Buffa (2001)

An opera in three acts.

The present. A small, struggling opera company, in the mid-sized American city of Willington, is mounting a production of a classic Italian opera, La Pastorella.

The Cast (in order of appearance):

The Stage Hand Mime/Dancer
Arthur, a stage director Baritone
Anna, the lead soprano Soprano
Sharon, another soprano Soprano
Gwen, Arthur’s wife Mezzo
Mr. Penney, development director Bass-baritone
Carlo, guest tenor Tenor
Margaret, costume designer Mezzo
Ann Merriman, CEO High Soprano
Anna Merriman, her daughter Speaking role (child)
Chorus/Bankers/Citizens Mixed chamber choir


Scenes 1-5
A stage in a regional opera house, during and after rehearsal

A corporate boardroom, the next morning

Scene 1
A stage in a regional opera house, the next morning

Scene 2
A downtown street, that afternoon

Scene 3
That night, on stage and back stage, during performance

Scene 4
Sunset, a rocky hillside in the central Apennines

Scene 5
Backstage, after the performance


Buffa is, as the title implies, a comic opera. The plot centers around the production of a fictional 18th-century Italian opera by a small American opera company. The singers rehearse, fight, make love, and perform in roles that reflect their own personalities in whimsical ways.

Beneath this light surface, however, Buffa is an opera about opera itself and — in particular — the state of opera in America today. At various points, the characters are given opportunities to express their feelings about opera: its purpose, its relevance, its mysteries and its impracticalities. Operatic conventions are alternately celebrated and ridiculed. In the last two scenes, the cumulative effect of these viewpoints results in a single, affirmative credo for opera and, by extension, for all of the arts.

The central protagonist is the lead soprano Anna, who not only grapples with her doubts about the relevance of her work, but also struggles to maintain her fragile psyche in the face of mounting pressures as the performance approaches.

In addition to being the main protagonist, the character of Anna serves as a personification of opera in contemporary culture. Her journey from fear to despair to revelation are reflected by the structure of the sonnet she sings in her role as the shepherdess, a sonnet which begins the first act, concludes the second, and provides the pivotal epiphany in Act Three. As she watches the setting sun, the shepherdess tells of her sorrows and apprehensions, then unexpectedly finds a sign of hope in the approaching darkness:

Il sole s’arrende alle colline
Le colline s’arrendono al ombre
Le ombre si stendono,
i lupi scendono
e circondano i poveri agnelli
The sun surrenders to the hills
The hills surrender to shadows
The shadows lengthen,
the wolves descend
And circle my poor little lambs
Ogni notte svanisce un altro
Ogni alba li conto e piango
Provo a tenermeli vicini, sicuri
ma occhi affamati brillano
nelle tenebre
Each night another one vanishes
Each dawn I count them and mourn
I try to keep them close and safe
But hungry eyes glow
in the darkness
Nel cielo nero, una stella si leva,
abbraccia in un sguardo grazioso,
e da questo segno di perseveranza
la speranza si rinnova:
Il sole arrende, ascende una stella
e accende il cuore timoroso.
In the black sky, a single star arises,
it holds me in its tender gaze,
and from this sign of perseverance
hope is renewed:
The sun surrenders, a star ascends
and illuminates the timid heart.



2 Flutes (2. dbl. Piccolo)
2 Oboes (2. dbl. English horn)
2 Clarinets (2. dbl. Bass clarinet)
2 Bassoons (2. dbl. Contrabassoon)
Alto/Baritone Saxophone
2 Horns in F
2 Trumpets in C
2 Timpani
1 Bass Drum
2 Tom toms (medium, low)
1 Suspended Cymbal


OVERTURE: The orchestra rehearses an overture from a late eighteenth-century opera. The music stops and starts, as various passages are repeated in different tempi, sometimes in individual sections, sometimes with the entire ensemble.

The Stage Hand, dressed in overalls, comes out from behind the curtain. He takes a remote control from his belt and begins pushing buttons. After a few moments, the surtitles light up, reading “Saturday Night/ The Willington Opera Company/ presents/ La pastorella/ (The Shepherdess).”

With a grand, sweeping gesture, the Stage Hand throws open the curtain, revealing the set and characters for the first scene, frozen in place. The Stage Hand makes his way around the stage, spiking various spots on the floor with masking tape. As he marks each area, it slowly fills with light.


SCENE 1: Arthur, the director, is showing Anna the kind of entrance he wants her to make. She listens attentively, then follows his instructions. She begins an aria in which a shepherdess describes the approaching sunset. The rest of the cast listens in admiration. Suddenly she breaks off in the middle, yelling at the conductor about the tempo. Chaos ensues. She storms off, and Arthur, following her, calls an end to rehearsal.

