THE GENESIS OF THE OPERA WILLIAM PENN BY ROMEO CASCARINO
With Musical Excerpts
Presented by Dolores Ferraro Cascarino, May 21, 2011, Saumur, France
The popular image of William Penn in Philadelphia is the large statue on top of City Hall. To one Philadelphian, William Penn became so real that while composing his opera on the subject, Romeo Cascarino would not have been surprised if Penn walked through his door.
Musical Excerpt #1: Entrance of Penn. (Act I, Scene 1) Play Excerpt
A love from childhood for the city of his birth, a plaque on a column in City Hall courtyard, a commission from a choral group, a meeting with poet Peggy Gwynn and a deep admiration for William Penn all served to sow the seeds of Romeo Cascarino’s magnum opus, his three-act opera, William Penn. After two years of meticulous research, Gywnn presented the composer with a libretto, often drawing on actual letters and writings of William Penn. Collaborating from 1955, they toiled for more than 20 years to achieve their shared dream.
Musical Excerpt #2: This is No Fantasy. (Act I, Scene 2) Play Excerpt
Two concert versions of the work were given in 1975 and 1977. A stunning staged world premier was produced in Philadelphia’s Academy of Music in October 1982, with John Cheek of the Metropolitan Opera, largely through the untiring efforts of Tom DiNardo, a writer for the Philadelphia newspapers, whose unshakable belief in the work fulfilled the composer’s dream to see it on the stage. The bond that joined the 17th century English Quaker statesman and the 20th century Italian American composer was passionate idealism. Cascarino defined an idealist as a realist who has learned what to live for. Penn’s pacifist quest for individual conscience, and freedom within order, resonated with the veteran of World War II. Both were moved to outrage and anguish by their respective turbulent eras.
Musical Excerpt # 3: No Cross, No Crown; Conscience is our Guide. (Act I, Scene 1 p. 2) Play Excerpt
Cascarino’s music did not follow the dictates of the avant garde, preferring to take up the challenge of originality with a unique harmonic and contrapuntal language while maintaining the tonal traditions of soaring melodies, brilliant orchestration and dramatic impetus. When asked why he didn’t use his century’s new methods of musical structure and experimental instrumentation, he answered, “Do we make love differently today?” To him, composing was loving. He struggled to capture the essence of what needed to be expressed, often using the term, “la note choisie”, meaning a musical idea that seemed inevitable, one which could not have been expressed differently nor better. A strong example of this is the aria expressing the pain of separation sung by Gulielma, Penn’s first wife, in the farewell scene.
Musical Excerpt #4 Their Bondage Endeth (Act 2, Scene 1) Play Excerpt
When Penn says goodbye to his wife and children, the music is set to Penn’s own letter of farewell, further humanizing the statue on top of the tower.
Excerpt #5: O my beloved… (Act 2, Scene 1) Play Excerpt
These are the composer’s words when asked why he wrote the opera: “As a child, I loved and still love Old Philadelphia. I often would walk through City Hall courtyard. It was there that I first saw a plaque against one of the columns containing half the Prayer for Philadelphia written by William Penn which made a great impression on me. Many years later, in 1950, when I was approached by Elaine Brown of Singing City, a choral group in Philadelphia, to compose a work for them, I remembered the Penn Prayer and immediately looked up the entire text and set it for chorus.
Excerpt #6: The Prayer, (Act III) p.3 (Genesis of the opera William Penn by Romeo Cascarino) Play Excerpt
To continue Cascarino’s quote: “As I was writing the Prayer I felt that something bigger was germinating; I felt it was to be an opera. Immersing myself in everything I could find on William Penn, I was struck not only by the man’s ideas but the poetic way in which he expressed them. To me, he was a supreme artist. The words of his Treaty with the Indians, I felt, was the embodiment of the ‘Holy Experiment’ and as I was writing this music, The Treaty, I knew this would be the finale of the opera. The treaty music became the fountainhead containing the themes and motifs of the entire opera. The love motif, for example, is also the music for ‘We are all one flesh and blood’ in the Treaty; showing not only a personal love but an all- encompassing love. The fact that I give this music to the chorus rather than make it an aria for Penn is because these ideas are bigger than Penn himself. It was actually for all the people he led here; therefore, they are the ones who sing these words. Although the opera is based on historical fact, it is not a historical document but a poetic representation of what I consider to be the essence of Penn’s message”. Consider these words from William Penn: “Now let us see what love can do”. Cascarino’s love has resulted in a sweeping musical tribute to Penn’s Holy Experiment. Together, their shared vision resonates globally: “We are all one flesh and blood”.
Musical excerpt #7: The Treaty (Act III) Play Excerpt