The prioress’s tale     A Chamber opera in one act


music by delvyn case = libretto by christopher hood



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Our version begins with the Jewish Man lamenting the persecution of his people.  The Christians have imposed a rule of silence on the Jewish quarter; it is now a crime for any Jew to speak outside of his own home.  The Jewish Man’s anger grows as he realizes that his own son will never give voice to the prayers and songs of his ancestors.

Jewish Man:

My child an orphan,

No father’s voice to praise,

To raise in stern rebuke.

My son will know restraint,

first law for Jewish men:

bear indignity, accept grief,

lower your head and raise

your mind to God above.


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Suddenly, he hears the Boy singing the “Alma redemptoris mater”.  Enraged, he voices his wish to “stop his mouth with a handful of clay.”


Alma redemptoris Mater

Quem de coelis misit Pater

Propter salutem gentium…        

(Loving mother of our Redeemer

whom the Father sent from heaven 

To save mankind…)

Jewish Man:

Wait! What noise is this?

They send a child to mock us!

I would stop his mouth

with a handful of clay.

He would sing no more!


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In the next scene, we see the Christian Woman singing about her love for her own son.  She, too, hears his voice from offstage, and calls for him.  When he does not come, she gets up and follows the song, hoping it will lead her to him.

Christian Woman:

Bow your head and sew a prayer.

May my boy never grow old,

lose his innocence,

wear hate’s ugly face.

Keep him young, oh Lord,

press, draw, smooth,

a song?  he smiles,

a curse? he smiles,

a man weeping,

he dabs his tears and smiles.


Here he is,

home with a smile,

perhaps some bread.

Come in my child!

Press, draw, smooth,

I have a gift for you.

Is this a game?

Come inside,

the streets are cold

and still as a tomb.

Press, draw, smooth,

let me warm your bones.

You know I love to hear you sing.

Shall I follow you?


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In Scene 3, the Christian Woman comes upon the Jewish Man in the street.  Beginning to worry about her son, she asks the Jewish Man for his help.  When he refuses to break the law in order to speak to her, she angrily comments upon the Jews’ slavish legalism.  She rushes off.

Jewish Man:

The day is nearly done.

I have no spark left

to kindle my anger.

Let him walk in peace.

Christian Woman:                         Jewish Man:

Sing my child,                                       Be silent now!

lead me to you!                                     You are not alone.


Christian Woman:

Excuse me sir,

have you seen my child?

We’re playing a game,

but now it is late;

he must be hungry. 

Jewish Man:

This is another trick

to force words from my mouth.

Christian Woman:

Why, oh why do you ignore me?

The day is nearly gone,

and I cannot find my son.

Can’t you hear his voice?

Jewish Man:(still speaking to himself)

I can hear nothing else,

but you will not hear me.

Christian Woman:

I would fear the worst,

but still his voice sings.

Jewish Man:

I can hear nothing else.

Christian Woman:                      Jewish Man:

Speak!  Have you seen him?       

Forget the law and speak!                She can forget the law

Speak!                                                  but I must remember.

For the Love of God,

Forget the law and speak!               I must remember the law!


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Now alone, the Jewish Man follows the chant to its source: the well in the center of town.  After wrestling with what to do next, his conscience prevails and he pulls the Boy out.  When the Boy’s body emerges we see that he is dead, but that, through a miracle, the Alma still pours from his slit throat.   (Throughout this scene, the boy’s song is actually a digitally-processed recorded version of the chant.. When the body emerges from the well, the recording of the chant becomes horribly disfigured.) The Woman appears on the stage, frantically looking for her son. To her horror she finds him dead.

Jewish Man:

Hold on tight,

Let me pull you free.

Dead! Dead, and still he sings!

His throat is cut and still he sings.

What magic is this?

Now I see the truth.

Not fallen, no accident.

A Jew has thrown him in,

And all of us shall pay the price.

Christian Woman:

My child!  Your song!

Surely I have found you!   

No! No! My child, my child!

Jewish Man:

No, do not look!

The boy is dead.

Christian Woman:

But he still sings!

Surely he must still live!

Jewish Man:

Surely I tell you,

the boy is dead.

Christian Woman:

My child, my child!


My child is dead, his throat is cut.

And still he sings.


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Seeing the Jewish Man with the dead body, the Christian Woman  naturally assumes he is the murderer.  Despite his assertions that he had rescued the boy, she refuses to believe that a Jew would do anything so noble.  The scene ends with both characters praying to God for justice.

Christian Woman:   

I asked for help;

you gave me none.

You knew he was dead.

Jewish Man: (responding to her):

No!  I found him.

I have done nothing wrong.

Christian Woman:   

You, you killed him,

and now you hide

him in the well.

