Program Notes


A Video Opera by John Holland

The Nautilus, a video opera in two acts, is based on the 1916 silent film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, from the classic book of the same name by Jules Verne.  The original film was produced and directed by Stuart Paton, photographed by Eugene Gaudio, with special underwater photography by the Williamson brothers.

Original music (including electronic music), operatic and other musical excerpts, as well as sound effects were composed and selected in support of the narrative. Throughout, there are a variety of familiar operatic excerpts that span the early history of opera from Henry Purcell’s deeply melancholy Chaconne from Dido and Aeneas, to Benjamin Britten’s haunting seaside music in Peter Grimes and the dramatic episodes of Melville’s Billy Budd. The excerpt from the male duet that is heard several times throughout the opera ‘Au fond du temple saint’ is from George Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. Other excerpts include the piano music of Debussy and Chopin, and some eerie theremin music by Percy Grainger. Not surprisingly, many of the operatic excerpts refer to, or are related to, the sea.

Operatic excerpts were acquired from a variety of audio sources, including online recordings, then recreated within the context of the video. Vocal excerpts include a variety of languages from around the world. In some cases I have combined completely different excerpts, as in scene 7, where I have created a love duet mixing Mimi’s and Rudolpho’s original solo arias from La Boheme. I have recycled early recordings, and have digitally modified some vocal passages specifically involving the ‘island maid’ left to survive on her own in the jungle, and the distasteful male character (Charles Denver) in some of the ‘dream’ and ‘flashback’ scenes. The lost ‘island maid’ is a computer-generated voice mined from the internet.

In creating the video opera, I have preserved the original form of the film, making only minor edits without altering the narrative. However I have eliminated a late scene in the film that depicts Nemo’s previous life in India because of its adverse and insensitive depiction of the disadvantaged, which seems particularly magnified viewed through 21st century sensibilities.

When making the original film, producer/director Stuart Paton made a decision to merge parts of Jules Verne’s novel Mysterious Island with 20, 000 Leagues Under the Sea, changing the story in a way that reveals Captain Nemo’s reason for secluding himself under the sea, something Jules Verne never did in his classic book. In the book, we are left to guess, with some hints, at the intrigue that caused Nemo’s bitterness and final escape to his underwater world.

Jules Verne’s book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is as much marine biology as adventure story. My overall intent is to underline the original Jules Verne story, which, unlike traditional Hollywood versions, is a testament to the magnificent power and beauty of the underwater world that lies beneath our oceans.

The first version of the opera, including the music as it now stands, was completed in 2007. In 2011, minor edits, color animation, contemporary underwater video footage, and colorizing were added.

(illustrations of fossil:Nautilus and Flat Trace Oyster by the Integration and Application Network, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science)