COUNTDOWN

An opera for the nuclear age

music: Christopher Yavelow
libretto: Laura Harrington

For the 10th anniversary of the launching of the first opera into cyberspace, I have created a new higher-quality version of the original recording as a streaming MP3 file (this page is uses the 192k bit-rate version; dialup users can access a 64k bit-rate version here).

This recording is the premiere of the world’s first computer opera that took place on February 12, 1987. Commissioned by the Boston Lyric Opera for "Opera in Process" sponsored by "Opera in the Eighties and Beyond" under the auspices of "Opera America" and "The National Endowment for the Arts." Conducted by John Balme. Principles: Karen Lykes, Pamela Gailey, Mark Aliapoulios. Stage director: Anne Ewers. Dramaturg: Roger Ames. Libretto: Laura Harrington.

HISTORICAL NOTES: Countdown was the first entirely computer-assisted opera. The score was computer-generated using proprietary software by Christopher Yavelow. Additionally, the "orchestral accompaniment" is in reality a Kurzweil-250 digital sampler, synchronized to the baton of the conductor (the first time such a machine-human interface was achieved). Countdown went on to win First Prize in the Virginia Opera Society's "New One-Act Operas" competition. On December 1, 1994, Countdown became the first opera in cyberspace. The original files of this historic event have been available for listening ever since that date and are still at http://www.yav.com and also at http://www.ChrisYavelow.com and http://www.ChristopherYavelow.com

Click here to send me feedback (Chris @ yav.com).

Note: if you have problems with streaming at a bit-rate of 192k, you may want to switch to the lower resolution version (64k bit-rate) here.


JENNA
(a young lieutenant in her twenties) - Mezzo Soprano
CHARLIE
(an older military "lifer") - Lyric Baritone
ALICE
(also: death, conscience, and disembodied loudspeaker voice) - Soprano

BRIEF SYNOPSIS:

COUNTDOWN takes place beneath the surface of the earth, but not in the realm of the Nibelungen. Jenna and Charlie are in charge of an underground NORAD nuclear missile command silo. Jenna arrives slightly late one morning. Much to Charlie's surprize, she has smuggled in a little cassette recorder. Charlie thinks she plans to play music in the control room. But Jenna has just discovered that she is pregnant and the tape is really a recording of her baby's heartbeat in her womb. Charlie realizes that, due to Jenna's pregnancy, the administration will transfer her out of hazardous duty and he will miss her immensely. Jenna tries to console him. A nuclear alert occurs. The status progresses from "Yellow Alert" to "Orange Alert" but turns out to be a false alarm. Another alert comes in and this progress quickly to "Red Alert." Jenna and Charlie receive the orders to "push the button" (actually, to begin the elaborate launch procedure culminating in the simultaneous turning of two keys). As the countdown progresses from "Sixty Seconds and Counting" to the nuclear missile launch which will result in a retaliatory incoming missile targeting their command center, one by one the characters step out of time and reveal their final thoughts before they die.


OPERA IN PROCESS:

COUNTDOWN was commissioned by the Boston Lyric Opera Company and written as part of an intensive 12-day composer/librettist collaboration workshop entitled "Opera in Process," sponsored by "Opera in the Eighties and Beyond" under the auspices of "Opera America," and "The National Endowment for the Arts." During the collaboration, the composer and librettist spent their days creating new text and music, culminating in 4 hours of rehearsal each evening with the conductor, John Balme, and singers, Karen Lykes (mezzo), Pamela Gailey (soprano), and Mark Aliapoulios (lyric baritone), as well as the stage director, Anne Ewers, and often, the dramaturg, Roger Ames.

FIRST COMPUTER-ASSISTED OPERA:

An Apple Macintosh computer and a Kurzweil 250 Digital Music Workstation were used extensively during the creation of the work. The Kurzweil was used as an "orchestra in a box" or "orchestral sketchpad" and new recordings of the fully orchestrated music were produced daily. The Macintosh was used to capture performance (MIDI sequence) data, using Mark of the Unicorn's Performer software to control the Kurzweil. Subsequently the Macintosh was used to automatically convert this data into conventional music notation - first as an orchestral score, and then into a piano score for rehearsals - new music was printed each night while the participants (including the composer) slept.