Jewish Man:

I raised him up!

Christian Woman:

You cast him down!


Jewish Man:   

I’ve done nothing wrong!

Christian Woman:                        Jewish Man:

You beast!                                             I found him!

You monster!                                       I have done nothing wrong!


Christian Woman       


Jewish Man:


Christian Woman

O Blessed Mother,

Jewish Man:

O Divine Father,               

Christian Woman:

Whose precious child was lost       

And rose again,

Jewish Man:

Whose precious children you

Saved from persecution,

Christian Woman and Jewish Man:

Now call upon your Holy One

To grant me justice!


From a musical perspective, the most intriguing element of Chaucer’s tale is the Boy’s chant, the hymn “Alma redemptoris mater”.   In both the original story and our version, the chant serves a variety of dramatic functions.  Sung by the Boy as he walks through the town, it draws the ire of the Jewish community, resulting eventually in the Boy’s death.  When the Christian woman frantically looks for her missing son, the song serves as a homing beacon.  After the Boy’s body is removed from the well, its hideous, disfigured sound echoes endlessly through the town until the Jewish Man ins executed.

In the opera, the Boy only sings the chant “live” once: in Scene 1, when the Jewish Man overhears him (you can hear this in Scene 1, Excerpt 1, below.).  After that point, the chant appears as a digital recording of the boy soprano.  While the Boy is in the well, his song sounds familiar.  However, once his body is removed from the well - and it becomes clear that the chant of praise has become a curse upon the town - the recording of the boy soprano is subjected to substantial electronic processing.  Though the words and melody are still perceivable, the overall sound is now eerily transformed. 

In addition to its near-constant repetition, the chant also appears in other guises in the opera.  The chant is actually the basis for many of the melodies sung by the characters in the opera, as well as the source for many of the harmonies that are used.  Significantly, the Jewish Man’s theme (which appears throughout the opera when he sings) is based upon the initial notes of the Boy’s chant.   Thus, the music of both victims - the innocent Christian boy and the wrongly-accused Jewish Man -  is inextricably linked.  The composer forged this powerful connection in order to emphasize the common humanity of the two characters.   They sing the same music, but it is interpreted differently depending upon who hears it.  Thus, though the music of the chant becomes the central, divisive element in the opera’s plot,  the sonic landscape of the entire opera becomes a testament to the way music can serve as a unifying force.


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Alone in his office, the Abbott of the local monastery reads aloud a letter from the Provost of the town, ordering him to swiftly execute vengeance on the Jewish Man to keep the peace. The Abbott judiciously weighs each option – death or life for the Jewish Man – before finally deciding to exact the ultimate penalty. Suddenly, the Boy’s mysterious voice floats into the Abbott’s chambers.  Realizing that the voice may be a message of judgment from God upon his decision, he falls to his knees fearfully and asks for peace – for the town and for his own tortured soul.


Now he waits in prison

For the next word my mouth will form.

Life: his blood still moves,

The boy still sings,

And the blood of many darkens our streets.

Death: his blood stops,

The boy’s voice stops,

The town’s rage stops.

Then it is done.  Death.  He dies.


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Under the cover of night, the Christian Woman visits the Jewish Man in jail.  When she accuses him not only of murder, but also of playing the martyr, the man responds angrily: ”Martyr? No. What good is that to my wife, my son?” Then he tells the woman that he, too, has a young son – a son who will soon be fatherless.

Christian Woman:

My son is dead.

I wish these bars were gone

so I could cut your throat myself.

You could have helped.

You did not.  He died.

Jewish Man:
So I die for being good,

For obeying the law?

Christian Woman:
You die because he died.

You are no  martyr.

Jewish Man:

(looking up)

Martyr? No.  No.

(He stands)

What good is that

To my wife, my son?
I am a father not a martyr.

A father.

Did you know? Did you know?

My son is eight years old,

The same as yours.

Did you know?

Christian Woman:

No, I did not know

Jewish Man:

Did you know? Did you know?

He needs a father,

Not a martyr.

A father.

She shakes her head, brings herself back.

Christian Woman:

It doesn’t matter.

I see it all.

There is nothing holy left.


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The image of a fatherless son strikes the woman deep inside. She begins to tell the man that she has raised her son alone, serving as both mother and father following her husband’s death.  Now that she has lost her son, she is nothing – not a mother or a father.  As the man imagines his son’s fatherless future, his tearful song mixes with hers.  Slowly, the man and the woman begin to see each other not just as a Jew and a Christian but as a father and mother, sharing a sadness that does not discriminate on the basis of religion.

Christian Woman:

A Jew killed my son.

Jewish Man:

And Christians will orphan mine.

Christian Woman:

Your wife will raise him.

