The Young King

The Young King is based on one of the stories from Oscar Wilde’s collection of original fairy tales, long beloved of children for their fanciful imagery and by adults for their profound insights into morality and human nature.

The protagonist is the illegitimate son of a princess, originally exiled because his father was a commoner. When it becomes clear that the boy is the old king’s only heir, the dying monarch has him brought back to court from the hillside where he had been raised by shepherds. A free-spirited creature of the wood, the prince is enchanted by the artworks and riches of the court, and falls asleep on a silken bed the night before his coronation, anticipating the rich robe, golden crown, and jeweled scepter he’ll be wearing the next day.

But during the night he is haunted by three dreams that show him the human cost of these riches. An angry, destitute Weaver Woman struggles to finish the robe on time to avoid punishment; the ghost of a drowned pearl diver tells of his fatal descent to the ocean floor in search of the perfect pearl for the crown; and an allegorical struggle between Avarice and Death claims the lives of the miners digging for rubies for the scepter.

When the Prince wakes up, still haunted by these images, he refuses to wear the three beautiful adornments, since they were created at such a huge human cost. Dressed in his old shepherd’s weeds, he goes to church for his coronation, where he is castigated by the Bishop and heckled by the angry mob as unfit to rule. But he turns to faith for the answer, and in the final moments is miraculously transfigured as a new kind of King for the future.

This richly evocative and mysterious story has been translated into a compact seventy-minute opera, ideal either for a short evening or pairing with another one-act work. The timeless setting and magical elements provide plenty of inspiration for creative staging and design. Written for a cast of graduate students in the opera program at the University of Maryland, with an emphasis on female voices, the opera gives each of the vocalists a chance to shine. The sophisticated, intricate score provides rewarding musical challenges, with vocal writing tailored to the capabilities of developing voices.

Tom Rowan’s literate libretto, largely in rhymed verse, evokes both the whimsy and the mystical wisdom of Wilde’s original story, rendering it in theatrically active terms. Martin Hennessy’s elegant, colorful score weaves an atmospheric spell to beguile the listener; each of the dreams has its own color and musical character, and the final scene builds to a profound religious ecstasy. The jewel-like piano accompaniment frames the voices with an unfailingly light touch, bringing out the humor and magic in the story. This is a rewarding piece to perform and an enchanting listening experience for audiences of all ages.   

The Young King

An opera for nine singers and pianoLibretto by Tom Rowan
Adapted from Oscar Wilde’s short story

How fortunate Tom Rowan and I were to stumble upon Wilde’s story of the young goatherd destined for greatness. The assignment of writing a piece for five sopranos, two mezzo-sopranos and two tenors was quite specific but this story seemed to yield and bend to our needs at every turn.  Central to the adaptation was creating a Trio of Cherubim (protectors of throne) that fill us in on the back story in a Prologue and then guide us through meeting the Young King, each of his three disturbing dreams, the moral choice he makes as a consequence, and ultimately, a surprise coronation by a power greater than the Bishop.

We are very grateful to the Maryland Opera Studio and the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center for this unique opportunity to compose an opera for the artists in the MOS. We are also grateful to the strong artistic and management team of Craig Kier, Justina Lee, Nick Olcott and Ashley Pollard for shepherding the project.

It was particularly satisfying to deal with material about the moral education of a leader! We live in an era marked by extreme disparities of wealth and income. To make matters worse, there are powers afoot in this country that would challenge basic values of fairness, honesty, respect and love of neighbor. Wilde’s parable of The Young King seems particularly timely in view of this imminent danger to the democratic values which civilize and unite us.  MH


The Young King: lyric mezzo or soprano

Trio of Cherubim:

Lily: high soprano

Lilac: soprano

Rose:: mezzo-soprano

*The Old Bishop: tenor

The Weaver: mezzo-soprano

The Pearl Diver: tenor

Avarice: soprano (dramatic coloratura)

*Death: tenor (doubles with Bishop)

The Chamberlain: lyric mezzo or soprano

*these roles could be re-written for bass in future productions

Instrumentation (under consideration with commission)

Woodwind Quintet

(Fl, Oboe, Cl. in B♭, Bassoon, Horn in F)


String Quintet


Duration 70 minutes

Commissioned for the Maryland Opera Studio
by the School of Music and the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center,
University of Maryland, College Park, MD

Written for and dedicated to the first year artists
of the Maryland Opera Studio
2016-2017 season

Please contact the composer via the Contact Page to purchase a PV score!