THE PERFORMANCE:

On the twelfth day (February 12, 1987), the opera was completed and performed by the Boston Lyric Opera at the Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. The Kurzweil 250, completely under the control of a Macintosh computer, was used to realize the orchestral parts. The singers received some of their music the day before the performance.

SUBSEQUENT PRODUCTIONS:

COUNTDOWN went on to win the first prize in the Virginia Opera Society's "New One-Act Operas" competition in 1988. The society mounted a full production of the opera in 1989.


LIBRETTO:

Lights come up on a command post of the Launch Control Center of NORAD (NORAD is the North American Aerospace Defense Command - jointly staffed by the US and Royal Canadian Air Forces - It's mission is to determine whether the USSR has launched a missile or bomber attack against North America. The warning which NORAD provides triggers the Launch Control Center, a part of the SAC [Strategic Air Command], to execute preplanned retaliatory strikes.).

There is a bank of computer terminals along one wall.
Center stage is a very large display screen with a map of the world.
The lighting is dim and tinged with the greenish glow from the computer displays.

A large clock is prominently displayed.
It is 9 PM.

CHARLIE, a Captain, sits at his desk stacking papers.
His manner lets us know that he's impatient.
He watches the clock.
As the clock ticks from 9:01 to 9:02, JENNA arrives, slightly breathless.

JENNA
Hi, Charlie!
(no response. Charlie evens up the edges of his stack of papers)
What's the matter? You're not saying hi to me tonight, Charlie?
CHARLIE
You're late.
JENNA
How 'bout that?
CHARLIE
Five times this week, five times last week, and you're batting a thousand.
JENNA
I didn't know I could be that consistent.
CHARLIE
We've got a job to do here
JENNA
Right !
CHARLIE
Doesn't look good for the unit.
Doesn't look good on your record.
Looks like you've got a problem with authority !
JENNA
(looking over his shoulder)
You don't write that down, do you, Charlie
Ninety seconds here, two minutes there?
CHARLIE
It adds up.
JENNA
But you don't mean you really write it down?
CHARLIE
That's my job, Jenna.
JENNA
It's petty, Charlie.
CHARLIE
That's my job, Jenna.
JENNA
It's petty, Charlie.
CHARLIE
Looks like you got an attitude.
JENNA
I got a real good attitude ! Real good !
CHARLIE
Looks like you got an attitude, Jenna.
JENNA
I got a real good attitude ! Charlie.
And you know it !
CHARLIE
You know that this world was not created for your pleasure, Jenna.
JENNA
You've got that on higher authority?
CHARLIE
You don't take me seriously, do you now?
Do you, Jenna?
JENNA
Why should I?
CHARLIE
Do you now?
JENNA
You are serious enough for both of us...
But I plan to change all that...
(she takes out a small tape recorder and sets it on Charlie's work station.)
CHARLIE
(amazed)
How on earth did you get that in here, Jenna?
JENNA
You may have noticed that I'm young and female.
CHARLIE
Right !
JENNA
You may have noticed the guys on Missile Security are young, restless, males and they are really bored to death !
JENNA
You know I could smuggle your mother in here, Charlie... (she reaches over to turn the tape on. Charlie stops her)
Oh, Charlie!
CHARLIE
You know that music is forbidden here.
JENNA
Oh, come on, Charlie!
CHARLIE
The guys next door will...
JENNA
Oh, come on, Charlie!
CHARLIE
...will hear us, Jenna.
JENNA
Who cares if anyone can hear, Charlie?
CHARLIE
The guys in the next office will hear us.
JENNA
Who cares if anyone can hear, Charlie?
CHARLIE
I care if anyone can hear, Jenna!
JENNA & CHARLIE
They will hear us !

Jenna plays the tape recording that she has smuggled into the missile command post. Charlie discovers that it is a recording of her baby's heartbeat. He laments that fact that Jenna's pregnancy will require her to be transfered out of hazardous duty.