Jewish Man:

Ask your husband.

A boy needs a father.

Christian Woman:

(To herself) A father…
(To the Man): My husband died some time ago.

I raised my boy alone.

Did you know?

I raised my boy alone,

I sewed his shirts

And sang him lullabies.

Did you know? Did you know?

Jewish Man: (as the woman continues to sing)

I didn’t know. I didn’t know.

Christian Woman:

Did you know? Did you know?

I taught him how to fight,

To speak like a man.

I was mother and father,

And now I am nothing.

Jewish Man:

Now I know, now I know.

Christian Woman:

Nothing. nothing, nothing, nothing

Jewish Man:

Then we will be nothing together.

My son will forget my name.

His mother alone will raise him

She will be mother and father.

She’ll draw cool water and carry it home.,

My son will raise it to his lips,

My wife will wash his little hands.

Christian Woman:

Stop! Stop!

Jewish Man:

She will wipe his tears,

Teach him to hold his head high

And keep his mouth closed.

Christian Woman:

Stop! Stop!

Jewish Man:

I speak of my son.

You think of yours

I speak of my son.

You think of yours.

Christian Woman:

My son is dead.

Jewish Man:
I know.  I will not speak of mine.

Christian Woman:

No, Speak. 

Tell me more.

Does he cry in the darkness?

Is he afraid of the night?

Jewish Man: (smiling)
Of course he is.

He cries, “Papa, Papa”

And points to the corner.

Christian Woman:
And then?

Jewish Man:
Then, I move aside the chair

And shoo out the monsters.

Christian Woman:

Then does he sleep?

Jewish Man:

Sleep? No, no.
He laughs,  “Now behind the door Papa.”

I could spend all night

Scaring away the monsters.

Christian Woman:

Who will scare them now?

Jewish Man:
No one.  They are here to stay.


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Having come to an empathetic understanding of each other’s situation, the man and woman grasp hands through the prison bars. The woman finally believes that the father she sees before her could not have been capable of the boy’s murder. The man sings that – had he the chance to do it again – he would jeopardize his life and break the rule of silence in order to help her find her son. 

Christian Woman:

I hear him everywhere!

My son is dead, I know.

But when I hear his voice…

Do you know?

Jewish Man:

Yes, I know.

I know the loss you feel.

My heart also aches for a son.

Your son is dead.

For that I can do nothing.

But if I had it to do again,

I would break the law

To help you find him.


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It is the execution. As the Abbott pronounces sentence upon the man, the woman rushes in

from offstage, asserting the man’s innocence.  When the Abbott asks for proof, she provides a powerful interpretation of the boy’s unsettling miracle: since God is a just God, the boy’s voice could not be calling out for the blood of an innocent man. Momentarily frightened by the thought that he may be making the wrong decision, the Abbott nonetheless argues with her.


Death, his blood stops.

The boy’s voice stops,

The town’s rage stops.

Christian Woman

(from offstage)


I will speak for him.

I will be his voice.


Who is this?

What do you know of him?

Christian Woman:

I know he is a father.

Nothing more.


How can you speak for him?
Aside: May she have some proof.

God grant I may be saved

From what I have decided.

Christian Woman:

I know my son.

When he was alive

He sang for joy,

For the love of God

And the Blessed Virgin.

He would not sing for blood.


God works in dark ways.

Christian Woman:

But my son does not.


His song is a miracle.

It demands justice.

Christian Woman:

This man did not murder my son.


Do you know this to be true?

Christian Woman:
I believe it to be true.


Put your faith in God

And not in man. 

God is Truth. (Looking at the Jewish Man) Man lies.


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Despite his prayer for guidance, the Abbott still decides that he must kill the Jew to bring peace to the town. When the executioners slit the man’s throat, the boy’s voice finally falls silent. For a moment it seems that all is well. But then a new and even more unsettling song emerges from the Jew’s dead lips. It is the words of the powerful Hebrew prayer “Hear, O Israel: the Lord your God, the Lord, is one”, now sung to the same tune as the boy’s prayer to the Virgin. The Abbott recognizes this defiant miracle as a sign from God that a grave injustice has been done. It is now clear that the town will be cursed forever with the memory of its bigotry and intolerance. 


The man will die.

He signals the executioners.

Christian Woman:

No! No!

My son, my son.

She wraps her arms around the body.

Abbott: (relieved)

Justice brings peace.


O Blessed Mary, through your grace,

We have found peace.

Jewish Man (tape):

Sh'ma Yis'ra'eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.
(Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.)


No!  No!

Christian Woman:

Now he sings to God in his own tongue.

He calls out for justice.

Abbott: (to himself)

Now his curse is on us all.

Woman and Abbot (together)

What will become of us?