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Jan 31, 2022 |
sacred_in_opera  |

Seymour Barab’s Only a Miracle: Can Comedy and Theology Co-exist?

At the 2022 NOA Conference, the National Opera Association’s Sacred in Opera Initiative celebrated the centennials of two opera composers, Seymour Barab and Dave Brubeck, who both wrote a significant body of sacred music drama, but are better known to most audiences for their secular works. One of the works profiled was Only a Miracle, a 50-minute one-act opera by Seymour Barab, which presents a fanciful look at the Christmas story of the birth of Jesus Christ in which very few of the principal players actually appear. Barab’s libretto nevertheless manages to explore a number of the theological threads most significant to Christian believers and to weave them into a new comic work. The presentation in St. Augustine devoted most of its time to excerpts from the work performed by students enrolled in the Music Drama Workshop class at Clayton State University. In this companion article to that presentation, attention is directed to how Barab, in his libretto and dramatic construction, underscores theological points about Jesus’ birth that are important to Christians.

Barab wrote Only a Miracle to his own libretto and scored it for flute, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, trombone, strings, and percussion, including timpani. G. Schirmer published the piano-vocal score in 1985; orchestral material is available on rental. The opera is set some days after the birth of Jesus at the inn at Bethlehem and features five characters: The Landlord of the inn (high baritone), Sylphinia, an enslaved girl who serves him (soprano), a Soldier (tenor), and King Herod and a Messenger, who may be played by the same bass, as they never appear together. (For the NOA presentation, the Messenger was cast as a mezzo-soprano while continuing to assign Herod to a bass-baritone. Such a change  works quite well; however, it does necessitate re-assigning the parts in the final quartet, which suited the student voices more comfortably than doing the quartet as originally written, with the tenor Soldier suddenly jumping to an alto tessitura.)  The work requires only one scenic setting and is well suited to academic or church music programs seeking an effective piece on a limited budget.

Only a Miracle takes place in the courtyard of the inn at Bethlehem. A Messenger wanders through the scene, searching unsuccessfully for Joseph of Nazareth. The Landlord of the inn is puzzled that his food provisions keep running low and interrogates his slave, Sylphinia, about the matter. Satisfied that Sylphinia is not eating more than he allows, he heads off to the market, charging Sylphinia that she must insist on payment in advance if any prospective guests arrive. He reminds her of the beating he gave her when she tried to allow that ragged carpenter and his pregnant wife into the inn without paying. After he is safely gone, Sylphinia recollects how she managed to stash Joseph and Mary safely in the stable, where Mary’s baby was born, and all the miracles she witnessed: the appearance of angels, the adoration of the shepherds, the star in the sky, and the stable animals joining in praise and worship in human speech. (This last Christmas miracle is not present anywhere in the Biblical account, but it has been a part of the folk tradition of the Nativity story since the Middle Ages.)  Finally, three wise men showed up, following the star, and worshiped the baby with precious gifts. As she comes back out of her memories to the present, Sylphinia utters an offhand remark that turns out to be a prophecy: “And someday others will come to worship the Child. Other shepherds and wise men—and, who knows?—maybe even kings," as she heads back to her work in the inn.

As soon as she leaves, King Herod arrives from Jerusalem with a Soldier, searching for the Infant King of whom the Wise Men had reported. He charges the Soldier to find the Child so that Herod can pay him homage, promising the Soldier a great reward. The Soldier is unsure he is up to the task, but Herod assures him that "It is simple. And being simple, you're just right for the job."  This exchange is the first illustration of many in the opera of one of the most significant aspects of the Incarnation: God came to Earth not as a mighty potentate, but in the most helpless and guileless persona possible, that of a newborn baby. That simple and unassuming form was right for the job. Herod gives the Soldier a scroll that identifies him "as a special envoy of the crown" and departs for Jerusalem.

