Bernard Rands (b. 1934)
Opera in Two Acts
Libretto by J. D. McClatchy (b. 1945)
Commissioned by the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Indiana University Department of Music
Vincent van Gogh - Christopher Burchett, Baritone
Theo van Gogh - Will Perkins, Tenor
Theodorus van Gogh - Jason Eck, Bass-baritone
Sien - Kelly Kruse, Soprano
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - Steven Linville, Tenor
Agostina Segatori - Laura Conyers, Mezzo-soprano
Paul Gauguin - Adam Walton, Bass-baritone
Dr. Peyron - Andrew Morstein, Tenor
Dr. Paul Gachet - Christopher Grundy, Baritone
Marguerite Gachet - Jami Leonard, Soprano
I happened to be in Amsterdam playing concerts when the then-new Van Gogh Museum opened, and so was one of the first in the building as soon as it was open to the general public. Though I was familiar with much of his work from visits to many museums in Europe, I was overwhelmed by the Amsterdam experience. In particular, the top floor exhibited all his drawings in pencil, charcoal, gouache and so on, and I thought “maybe one day I will make an opera about this man!” That was the early 1970s, and the subsequent 40 years were spent reading, researching, sketching (Le Tambourin Suites 1 and 2), hoping to find the right librettist, the right opportunity, which arrived in the form of a commission to make Vincent for the 100th anniversary of the Indiana University Department of Music.
Although much of the detail of Van Gogh’s life in general is represented (he was a genius, a religious fanatic, an epileptic, an alcoholic with a short-fuse temper), the opera mainly deals with the late years—his attempt to work in his uncle’s gallery as a “salesman” (a failure); his attempt to placate his father’s wishes by becoming a missionary in the coal-mining community in the Borinage (a failure); his desire to be a family man by living with Sien, a prostitute, and her child (a failure); and finally meeting Gauguin in the Café Le Tambourin and leaving to go to “the south”, where I end Act I. Act II finds Van Gogh in the Yellow House preparing for Gauguin’s arrival—he comes, stays, they work together for a while and then have a vicious falling-out—Gauguin leaves (another failure) and from then on is the rapid decline of physical and mental health leading to “the ear” episode, the sanatorium, the suicide attempt (almost a failure!), and his death with Theo, his brother, at his bedside.
CD 1: Act I
 Scene 1: Saint-Rémy, 1889
Vincent van Gogh is writing a letter to his brother, Theo, in Paris.
 Scene 1A: Van Gogh’s family home, The Netherlands, 1876
Theo convinces their father, Theodorus, a Protestant pastor, to allow Vincent to pursue a career in art.
 Scene 2: Paris, 1876
The scene opens in the Goupil Art Gallery in Paris in 1875, when Vincent is 22 years old. The gallery director, Vincent’s Uncle Cent, is speaking with the young Van Gogh, whom he has hired as a favour to his father and is encouraging him to learn the business of art so that he can become a success. Vincent is still highly religious and passionate about God and art. A couple stops in front of a painting and the director sends Vincent to try and close the sale. But as he interacts with them and other prospective buyers, Vincent is disgusted at the superficiality of the patrons. Unable to contain himself, he confronts a lady patron and challenges her, thus highly offending her. Uncle Cent and Vincent determine that the gallery is not the place for him.
 Scene 3: The Borinage, Belgium, 1878
Vincent is now at the Borinage, where he has gone as a missionary to preach. The scene opens at a pithead of the mine. The mine underground has collapsed, trapping several miners. The atmosphere is grim as friends and families anxiously gather around the pithead. As the miners begin to see their rescue attempt as futile, Vincent begins to preach, leading the crowd in a rousing hymn of praise. As he continues to preach, he begins to stutter, becomes disoriented and collapses.
 Scene 4: A Missionary church in the Borinage, Belgium, 1878
Theo arrives in search of Vincent and is astounded at the beauty of the paintings Vincent has laying around. Again, Theo asks Vincent why he is “wasting his time” here when he could be using his great talent to paint. Vincent responds that nothing is any use unless we bring the word of God to His people. He asserts that he belongs here, doing what he is doing. Theo tells Vincent that their father and mother are here. Theodorus van Gogh has been asked by the Elders of the Evangelical Society to come and hear Vincent preach. Theodorus tells him that his work at the Borinage has been met by the elders with disfavour. Vincent is stunned and argues that there has been a preacher in every generation of the family, and he wants to follow humbly in this father’s footsteps. He rushes to the pulpit and begins preaching. He breaks down in tears and his father is forced to tell him that he is not missionary stock. Vincent is left to muse on what he perceives as his father’s abandonment.
