the evolutions of the waltzers were quieted; and there was an uneasy cessation of all things as before. But now there were twelve strokes to be sounded by the bell of the clock; and thus it happened, perhaps, that more of thought crept, with more of time, into the meditations of the thoughtful among those who revelled. And thus, too, it happened, perhaps, that before the last echoes of the last chime had utterly sunk into silence, there were many individuals in the crowd who had found leisure to become aware of the presence of a masked figure which had arrested the attention of no single individual before. And the rumor of this new presence having spread itself whisperingly around, there arose at length from the whole company a buzz, or murmur, expressive of disapprobation and surprise -- then, finally, of terror, of horror, and of disgust.

In an assembly of phantasms such as I have painted, it may well be supposed that no ordinary appearance could have excited such sensation. In truth the masquerade license of the night was nearly unlimited; but the figure in question had out-Heroded Herod, and gone beyond the bounds of even the prince's indefinite decorum. There are chords in the hearts of the most reckless which cannot be touched without emotion. Even with the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests, there are matters of which no jest can be made. The whole company, indeed, seemed now deeply to feel that in the costume and bearing of the stranger neither wit nor propriety existed. The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat. And yet all this might have been endured, if not approved, by the mad revellers around. But the mummer had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death. His vesture was dabbled in blood -- and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.

When the eyes of Prince Prospero fell upon this spectral image (which with a slow and solemn movement, as if more fully to sustain its role, stalked to and fro among the waltzers) he was seen to be convulsed, in the first moment with a strong shudder either of terror or distaste; but, in the next, his brow reddened with rage.

"Who dares?" he demanded hoarsely of the courtiers who stood near him -- "who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and unmask him -- that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise, from the battlements!"

It was in the eastern or blue chamber in which stood the Prince Prospero as he uttered these words. They rang throughout the seven rooms loudly and clearly -- for the prince was a bold and robust man, and the music had become hushed at the waving of his hand.

It was in the blue room where stood the prince, with a group of pale courtiers by his side. At first, as he spoke, there was a slight rushing movement of this group in the direction of the intruder, who at the moment was also near at hand, and now, with deliberate and stately step, made closer approach to the speaker. But from a certain nameless awe with which the mad assumptions of the mummer had inspired the whole party, there were found none who put forth hand to seize him; so that, unimpeded, he passed within a yard of the prince's person; and, while the vast assembly, as if with one impulse, shrank from the centres of the rooms to the walls, he made his way uninterruptedly, but with the same solemn and measured step which had distinguished him from the first, through the blue chamber to the purple -- through the purple to the green -- through the green to the orange -- through this again to the white -- and even thence to the violet, ere a decided movement had been made to arrest him. It was then, however, that the Prince Prospero, maddening with rage and the shame of his own momentary cowardice, rushed hurriedly through the six chambers, while none followed him on account of a deadly terror that had seized upon all. He bore aloft a drawn dagger, and had approached, in rapid impetuosity, to within three or four feet of the retreating figure, when the latter, having attained the extremity of the velvet apartment, turned suddenly and confronted his pursuer. There was a sharp cry -- and the dagger dropped gleaming upon the sable carpet, upon which, instantly afterwards, fell prostrate in death the Prince Prospero. Then, summoning the wild courage of despair, a throng of the revellers at once threw themselves into the black apartment, and, seizing the mummer, whose tall figure stood erect and motionless within the shadow of the ebony clock, gasped in unutterable horror at finding the grave-cerements and corpse-like mask which they handled with so violent a rudeness, untenanted by any tangible form.

And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.