JENNA
We won't dance to the music I've recorded here. (she presses the "play" button)
CHARLIE
(skeptical)
Jenna...? (very faintly, we hear a heart beat)
JENNA
(excited)
You hear that?
CHARLIE
Jenna...?
JENNA
Oh my God.
CHARLIE
Jenna...?
JENNA
It's simply too much to believe!
CHARLIE
(getting caught up)
Jenna, be quiet so that I can hear. (the noises continue. Jenna can hardly contain herself.
Charlie tries to respond to her excitement but he's baffled)
CHARLIE
Jenna, I don't know what I'm listening to.
Jenna...?
JENNA
(exultant)
That's a baby.
Charlie, that's a baby swimming around in a womb !
Charlie, that's a heartbeat.
And you can hear its heart beating.
You can hear it!
CHARLIE
Where'd you get it?
JENNA
I made it.
CHARLIE
What do you mean you made it?
JENNA
That's inside me, Charlie.
What you're hearing... that's in me ! (they listen for a moment)
CHARLIE
(as the realization hits him)
Damnit, Jenna don't you know what this means...

JENNA
That's a baby.
CHARLIE
...They will transfer you out of hazardous duty.

JENNA
That's a baby.
I wouldn't mind getting out of this hole in the ground.
CHARLIE
You'll be gone.
I can't believe it, Jenna.

Realizing that Charlie has become fond of her, Jenna tries to console him with an offer to go fishing.

JENNA
You know what today is, Charlie?
One year ago today I first asked you to take me fishing with you.
One year I have been waiting for you to ask me.
CHARLIE
You want to go fishing?
You want to go fishing with me?
JENNA
Trout fishing.
Your best stream.
Four o'clock in the morning.
Waders.
Opening day.
Yes, I want to go fishing with you.
CHARLIE
The season starts next week.
JENNA
You think I don't know that?
I know that.
CHARLIE
The season starts next week.
JENNA
Take me with you.
Take me with you, Charlie.
Take me with you, Charlie.

Charlie and Jenna on the ramifications of Jenna's pregnancy.

CHARLIE
You will be leaving here, I can't believe it.
I don't know, Jenna, somehow I got used to you.
I got used to all your carelessness and your affection...
They way you look so young, Jenna.
JENNA
This is my own theory, Charlie,
You're some other person when you're not in here.
Something strange happens to people down here.
You lose your life.

We descend into the belly of the earth.
Everyday we get buried alive.
You've been down here for years, Charlie, for years.
You've had to adapt.
An amazing organism that adapts to being inside the earth,
Instead of walking... walking on top of it.
CHARLIE
You will be leaving here, I can't believe it.
JENNA
This is my theory, you're some other person.
CHARLIE
I don't know Jenna, somehow I got used to you.
JENNA
Something strange happens to people down here.
CHARLIE
I got used to all your carelessness and your affection.

JENNA

You're another person, I just know it...

CHARLIE
The way you look so young, Jenna.

JENNA

...I just know it, Charlie.

The NORAD launch control center goes on Yellow Alert. Charlie and Jenna hope that it will turn out to be a false alarm (in reality, such false alarms are often triggered by meteor showers or bird migrations).

VOICE
(as if, or actually, through a loudspeaker)
Yellow alert !
Yellow alert !

(Charlie immediately takes his place. Jenna reluctantly moves to her monitor)

JENNA
I'm tired of this!
VOICE
Take your positions, please.
CHARLIE
This is what we are paid for.
VOICE
Take your positions, please.
Yellow alert.

(Their attention is fully focused on their monitors as they scan incoming information)

JENNA
It's another electronic hallucination.
A false alarm.
CHARLIE
Bird migration.
A meteor shower at the North Pole.
VOICE
Orange alert !
Orange alert !
JENNA
I hate this.
It makes me nervous.
VOICE
Stand by.
CHARLIE
Relax. No one has verified the sighting.
VOICE
Stand by.
JENNA
We're staying on orange much too long.
CHARLIE
Relax.
VOICE
All clear.
At ease.
All clear.
JENNA
I told you it would never happen.
We should have laid bets.
I would clean up.
CHARLIE
Twenty years ago, I could have taken it so lightly too.
JENNA
Look, Charlie, it's not going to happen.
Kissinger said so.

Again, the NORAD launch control center goes on Yellow Alert but this time it escalates rapidly to a Red Alert. The countdown commences.

VOICE
Yellow alert !
Take your positions please.
Yellow alert !
CHARLIE
Strap yourself in Jenna.
JENNA
How 'bout we bet it goes back to green in under three minutes...
CHARLIE
Safety harness, Jenna.
JENNA
...Five bucks? What do you say, Charlie?
VOICE
Orange alert !
Stand by please.
Stand by please !
Orange alert !
CHARLIE
Some hallucination !
JENNA
I hate it when it goes this far !
VOICE
Red alert !
Red alert !
Red alert !
JENNA
Oh, my God, it's not a run-through.
It's not a test.
CHARLIE
Get your code, Jenna.
Count with me.

