Williamson received several commissions following the success of his opera Our Man in Havana, among them a commission from the Farnham Festival for The Happy Prince, first produced in 1965.
The Farnham Festival, which was founded in 1963 in Farnham, Surrey, involved about a thousand local young people and children in a venture which commissioned new works from contemporary composers, with the idea of accustoming young people to the music of their time and lessening the gap between the serious composer and his audience. The commissions were sponsored by local business and professional people, and the festival activities, which centered around the church, were joined by many members of the community. The Farnham Festival organizers approached Malcolm Williamson in 1964 with a request for him to write a short choral work for the Farnham Girl's Choir. He agreed, but unhappy at the thought of writing a purely choral work, some weeks later he suggested to the festival organizers that he wished to use Oscar Wilde's short story, The Happy Prince, as the basis for a children's opera. The organizers met with the composer and, once they had read the story, agreed and approved the composer's idea. Perhaps because the opera is short, forty-five minutes long, it was composed quickly, in only six weeks, with the composer writing his own libretto.
The first performance took place in the Farnham parish church, and the action was set in various locations within the church, suitably lit at the appropriate moments. The first performance of The Happy Prince received much national publicity in England, and the critics came in droves to report favorably. The opera has since received other performances, including several in the United States.
Malcolm Williamson says of Oscar Wilde, upon whose fairy tale his opera is based: "…so scrupulous and excellent is his writing that it sounds timeless…" The composer continues about the opera,
"The story concerns a statue, golden and bejewelled, which has been erected above a town, in memory of a rich and happy prince. A swallow, off to hibernate in Egypt, stops for the night at the foot of the statue, and feels tears on her head. Looking up she sees that the statue of the prince is weeping over the world's misery and poverty, which in life he was never able to see. Three times he implores the swallow to pluck jewels from his body and to take them to poor and needy citizens, then to strip the gold from his body and throw it to the starving children in the street below. All the time it is growing colder. The prince is blind and ugly now. The swallow is too weak of fly to Egypt, but anyway she loves her prince too much to leave his feet. Stretching up to kiss his lips, she dies; and the statue's lead heart cracks. The mayor and citizens who erected the statue come and take it down since its decorative value no longer exists, and with some disgust they move the swallow's body away, the lot to be burned. As the flames rise, alarmed voices exclaim that the broken, leaden heart will not burn. A choir of angels above the flames tells the citizens that the leaden heart and the dead bird are the most precious things in the city."
The one-act opera, in English, is characterized as melodious with generally conventional harmonies and some mildly contemporary idioms, especially singable by children. The composer has used "recurring melodic intervals for particular characters." The setting of The Happy Prince is a public square in a legendary city. The featured roles in the opera are the Swallow, the Prince, the Mayor, the Seamstress, her son, the Author, the Match girl, and the Rich Girl, with choruses of children and citizens, and four angels. The orchestra is made up of a piano duet, as many as four percussion players, and optional strings.
Copyright © 1996 by Jane Erb, All Rights Reserved.