The scenario was inspired by a true story. In December 1900 a lighthouse supply ship called the Hesperus, based in Stromness, Orkney, went on its routine tour of duty to the Flannan Isles in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The lighthouse was empty - all three beds and the table looked as if they had been left in a hurry and the lamp, though out, was in perfect working order, but the men had disappeared into thin air. The composer has taken liberties, and chanaged the name of the ligthhouse to Fladda, this being not an usual name in the Western Isles of Scotland, to avoid offence or distress to any relatives of those concerned in the original incident.
In 1983 the Boston Shakespeare Company presented a production directed by Peter Sellars featuring Michael Brown (tenor), Sanford Sylvan (baritone), Kenneth Bell (bass), conducted by David Hoose, video by Michael Nishball, costumes by Ellen McCartney and lighting by James F. Ingalls. Writing for New York Times, John Rockwell described the production as "superbly realized musically and thrilling as theater."
|Role||Voice type||Premiere Cast, 2 September 1980|
(Conductor: Richaed Dufallo)
|Sandy (Officer 1)||tenor||Niel Mackie|
|Blazes (Officer 2)||baritone||Michael Rippon|
|Arthur (Officer 3, Voice of the cards)||bass||David Wilson Johnson|
The opera opens with a prologue in which three officers (tenor, baritone and bass) address a board of inquiry. They relate their voyage to the dark lighthouse and the discovery that the crew was missing, but become increasingly nervous answering the questions put to them by the orchestra's french horn and begin to contradict each other on details. Nevertheless, an open verdict is recorded and the trio sing of the ghost's modern robot replacement.
The lantern comes up to full brightness and the second half, subtitled "The Cry of the Beast", opens in the lighthouse. Arthur (bass) is leading grace and Blazes (baritone) is complaining of the food and the overdue relief crew, while Sandy (tenor) tries to keep peace between the two. He proposes a game of crib, and the sanctimonious Arthur leaves to light the lantern, issuing dire predictions as the offstage Voice of the Cards. He returns just as a fight breaks out over a card palmed by Blazes. Sandy proposes they pass the time with songs "lest we end up like beasts in a cage, eating each other". Blazes agrees: "...then we shall see who is king, who devil, and who the fool amonst us." He sings first, with "When I was a kid our street had a gang". Accompanied by 'bones, fiddle, and banjo, it relates a murder committed by Blazes, for which his father was arrested and hung.
Sandy takes his turn with a sentimental love ballad accompanied by cello and piano. The three stanzas turn into a less innocent catch when taken up by the other two: "...O, that you held me...by the cock...I come...crowing loud...I am aroused" Arthur counters with a Salvation army song on The Golden Calf (brass, clarinet and tamborine) in which he seems personally to glory in the smiting of the Levites. With dismay the three notice the fog coming in- the horn must now be started, summoning first the Blazes' ghosts, then Sandy's memories of his sister and a schoolmate. To Arthur, the horn summons the Golden Calf which he sees moving across the waters to claim them. "The only cure is to kill the beast!" he cries, enlisting the others to arm themselves and advance, singing a De profundis, into the night, toward its dazzling bright eye.
When the music calms, the light is seen to belong to the relief ship and the three relief officers are visible. "We had to defend ourselves, by God!" They agree on their story and tidy up quickly.
The percussion comprised marimba, glockenspiel, timpani, crotales, roto-tom bass drum, bones, small suspended cymbal, side drum, tambourine, maracas, tom-toms and tamtam, all played by one percussionist, and in addition flexatone and referee's whistle (pianist), bass drum (guitarist), tamtam (violinist), and two more flexatones (violist).