(They both reach out to the safes on either side of the, prepared to press a button simultaneously)

VOICE
Red alert !
Red alert !
Red alert !
JENNA & CHARLIE
Five, Four, Three, Two, One.

(The safes open and they each extract a decoding manual. Using their decoder, they decode the message on their computer screens)

JENNA
(looking up from her code)
Oh, my God, it's not a run-through.
It's not a test.
CHARLIE
Confirmed.
VOICE
Sixty seconds to launch.
Sixty seconds and counting...
JENNA
They'll send it back.
They've made a mistake !

(Alice is revealed to be the disembodied voice on the loudspeaker. The countdown advances to fifty seconds. )

ALICE ( = VOICE)
There are men in love with power,
Who dream of a final explosion.
A power unearthly,
A power to rival God.
They dream of a final triumphant voice,
Exploding against the skies.
Shattering the earth.
Hosannas on high,
Hosannas on high.
Hosannas on high.
CHARLIE & JENNA
A final destructive voice,
ALICE
Hosannas on high.
CHARLIE & JENNA
Exploding against the skies
CHARLIE & JENNA & ALICE
Shattering the earth,
Hosannas on high,
Hosannas on high.
VOICE
Fifty seconds to launch.
Fifty seconds and counting.
CHARLIE
Get your key, Jenna.
JENNA
It can't be, Charlie !
I don't want to die in a hole in the ground.
I don't want to die in a hole in the ground !

(Jenna "steps out of time" to muse upon her unborn child.)

JENNA
I know it's much too soon,
But I feel life.
And I have heard her heart beat.

She's the size of my thumb
And her heart is beating like the ocean.
She is the size of my thumb.

And she is swimming,
Swimming inside me.
I think she's an angel
floating within me.

I know it's much too soon,
But I feel life.
An angel swimming inside me.

A pair of wings,
Waiting to unfold within me.
An angel fish. A sea horse.

And she will be the child of my imagining.
The child of my imagining.

(As the countdown advances from forty seconds to thirty seconds, Jenna finds it difficult to execute the required procedures.)

VOICE
Forty seconds to launch.
Forty seconds and counting.
CHARLIE
Confirm your code, Jenna.
JENNA
(reporting, all business)
Confirmation received.
Incoming attack.
Launch readied.
All systems go.
VOICE
Thirty seconds to launch.
CHARLIE
Key position !
VOICE
Thirty seconds and counting.
CHARLIE
Put your hand on the key, Jenna.
JENNA
I can't.
I can't.
CHARLIE
You can do it.
I know you can.

(Charlie attempts to convince Jenna that she can follow the procedure - that he has been in more difficult situations.)

CHARLIE
I sat with my father as he lost his mind.
As the days ached their way into years,
His mind disappeared.

I saw the terror in his eyes as idiocy consumed him.
I felt the warmth of his soul reaching up to me.
Through the muddied waters of his mind... of his mind.

I called to bring him back to life and failed.
I appealed to his greatness, to his spirit,
To my need for him.

My own helplessness broke my heart.

I would like to believe that all great characters
come back to life if you call to them.
I am calling to my father still.
I am calling to my father still.

(The countdown progresses from 20 seconds to 10 seconds. They know that the moment they launch their missile, their silo will be targeted for a retaliatory strike. In essence, they are signing their own death warrants.)

VOICE
Twenty seconds to launch.
Twenty seconds and counting.
CHARLIE
You can do it, Jenna.

(They each reach out to their keys, resting their hands on them, in readiness)

CHARLIE
A year ago we got down to five seconds and they aborted...
JENNA
I hope to God that they abort this one!
Charlie, I'm glad I got to know you.
VOICE
Ten seconds to launch.
Ten seconds and counting.

(Jenna fantasizes about her child who will never be born.)

JENNA
I have dreams of destruction.
The end of the world.
The earth a silent tomb.

CHARLIE & ALICE
Dreaming a dream of destruction.
Dreaming a dream of destruction.
JENNA
In these dreams my daughter is three.
Her name is Bianca.
She is bright with joy.
And on the night of my dream.
The earth is white with snow.

CHARLIE & ALICE
Bianca.
JENNA
I hear the alert.

