The prioress’s tale     A Chamber opera in one act



In 2006, composer Delvyn Case and librettist Christopher Hood began work on a chamber opera inspired by Chaucer’s “The Prioress’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales.  Two years later, the opera premiered at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Massachusetts, to large, enthusiastic audiences drawn from throughout the Northeast.  The 75-minute production, which was directed by Andrew Ryker,  garnered substantial media attention from sources like The Boston Globe and the South Shore Patriot-Ledger.

Produced by Delvyn Case in conjunction with Eastern Nazarene College, the opera was supported through grants from religious and secular institutions, including the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and numerous donations from Jewish and Christian individuals.   Each performance was followed by a panel discussion with Jewish and Christian clergy that explored issues raised by the original story and the operatic adaptation.


Religious intolerance, misunderstanding, and anti-Semitism have divided Jews and Christians for two millennia.  Though we may not see physical violence against Jews as often as in the past, religious stereotypes and prejudices in the media and in society have a powerful impact upon our communities.  As a Christian, I am saddened by the long history of religious intolerance that has been manifested by my brothers and sisters in Christ.   I am also saddened by the deep rifts between Christians and Jews that still exist due to this deplorable past.   Though I am not a religious leader or a politician, I believe that as a composer I can still contribute positively to our public dialogue about these issues.   Thus, in 2005 I decided to create an opera that would explore the complexities of religious intolerance – particularly anti-Semitism – in a contemporary and dramatic way.

I chose to base this opera project upon a tragic and anti-Semitic story from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, ”The Prioress’s Tale.”  My librettist and I, writer Christopher Hood, have transformed this potentially divisive tale into a parable whose primary message is that peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness are possible when each of us recognizes our common humanity with others.  Our opera is a musical and dramatic portrait of two characters – one Jewish, one Christian – who overcome their fear and hatred of each other by rediscovering their own capacity for forgiveness.   By humanizing characters who in Chaucer’s tale are mere stereotypes, we hope to encourage the audience to consider the cost of bias and misunderstanding on the personal level.

Since the opera is based upon an anti-Semitic story about the murder of a Christian boy by medieval Jews, my librettist and I have approached this project with deep sensitivity to the ways it could impact our Jewish audience.   Throughout the process we have had extensive discussions with Jewish clergy-members, lay leaders, and theologians who have helped us understand the implications of our project.   The unstaged workshop and the staged premiere were followed by fascinating panel discussions featuring a rabbi, priest, and  medieval scholar.  Thus, we are confident that our opera communicates a deep respect for the victims of religious violence while also dramatically illustrating the terrible consequences of bigotry and hatred.   Our story is a tragic parable in which the reality of violence serves an overall message about the power of forgiveness and peace.


Chaucer’s “The Prioress’s Tale” tells of a violent incident involving Christian persecution of Jews – an incident which very well could have been based upon an actual event.  A small boy, pure in heart and pious in spirit, becomes captivated by the “Alma redemptoris mater”, a chant of praise to the Virgin Mary.  His devotion to the Blessed Virgin is so complete that, once he has learned the chant, he sings it almost every waking hour.    One day he makes the mistake of walking through the Jewish ghetto with the chant on his lips.   The Jews, egged on by Satan, fall upon the boy and slit his throat, depositing his body in a sewer.  When the boy does not return home from school, his distraught mother goes out to search for him.  At first she has no idea where to look, but suddenly she hears a strange sound.  It seems that even the death of the singer cannot silence the chant of praise to the Virgin.  Following the chant emanating from the dead boy’s slit throat, the mother finds his lifeless body in the sewer.  He continues to sing miraculously, his chant permeating the entire town - even after a priest ritually sanctifies his death by singing a mass for him.  Upon receiving a revelation, the priest realizes that a sort of “exorcism” must be performed, and removes a grain of sand that the Virgin placed on the dead boy’s tongue.  The singing finally stops and the boy rests in peace, proving to all that the Virgin’s power over the hearts of the pious is more powerful than even the ritualized religion of the Church.

The anti-Semitism that strikes us so powerfully today was, for Chaucer, a plot device like any other, allowing the Prioress to relate the theological moral to her (and Chaucer’s) audience.  In today’s world, rife with religious intolerance and persecution, we must confront this aspect of the story in order to make it a relevant subject for an opera.  I have worked with my librettist, poet and novelist Christopher Hood, to adapt the story in order to humanize the characters and focus upon the tragedy of religious bigotry.

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

In the next scene, the Christian Woman sings 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. 


(Click on the WATCH & LISTEN  link at the top of the page for video excerpts and selections from the libretto.)

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. 

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.)

At this moment, the Christian Woman arrives at the well. Seeing the Jewish Man with the dead body, she 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.  They each fall to their knees, praying to God that justice may be served.  The woman screams and the man flees as the authorities approach.

The Jewish Man’s fate now rests in the hands of the Abbot, who must weigh the public’s need for a scapegoat with his own uncertainty of the Jewish Man’s guilt.  At the same time, he worries about the meaning of the miracle: it is certainly a sign from God, but a sign of what?  As he agonizes over the decision he hears the eerie sound of the dead boy’s chant.  Believing that only a sacrifice of the Jewish Man will silence the miraculous voice, he caves to public pressure - and to his own fear of the mysterious forces at work - and sentences him to death. 

Meanwhile, the Christian Woman visits the Jewish Man in jail, ostensibly to excoriate him in advance of his execution.  However, through an intense series of interactions, both characters come to understand the other’s perspective.   When the Jewish Man sings of his love for his own son, the Woman realizes that he is not capable of murdering the boy.  She recognizes how her bigotry caused her to assume him to be the killer.  At the same time, the Jewish Man recognizes that his unwillingness to help the Woman find her son – caused by his hatred for the Christians, but also his fear of breaking the rule of silence – made him unknowingly complicit in his murder.

Though the two characters forgive each other, public justice must be served, and the Man proceeds to meet his fate.  The Christian Woman protests as the Abbott reads the death sentence, but to no avail.  Finally, the Abbott  gives the order to the executioner.  At the moment the Jewish Man dies, the Boy finally falls silent.  But to everyone’s horror the chant continues on, now emanating from the Jewish Man’s slit throat, and sung in Hebrew.   The chant remains an ever-present reminder to the town of its sins.

This last event summarizes and symbolizes the power of music to unite as well as divide those of different communities: at first, the boy’s “Alma” signified his unity with his faith community; when he sang it in the Jewish ghetto, it symbolized the chasm between the Christians and the Jews; when he sang it through a slit throat it drew together a passing Jewish man and a Christian mother, both of whom acted empathetically toward the poor child; and when it passes from the religious and linguistic context of Christianity into that of Judaism, it unites two communities again, this time in a tragic death.