Dum Dee Tweedle is total nonsense. Don't look for a normal plot or a cast of characters consistently sung. Everything, opera-wise, is askew.
The work–a setting of Chapter Four, "Tweedledum and Tweedledee" from Through the Looking Glass of Lewis Carroll–is in 10 scenes with a Finale. It is written for narrator, four solo voices (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), SATB chorus, and a large orchestra. Highlights include an Opera within an Opera (the poem, "The Walrus and the Carpenter"), a ballet ("Fugue of the Hopping Oysters"), and a snoring machine. Much of the music is fast and breathless. The work lasts perhaps 80–90 minutes without an intermission.
Scene 1 (Introduction) is dominated by the narrator. Alice, Tweedledum, and Tweedledee are the characters. It contains a duet for Tweedledum and Tweedledee (alto and bass) and a dance for all three ("Here we go 'round the mulberry bush"). The scene functions as a preparation for Scene 2, the Opera within an Opera.
The Walrus and the Carpenter, Part I (only half of the poem is used here). This section is entirely sung. Besides the Walrus (soprano) and the Carpenter (tenor), solo roles include the Eldest Oyster (alto) and assorted Oysters (sung by the boys). The chorus is introduced, as well, and participates frequently. Action: After the scene is vividly (and nonsensically) evoked, the Walrus and the Carpenter begin to entice the oysters to come to shore and leave behind the safety of the sea. Only the Eldest Oyster objects. Scene 3 brings the Opera within an Opera to a climax with the "Fugue of the Hopping Oysters" for orchestra alone. This ballet depicts the oysters rushing heedlessly shoreward. What happens to the little ones is yet to be revealed...
Scenes 4, 5, and 6 return to a melodrama format–narration with orchestra.
Scene 4, The Red King Snores (Ostinato), uses the chorus and orchestra as a "snoring machine," against which the narrated action of Alice, Tweedledum, and Tweedledee occurs. (They discover the Red King asleep under a tree.)
Scene 5, A New Rattle (Bagatelle), pits the crazy antics of the two brothers against the gentle logic of Alice. A rattle is the improbable focus.
Scene 6, A Battle (Perpetual Motion), is a breathless, nonsense battle between the two brothers. Alice acts as confidant, as dresser (they don elaborate costumes) and, finally, as peacemaker. This leads once again (and without pause) to Scene 7, the Opera-within-an-Opera.
The Walrus and the Carpenter, Part II (the second half of the poem is used now). This, the largest section of the piece, is entirely sung, with much ensemble work for the four solo voices and chorus. Action: The oysters, now on land, are seduced still closer to the gaping mouths of the Walrus and the Carpenter, who suddenly–sadly–eat them. While the Walrus and Carpenter are, of course, leading characters, it is the chorus which comes to personify the frightened oysters and dominates the scene. Much is made, musically speaking, of the verse containing the famous lines "Of shoes and ships–and sealing wax– / Of cabbages–and kings."
Scene 8: Appended to the poem is an extra verse, The Moral. In it, the action is continued and the Walrus and Carpenter fall asleep. (This verse was added by Carroll for Saville Clarke's operetta, Alice).
Scene 9, Oysters' Revenge, follows without pause. It begins as a duet for soprano and tenor and grows to include the other solo voices and chorus. (This text is not by Carroll). To describe the action, I quote from Martin Gardner's The Annotated Alice: "After the Walrus and Carpenter have gone to sleep, the ghosts of two oysters appear on the stage to sing and dance and punish the sleepers by stamping on their chests. Carroll felt, and apparently audiences agreed with him, that this provided a more effective ending for the episode and also somewhat mollified oyster sympathizers among the spectators." Thus concludes the Opera within an Opera.
Scene 10, The Monstrous Crow (Pedal Point), reintroduces narration, as Tweedledum, Tweedledee, and Alice muse over the events in the poem. Suddenly, the light darkens. An enormous bird approaches. The three characters run off into the woods. For the last time, the voices of the vanished oysters are heard in an elaborate choral finale, "Feed not on us!" which concludes the work.
A note on the composition of Dum Dee Tweedle:
In 1988, I moved with my partner, Paul Arcomano, to an idyllic home in Sag Harbor on Long Island. I felt overwhelmed by New York City–finally–after 25 years. And Paul had AIDS. It is a strange irony that as Paul's health declined, leading to his death in 1993, I was writing music that was relentlessly fast, breathless, and "happy." In 1995, upon completion of Dum Dee Tweedle, I sold my home in Sag Harbor and returned to New York City.
A PITCH FOR DEL TREDICI'S DUM DEE TWEEDLE:
Dear Opera Lovers,
Lea Frey and I were at the June 16th performance of David Del Tredici's magical ADVENTURES UNDERGROUND, one of the first pieces of a series of works based on Lewis Carroll's ALICE IN WODERLAND books. Performed by the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, with soprano Lauren Flanigan, the work electrified the audience which responded with a thunderous standing ovation resulting in multiple curtain calls. The work is wonderfully exciting- I find, in fact, all of Del Tredici's ALICE pieces rich and rewarding musically; they have a freshness and energy that touches audiences deeply. But the good news to share is this-Del Tredici has composed an opera based on the Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum characters, DUM DEE TWEEDLE; I've had the pleasure of seeing a score, and found it to be fascinating.
Del Tredici is one of the important composers who made music based upon traditional tonal systems fashionable again with his fresh approach to sound, and it was only a matter of time, I think, that a composer with such dramatic gifts would turn to opera. The work would be a dream for an innovative stage director, based upon the magical surrealistic world of the Carroll characters. Amazingly this work, completed in 1992, has not yet been performed!
As a fan of this composer's music, I would like, to recommend to adventurous opera producers and directors that they take a look at DUM DEE TWEEDLE; (materials are available through Boosey & Hawkes); it has the kind of energy that we look for in opera, and is innovative and fresh in its theatrical challenges; I hope it will, be "discovered" and produced soon, as I, for one, am anxious to see it mounted.