 Scene 5: The Hague, 1882
Vincent is living in a shabby studio. His brother, Theo, comes to tell Vincent that he is going to marry. He also brings him painting supplies, which Vincent desperately needs. Vincent seems happy, saying he is free “to paint the shapes of God.” Sien, pregnant and haggard, enters with her child. She slaps some coins on the table. Vincent confesses that neither child is his, but that he is going to marry Sien. Theo leaves, confused. After some bickering between them, Vincent poses Sien and begins sketching her. Theo returns and vehemently opposes Vincent’s marriage to Sien and an argument ensues. Sien states that she does not want to come between them, nor does she want to be saved. Theo leaves angrily. Sien tells Vincent she does not need him, repeating the theme, “no one needs you”, and leaving Vincent once again to muse on his perceived abandonment by someone he loves.
 Scene 6: Neunen, 1885
Vincent is alone at his easel. He is creating furiously and with great intensity, all the while murmuring to himself that he is doing the work of God, using the colours of God’s canvas. He is creating the picture known as The Potato Eaters.
 Scene 7: Paris, 1887
Vincent and Theo are at the Café Le Tambourin, a lively artists’ bar in Montmartre. Its patroness, Agostina Segatori, with whom Vincent has been having an affair, presides over the raucous scene of singing and carousing. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec introduces Paul Gauguin as the “future of painting.” This announcement is met with bawdy remarks from the patrons. Toulouse- Lautrec then asks for Agostina to sing them a song during which she teases Vincent and flirts with Gauguin. The patrons become more and more drunk. But Vincent and Gauguin connect and Vincent invites Gauguin to come with him to paint in Arles. They both leave the café arm-in-arm as the act comes to an end.
CD 2: Act II
 Scene 1: Arles, 1888
The scene opens in the famous yellow house in Arles, where Vincent has been living and painting. Gauguin arrives, suitcase in hand. Vincent is elated and leads Gauguin to his room, full of plans for the future. He then takes Gauguin to the village café, which is overflowing with patrons and prostitutes.
 Scene 2: Arles, 1888
It is morning. Gauguin is waking up after an evening spent with a prostitute. Vincent is already awake and working. Gauguin comes downstairs with his suitcase and announces to Vincent that he is leaving. When Vincent pursues the reason for this, Gauguin admits that it is because he is tired of being lectured by Vincent. Vincent is mystified. Gauguin tries to explain how he feels about painting. He accuses Vincent of painting everything violent and pure, with no gradation. “That is not painting, Vincent”, he says, “it’s just paint.” It becomes obvious that neither man understands each other. Gauguin leaves with the prostitute. Vincent is once again in despair at his abandonment by Gauguin. In desperation, he takes a razor and cuts his ear.
 Scene 3: Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, 1889 – The courtyard of the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole
Theo enters and sits on a bench where he is joined by Dr. Peyron. The doctor informs Theo that Vincent is recovering and will be glad to see him. He cautions Theo that Vincent’s unpredictable episodes of epilepsy can still cause him terrible outbreaks, but that he seems calmer and is starting to paint again. Vincent enters, and brightens when he sees Theo. They are left alone, and Vincent confesses to Theo that his mind is not right. He tells Vincent that he and Johanna are having a baby and if it is a boy they will call him Vincent. Theo leaves and Vincent sets his easel and starts painting. As soon he begins, one of his seizures comes upon him and he begins to eat paint and smear it on his face.
 Scene 4: Auvers-sur-Oise, France, 1890 – The house of Dr. Gachet
Dr. Gachet is in his salon, posing for the portrait which Vincent is painting of him. An easel with the almost-completed picture is nearby. Dr. Gachet’s daughter, Marguerite, enters with tea for her father. They begin an argument about Vincent staying in their home. She tells her father that Vincent is ill and needs to be in a hospital, away from painting, which only upsets him. Vincent comes in, overhears the conversation, and offers to leave. Dr. Gachet will not have it. Vincent gratefully thanks Dr. Gachet for believing in him. He now understands his illness and knows the attacks will return, but painting helps him. Vincent also attempts to share his feelings of love for Marguerite, who rejects him. As he talks with Dr. Gachet about his paintings, he becomes more animated and accidentally knocks over the cup of tea. Vincent becomes very upset and rushes out of the room saying that he should not be there.
 Scene 5: Auvers-sur-Oise, 1890 – A field
Vincent is wandering in the field, knowing that another attack is coming on. He realizes that everyone he knows has someone except himself. He feels that he is a burden on all who know him. Making the decision that he will no longer be a burden to anyone, he takes out a pistol and shoots himself in the chest.
 Scene 6: Auvers-sur-Oise, two days later – A room
Vincent lies dying. With him, as always, is his brother Theo. Vincent talks of Theo and his son, and how he used his paintings to show his gratitude. With Theo at his side, Vincent dies, remembered alone for his art.