Sharon and Arthur’s pregnant wife Gwen discuss Anna’s latest outburst. Their musings turn to the imminent arrival of Carlo, the visiting tenor.

SCENE 3: The Willington Opera’s development director, Mr. Penney, enters. Sharon runs to get Arthur. Penney announces that he’s arranged for singers to perform at a local bank the next morning. Carlo makes a grand entrance, immediately attempting to seduce Gwen and Sharon in quick succession. Anna returns. Penney tells her that she’s to sing at the bank the following morning. She refuses. Their argument escalates. Arthur asks the others to leave, so he can speak to Anna alone.

SCENE 4: Anna tells Arthur about her visions. He tries to bring her back to reality, reminding her of the impending performance at the bank. She voices her discouragement. He makes an eloquent plea for the importance of committing oneself to art and to beauty. They sing a duet which concludes with a tender kiss. Arthur breaks away in confusion, then exits.

SCENE 5: Margaret, the costume designer, enters with the shepherdess costume. She helps Anna try it on. They talk about the following morning’s performance at the bank. Margaret convinces Anna she should participate. Anna exits. Margaret sings about the ridiculous complexities of mounting an opera.


THEME AND VARIATIONS: A boardroom at United First Securities. Mr. Penney tells the bankers about the importance of supporting opera. He introduces Carlo, who then serenades Ann Merriman, the president. She’s very impressed, and invites him into an adjoining room to discuss a private transaction. Delighted, Penney introduces Anna. She tries to sing, but is unable. The bankers exhort her, then ridicule her. She is outraged, and calls forth a tremendous thunderstorm, sending the bankers scurrying about in terror. At the height of the storm, Merriman and Carlo return to see what all the commotion is about. In the ensuing melee, Merriman is drenched with a pot of coffee. Everyone is horrified. Anna, who has broken down completely, picks up the shepherdess aria where she left off in Act I, singing about the approaching night and the hungry wolves that threaten her sheep.


SCENE 1: Sharon exults in Anna’s breakdown, seeing an opportunity to further her own ambitions. Carlo enters and serenades her in Italian, German and French, but she turns the tables on him, to his utter confusion. Arthur enters, looking for Anna. Sharon and Carlo exit together, and Arthur sings of his complex feelings for Anna. Margaret enters, and he hastily explains that he’s upset about the state of the opera. Gwen enters, complaining of pains in her stomach. Anna returns, looking disheveled, and the four of them sing about their apprehensions for the coming evening.

SCENE 2: Citizens of Willington furtively discuss rumors about the events at the bank. Penney enters and, overhearing them, adds a few rumors of his own, whipping them up into an excited frenzy over the upcoming performance.

SCENE 3: La Pastorella. The orchestra tunes, then plays the overture. Backstage, Penney exults over ticket sales. Arthur listens nervously. Sharon, costumed as a duke, makes a dramatic entrance to start the action. Carlo, as the prince, enters soon after, and they challenge one another. Meanwhile, Gwen comes into the backstage area, collapses on the floor and goes into labor. While the Duke and Prince begin dueling, a crowd of chorus members and dancers gathers around Gwen. The duke stabs the prince, who then sings a death aria while Gwen is moaning backstage. Finally, the prince dies, a baby cries out, and everyone cheers. Sheep-fairies perform a magical dance around prince’s body, while Gwen is wheeled away with her new baby. The backstage crowd dissipates, and we see Anna for the first time, in her shepherdess costume. She exchanges a few words with Arthur, then prepares to make her entrance.

SCENE 4: An Italian mountainside. Anna sings the shepherdess aria describing the sunset and her fear of the approaching darkness. A star appears, rekindling her sense of hope. The entire cast emerges from the shadows, singing a hymn to the memory of light.

SCENE 5: After the performance, everyone congratulates one another. Penney heads off to try to bribe the local music critic. Carlo and Sharon leave together. Ann Merriman meets up with Anna, who apologizes for the scene in the bank. Merriman forgives her, and even thanks her for coming. Anna exchanges a few words with Merriman’s little daughter, who expresses her admiration in a way that touches Anna deeply. Merriman and her daughter depart. Anna shares her epiphany with Margaret. One by one, everyone exits, leaving Anna and Arthur alone. Arthur tries to apologize for kissing her, but Anna dismisses the apology and sings a tender farewell. He exits. Alone, she changes back into street clothes. The Stage Hand returns and presents her with two questions, the answers to which will determine her destiny.