It is the year 1881 and London, England is the center of business, music, fashion and gentleman-like traditions. Robert Hart, a young clothing designer is soon to be married to his cousin Susan. Like most young women engaged to be married, Susan is pre-occupied with finding the right wedding dress and making sure all arrangements for the wedding are perfect for the grandest day of her life.
While all preparations for the wedding of this young couple continue, there is a great twist of fate to play out. During Robert’s excursion to Paris, France he meets a man named Hal. Robert strikingly reminds Hal of himself during younger times. The two men become acquaintances and continue to meet for tea and museum excursions at the Louvre. It is through this acquaintance that Robert has several uncomfortable situations in which he and Hal discuss homophobia and other areas of sexuality. Robert’s mind wanders and revisits his feelings of uneasiness about his forthcoming marriage. In the back of his mind he truly knows that he is a homosexual and his burgeoning interest in men, particularly Hal will soon come to reveal the truth about his deeper sexual identity.
As this operatic drama unfolds, life and death will be the stakes for which the characters are playing. Heartbreak is sure to result from a love triangle that could never be resolved given the mores, legal codes and psychological context of the day. Certainly Robert and Hal’s story is still seen in contemporary America and other Western societies that have not evolved or resolved their phobias regarding sexuality between same sex couples.
Robert Hart, Jr., 22
Elizabeth Hart, his mother
Robert Hart, Sr.
Susan Rowley, Robert’s fiancé
Harold (Hal) Newbury, ex-patriate
Christopher, Thomas, James
tenor, baritone, bass-baritone
Andre, young Frenchman
Scene One: A middle-class home in London in 1881, the residence of the Hart family. Robert Hart, a young clothing designer, is soon to be married to his cousin Susan, who has lived with the family since being orphaned as a child. Robert is in his room packing to leave on a last bachelor vacation in Paris and Italy. Susan, who comes to show him a new dress, speaks glowingly of their forthcoming union. As the scene progresses, it becomes apparent that Robert is filled with misgivings about the marriage, though he cannot figure out why. At last, it's time for him to go: his mother and father come to accompany him down to the ship.
Scene Two: Down on the dock, Robert says goodbye to his parents and Susan. Elizabeth is full of a mother's caveats about food and strangers, which his father makes light of. They allow Robert and Susan to take leave of one another alone to one side and, gazing at them, they both judge it a good match. Robert sings of their past harmony: "Oh, Susan, the happy hours we've spent together...." Susan echoes him: "Oh, Robby, adored as you adore me." But once alone on the ship, Robert's misgivings return even more strongly. "Am I a man yet?" he ponders.
Scene One: Two days later in a Parisian bistro catering to homosexuals, André, a dissolute youth of eighteen, becomes involved in a love spat with Hal, an English expatriate, who is in the import-export business. André stalks angrily off in search of a woman. Left alone with the Bartender, Hal tells him his story: how he was exiled to Paris by the homophobia in England and lost his business because of it. Hal ends by vowing to go to the Louvre to heckle the tourists who are unknowingly admiring works created by the same "perverts" they condemn and ostracize in their society.
Scene Two: In the Louvre a while later, Hal happens on Robert, and the two strike up a conversation about a painting in which two young men are depicted. Hal sees in Robert a younger version of himself and melts with compassion. Robert is subconsciously attracted to Hal, the older man. In the end, Hal invites Robert to have some tea with him, and Robert accepts, still unaware of his true nature.
Scene Three: Two days later, Hal comes to Robert's room as an invited guest after taking Robert to dinner. Gradually Robert begins to understand his true nature and why he had been looking upon his forthcoming marriage with such uneasiness. A long love duet unfolds between them.
Scene One: Two weeks later, while sitting in an outdoor café, Robert confides to Hal his dream of fashioning ready-made clothes. Hal is skeptical of his success: people will say the clothes are tainted by Robert's new-found sexuality. But Robert is disbelieving, claiming that Hal's cynicism is speaking. Robert reveals that a letter has come from Susan, advising of his father's imminent arrival. Their conversation ends with Hal's planting a kiss on Robert's forehead, which is noted by James, one of three Englishmen sitting close by. A discussion follows among them in which James reveals himself to be a hate-filled bigot, Thomas a fence-sitter, and Christopher a closet-gay trying to pretend that he is one of the boys. Hal kisses Robert again--over Robert's protests that these are not kisses of love but anger. In the end, Hal and Robert quarrel, and Robert walks off.
Scene Two: The next morning finds Hal drinking alone at the bistro. Mr. Hart, Robert's father, comes in search of his son. André turns up and unsuccessfully tries to make it up with Hal. Robert appears and reveals his homosexuality to his father, but the latter will have none of it and insists on his coming away to England. Robert realizes that he must go back home and somehow make a life for himself there, and he pleads with Hal to join him. But Hal cannot do so because as a known homosexual he fears prison, and he urges Robert to return there if he must and lead a celibate life. Hal then threatens to kill himself, but before leaving, dragged off by his father, Robert extracts a promise from Hal that he will go on living for his sake.
Scene Three: In the sewing room of the Hart residence back in London, Susan is trying on her wedding gown with Elizabeth looking on. Elizabeth leaves her alone in it, and Susan sings: "I am the luckiest of brides." Suddenly she hears Elizabeth trying to keep someone from entering the room, and then, Susan herself cries out "Bad luck! Bad luck!" as Robert appears. Prevented from speaking to Susan by Elizabeth, Robert storms out of the house. Alarmed by this strange behavior, Elizabeth and Susan are calmed by Mr. Hart. At length, left alone, Mr. Hart prays that everything may yet come out all right. Robert returns home and encounters Susan, who comes to understand, vaguely, about Hal and accuses Robert of betraying her. Now feeling totally abandoned, Robert hangs himself. Ironically, Hal is pictured at his Paris bistro, vowing to go on living for Robert's sake.
Origin of Robert and Hal
Composer Richard Brooks and writer/librettist Marcia Elder have created an enduring work for the operatic stage, Robert and Hal.
Richard Brooks has written two previous operas before collaborating with Marcia Elder on Robert and Hal. The impetus behind their collaboration resulted from elements of chance and a request from Ms. Elder for samples of Brooks’ music.
“My first awareness of the opera Robert and Hal occurred when I saw a brief announcement in a newsletter of a professional society of composers. It simply said that the author, Marcia Elder, had written a libretto dealing with a gay story and would like to hear from composers interested in collaborating,” the composer recalls.
There were several composers that responded to Ms. Elder’s advertisement. As it transpired, Ms. Elder preferred Brooks’ music and engaged him in several long telephone conversations to further discuss her libretto.
Brooks recalls---“So the collaboration between Marcia elder and me began. But sadly she did not live to see her dream fulfilled. A few months before she died, I was able to make a recording of one of the scenes, which we were planning to use as part of a promotional campaign. So at least she got to hear some of the music”.