American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

THE VOYAGE (1990, first perf. 1992). The Voyage is an opera in three acts, a prologue, and an epilogue, with music by Philip Glass (1937- ) and libretto by David Henry Hwang (1957- ). Commissioned by New York’s Metropolitan Opera to commemorate the 500th anniversary, of the voyage of Christopher Columbus,* it was premiered by the Met 12 October 1992 and remounted in 1996; the libretto was published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild in 1992.

In the prologue, set in the present, Hwang emphasizes the metaphor of voyage in the imagination of a wheelchair-bound scientist, modeled after twentieth-century physicist Stephen W. Hawking (b. 1942), who travels freely among the planets, following his vision despite faulty equipment.

Act 1 takes place 15,000 years ago, as a spaceship from another world and its crew frantically prepare for an emergency landing on earth. The ship’s Commander, the First Mate, and the Doctor recall both positive and negative aspects of their own home planet and also observe the life-sustaining qualities in things they see before them: vegetation, oxygen, water, forms of native society, and intelligence. As the act ends, the crew and the natives express fear and fascination with each other.

In act 2, set on day thirty-two of the historic voyage, most of the literal references to the sea occur: solitude, dawn, memories, faith, prayers, the vanishing horizon, madness, and hazy vision. Details of life on board the Santa Maria are expressed as the First Mate orders the crew to hoist, pump, and pray. Queen Isabella and the Spanish court at Granada are represented as memories. The chorus offers riches and position to Christopher Columbus,* and the Queen quotes from Scripture for encouragement, bidding Columbus farewell as he sets out for the Indies. On the thirty-second day of the voyage the crew has lost faith in Columbus; solitude crushes him, but a dreamlike vision of Isabella renews his faith in his expedition. The act climaxes with the First and Second Mates’ sighting land.

Act 3 is set in 2092 and presents another Commander and Crew, this time in a space station, about to embark on an exploration for the origin of life. The Epilogue finds Columbus on his deathbed in 1506. Pondering the journey ahead, he maintains that the passion for exploration is more significant than the individuals who do it; he is transported to the stars.

Other opera composers have used the Columbus theme, notably Darius Milhaud with Christophe Colombe, which he launched at the Berlin State Opera in 1930. The work’s self-contained first half, The Discovery of America, was staged by the San Francisco Opera in 1968.

Paul Goldstaub