CHARLIE & ALICE

Bright, white.
JENNA
I think only of protecting Bianca.

CHARLIE & ALICE

Bianca.
White, bright.
JENNA
I dress her:

CHARLIE & ALICE

Bianca
JENNA
Snowsuit...

CHARLIE & ALICE

Bright.
JENNA
...Boots...

CHARLIE & ALICE

White.
JENNA
...Mittens.

CHARLIE & ALICE

Bright with joy.
JENNA
I tie the hood...

CHARLIE & ALICE

White,
JENNA
...Snug...

CHARLIE & ALICE

Bright.
JENNA
...Under her chin.

CHARLIE & ALICE

White with snow,
JENNA
It half covers her face.

CHARLIE & ALICE

Bright, white.
Bright with joy.
White with snow.
JENNA
But her eyes -
How can I protect her eyes?
I wind a scarf around her face.
But stop as hope deserts me.

CHARLIE & ALICE

Her eyes.
They see.
JENNA
I pull Bianca...

CHARLIE & ALICE
They are sightless.
JENNA
...close to me.

CHARLIE & ALICE

White
JENNA
I...

CHARLIE & ALICE

Bright
JENNA
Cover her face.

CHARLIE & ALICE

Bianca.
JENNA
I shield her eyes.

CHARLIE & ALICE

Her eyes.
JENNA
And I wait.

CHARLIE & ALICE

Dreaming a dream of destruction.
Dreaming a dream of destruction.

CHARLIE & JENNA & ALICE

Dreaming a dream of destruction.
Dreaming a dream of destruction.

(The countdown progresses to 4. And we hear an aria from Alice "From the holes in the earth".)

VOICE
Ten seconds to launch.
Begin countdown.
CHARLIE
Let's go fishing...
VOICE
Nine.
CHARLIE
...when we get out of here.
VOICE
Eight.
JENNA
Yes...
VOICE
Seven.
JENNA
...we'll take my kid.
VOICE
Six.
JENNA & CHARLIE
Any second now...
VOICE
Five.
JENNA & CHARLIE
...they'll reverse the order.
VOICE
Four.
JENNA & CHARLIE
Any second now.

* * *

ALICE ( = VOICE)
From the holes in the earth.
From truck, from silo, from brilliance,
Heat-wind, ribbon, flow,
We feed the machine.
We stock the earth.
Missiles on belts, on cranes, on coveys.
Down, we stockpile.
We feed the line.
We eat, sleep, bail missiles from our dreams.
We drown, faint, rest, rage, love.
Feeding the line, industry, machine,
Ourselves, from the earth.

(Countdown from 3 to 1 and the nuclear missiles are launched.)

JENNA & CHARLIE
Any second now.
VOICE
Three.
Two.
One.
Activate all systems,

(With their free hands, Charlie and Jenna reach out to each other, joining hands. At the same moment, they simultaneously turn their keys, thus signing their own death warrants by assuring the launch of the retaliatory missiles)

All systems activated.
Launch complete.
Launch complete.

(As the lights begin to flicker, Alice steps between Charlie and Jenna, taking each of them by the hand)

(Jenna, Charlie, and Alice sing the final chorus "If ever the silver cord be loosed" as they wait for the retaliating missiles to destroy them.)

ALICE
If ever the silver cord be loosed,
ALICE & JENNA
Or ever the golden bowl be broken,

ALICE & JENNA & CHARLIE

Or the pitcher broken at the fountain,
Or the wheel broken at the cistern;
And the dust return to the earth as it was,
And the spirit return unto God who gave it.
(Lights continue to flicker, blinking out one after one.
We are left in darkness except for a single red light on a computer terminal which continues to flash.
The red light flashes once, twice, three times... and goes out.
Silence.)


Bringing these works of art to you online is probably a good deal more expensive than you thought it was. Any help you can provide will be greatly appreciated and allow us to continue to bring you more interesting works of art and music in the future (and help pay for my daughters' college education too). Please click the button at the right to give a secure donation of any amount. Thanks in advance!

Amazon Honor System Click Here to PayLearn More


Top 5% of All Web Sites
According to Point Communications (Lykos)
Here's what they say about COUNTDOWN - The first online opera!


Graphics, text, sounds, etc.  Copyright  © Christopher Yavelow  1987 thru 2004 and beyond