Night and Dreams: the death of Sigmund Freud


Composer: Andrew Ford 
Librettist: Margaret Morgan
With Gerald English as Sigmund Freud

Decca Eloquence 480 0461
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Librettist's Program Notes by Margaret Morgan

When, four years ago, Andrew Ford invited me to write to the libretto for a solo music theatre work for Gerald English, he asked me to think about possible subject matter. The name, "Sigmund Freud" leapt unrehearsed from my lips and I am still not sure why. Andy agreed immediately, saying, "Apart from anything else, Gerald looks like Freud." It wasn't until Gerald had some publicity shots taken, with beard, glasses and a Freudian cigar, that I realised just how uncannily true that was. The logic of the choice of subject soon made itself clear to me: two men profoundly important to their fields, in the centre of the maelstrom of, respectively, social and musical change. Now as Gerald approaches the end of his career, it was appropriate to place Freud at the end of his. The work, then, would aim to sum up Freud's life.

Having made this decision, I encountered the difficulty not of what to write, but what not to write, for not only did Freud write copiously about his theories and his life, the forest of books devoted to the discussion of psychoanalysis and of the man himself-including the invaluable works of Peter Gay-is remarkable. How to choose? The answer came in my resolution to write from Freud's own imagined perspective, as he neared death. I would focus on those events and people in his life that I felt would most preoccupy him towards the end and cause him regret or a need for resolution. This subjective approach to his experience also had the advantage letting me bypass-at least consciously!- more recent criticism of Freud from the standpoints of feminism, scientific method or modern psychological theory, which would otherwise crowd any exploration of Freud and Freudianism.

Of course, no work about Freud could ignore the realm of dreams, and this gave the key to the piece's structure. Freud dreams, recounts his dreams to the audience-his "psychoanalyst"-and then, following his own ideas on "the talking cure", seeks to analyse what the dreams mean. Of course, the dreams are entirely invented, and since the process started with the analysis of the dream, then moved backwards to the imagery of the dream itself, it is in effect reverse psychoanalysis-and perhaps reveals more than I'd care to admit about the murky depths of my own unconscious!

The "unreliable narrator" is a favourite of any writer, and Freud, who discovered denial, is not immune to its effects in Night and Dreams. For all his failings and self-delusions, though, I found myself fond of the old man and affected by his death, just as I had fallen in love-and lust-with Giacomo Casanova in my last collaboration with Andrew Ford.

Night and Dreams is set at the beginning of WWII in London, where Freud has moved in self-imposed exile. Distanced by miles and by failing health from the Nazi horror in his Austrian homeland, his is the private death of a public man.

January 2000


Press reviews

"After the success of Casanova Confined, a one man show for Lyndon Terracini, composer Andrew Ford looked to Gerald English for inspiration. Noting that the veteran tenor (turning 75 this November) wanted only for a beard to become an uncanny look-alike to Sigmund Freud, Ford and his musically attuned librettist Margaret Morgan worked up Night and Dreams: the Death of Sigmund Freud, a thriller built around the last days of the famed psychoanalyst. We, the audience, were cast in the role of doctor to an old, frail wreck of a once brilliant man dying of jaw cancer, confessing some of his most awful transgressions. Morgan's text (worth reading in its own right for its poetry and refined rhythm) illuminates his professional and personal traumas in both prose and verse, and Ford's music, with pre-recorded accompaniment of piano, harp, electroacoustic harp and sound track of evocative backgrounds including jackboots and other belligerencies, supports and intensifies the atmosphere and emotions. Freud's Vienna is artfully created through real and pastiche Schubert, and Ford's own distinctive voice stitches past and present together into a score that both provokes and satisfies. Gerald English gave a virtuoso performance, full of voice in both speech and song, so secure that he could let some cracks show, thereby adding both force and credibility to his character."

- Elizabeth Silsbury, Opera

"A perfect little gem of chamber opera.... This work is stunningly intelligent, intensely moving, and a tribute to one of the most influential thinkers of modern times. It is a perfect vehicle for the talents of Gerald English, now in his 75th year, but still singing with a characteristic intensity of feeling and subtly nuanced interpretation of both the music and the dramatic material. 
The many-layered work begins, with particular aptness, with Freud listening to a Schubert lied. From his study he addresses us, presenting himself as the patient we are to psychoanalyse, using his own methods. There is no "cure" for this patient, but this final case study is, in fact, to vindicate to Freud not only his own life's work, but to help him to face what inevitably lies ahead. 
This was an extraordinary performance. There can hardly be a more appropriate or better performer anywhere in the world than Gerald English, here giving tribute to a man who showed us how art expresses truths not otherwise accessible."

 - Helen Thomson, The Age


"Night and Dreams is true music theatre - sung and spoken texts are essentially of equal importance, and combined with evocative and often confronting recorded sounds they created a powerful and eerie atmosphere...."

 - Tristram Cary, The Australian

"Interrupted periodically by the noises of frightening political events, Freud recalls some of the traumas of his life and career. Ford as composer gives him five 'dreamsongs' in which the modern father of dream interpretation is haunted by a mysterious mute female figure; not until the end does he recognise her as Eros's sister, the goddess of death. These dreamsongs parody existing music. The one prompted by filial-paternal thoughts about Michelangelo's statue of Moses, for instance, alludes freely to Schubert's Erl King; and Freud's tin ear helps make dramatic sense of the parodies, as if the inventor of psychoanalysis is doing his best with a very imperfect musical memory. 

"The instrumental parts for the piece were recorded by Ian Munro (piano), Marshall McGuire (harp) and Alice Giles (electroacoustic harp), and are fed into the performance alternately from two CDs. English speaks and sings in real time (except where his voice is joined to the instrumentalists for the crackle of 1939-type 78rpm recordings) and acts out Freud's reveries with a keen sense of timing and humour. The feeling of physical presence in the last hours of the great theorist is vivid...."

- Roger Covell, Sydney Morning Herald


"In this electrifying vehicle for 77-year-old tenor Gerald English, composer Andrew Ford and librettist Margaret Morgan turn the tables on Freud so that we, the audience, become his psychoanalyst during his last hours. Riddled with cancer of the jaw and palate almost certainly brought on by his fondness for cigars, Freud is walled up in his London apartment of exile during 1939 waiting to die. His physician Dr Schurr has promised to help him on his way, but meantime he is haunted by a recurring dream of a mute girl who is also a man. At the end the image is unravelled the girl is not Eros, the life principle, but rather Thanatos: Death.... 

"Though references to the holocaust abound, the central concerns are elsewhere. George Whaley's directing allows the relationship between veteran performer and his audience to have full play. English's acting has never been on this level. In the background is Eamon D'Arcy's set of screens filled with images of dreams.Night and Dreams should be whisked away to Europe instantly where I have no doubt it would be become a festival hit overnight, and it's just the right size to travel."

- Helen Musa, The Canberra Times


"I never thought I'd like Sigmund Freud. Even now, I'm not sure that's what Margaret Morgan and Andrew Ford intended.... But, spending an hour with their Freud - him on the couch, the audience in the analyst's chair - I couldn't help but chuckle conspiratorially with this perverse, self-deluding, Viennese dinosaur, marooned in his study in London in 1939, his personality literally on the verge of extinction. Clutching a statuette reproduction of Michelangelo's Moses, he says: 'Moses created Judaism; I created psychoanalysis.' ... 

"Night and Dreams belongs to the 'one-man' show genre. Gerald English, a veteran musical artist totally at home with monologue, is now senior enough to slip into the role of Freud without unduly stretching our (or his) imagination. He looks the part, and acts it, too.... 

"Ten years ago, I suspect that Ford would have composed the score far more densely. Now the instrumental component is not so in-your-face, but issues, via loudspeaker, from Freud's own dreamworld."

- Graeme Skinner, Sydney Morning Herald


Production Details

Music produced in the studios of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation by the Listening Room.

Tenor: Gerald English
Piano: Ian Munro
Harp: Marshall McGuire
Harp: Alice Giles
Sound recording: David Bates
Sound mixing and treatments: Russell Stapleton
Production: Andrew McLennan

Night and Dreams: the death of Sigmund Freud was commissioned by Music Theatre Sydney.

Telstra Adelaide Festival of the Arts 2000 

Opera Studio, Netley
March, 2000.

25th Sydney Festival
The Studio, Sydney Opera House
19, 20 and 22 January, 2001

Melbourne Arts Festival
October 2001

Director: George Whaley
Designer: Eamon D'Arcy
Lighting Designer and Production Manager: Joseph Mercurio
Sound Projection: Ingrid Rahlen

These productions were made possible by the Confederation of Australian International Arts Festivals through the Major Festivals' Initiative of the Australia Council, the Australian Government's arts funding and advisory body and the ABC - The Listening Room.