Next, the Soldier encounters Sylphinia, and although he is disappointed when she says that he doesn't look like a warrior, the two of them discover they have a lot in common. Both of them have bosses who think they're too kind and gentle and that they need to improve their character by hardening their hearts. She invites him to come into the inn to tell him about the recent miracles while she scrubs the floors. After they go inside, the Messenger comes through again, still futilely searching for Joseph to warn him to take his family and flee from Herod’s plot.

Soon Sylphinia and the Soldier return. He is thoroughly entranced with the miracles she has recounted and begs to see the Child for himself. Remembering the Wise Men's admonition to tell no one where the Child is located, Sylphinia refuses, but she says she has proof that the miracles are real. She shows the Soldier a bag of gold. The Wise Men had given it to her as a reward for her kindness to the Holy Family. With this money, she can purchase her freedom from the Landlord. However, there is a catch. Since she belongs to the Landlord, so does everything she owns. She cannot purchase or earn her own redemption; someone else must pay her ransom. The Soldier seems to be a decent fellow; Sylphinia asks if he will redeem her from her enslavement to the Landlord.

This scene, on its surface, seems to be a typical operatic scene of two young people becoming aware of a growing romantic attraction between them, a trope found in hundreds upon hundreds of operas. But Barab’s libretto has cleverly underscored a crucial point of serious Christian theology in their conversation:  The Christ Child was born because humans were helpless to redeem themselves from their slavery to sin. Just as Sylphinia needs a willing volunteer to ransom her from enslavement, so does all of humanity, according to Christian orthodoxy.

Just as Sylphinia and the Soldier may be reaching an understanding, the Landlord unexpectedly returns, and the Soldier hides. The Landlord has heard in the marketplace the news that Herod is offering a rich reward for discovering a child. What sort of a child would interest King Herod? The wily Landlord has put two and two together and realized that a birth attended by the miraculous signs of which Sylphinia told him (which he previously thought were mere tales from a dream) must be that of the baby Herod is seeking. He also has realized that his disappearing food stores must be going to Mary and Joseph. Sylphinia holds the key to making him rich beyond his wildest, avaricious dreams. He begins with sweet talk, but Sylphinia holds fast to her promise to the Wise Men not to reveal the Child's whereabouts, and he begins to threaten her. Just as the Landlord is about to strike Sylphinia, the Soldier indignantly leaps to her defense; however, the Landlord is unimpressed by his less-than-martial bearing. Sylphinia, on the other hand, is mightily impressed by his gesture and proclaims that this is a “fierce, brave Soldier who will protect the Child!”  Suddenly, the nickel finally drops for the Soldier, and he realizes Herod's actual designs and how he, himself, came close to causing the Child’s death.   He is horrified. In the ensuing trio, the Landlord tries to convince them both that Herod's plans for the Child couldn't be all that bad. Sylphinia repeats her determination never to tell what she knows and betray the Child, and the Soldier berates himself for his complicity in Herod's plot. He is fully committed to the Child he has never seen from this point on.

The shrewd Landlord, sensing which of the people in front of him is more gullible, sends Sylphinia inside while he has “a word with this young man.”  The enlightened Soldier proves more resistant to the Landlord's wiles than the latter expected, but while the Soldier doesn't fall for the Landlord's words, he lets his guard down enough that the older man can wrest away his sword. As the two men struggle, and Sylphinia rushes in to break up the fight, the Soldier drops the scroll given to him by Herod. The Landlord uses it to demonstrate to Sylphinia that the man she had trusted is actually Herod's agent. She is crushed and refuses to hear the Soldier’s attempts to explain his repentance. She and the Landlord tie the Soldier up, and the Landlord orders Sylphinia back into the inn, where they will have “a nice, cozy little chat about a certain Child.”  The Soldier is enraged and panic-stricken as the Landlord produces a whip as he follows Sylphinia inside.

At just this moment, the Messenger returns once more, still looking for Joseph to warn him about Herod. The Soldier begs to be freed from his bonds so that he can go save Sylphinia, but the Messenger also reads the fallen scroll and accuses him of being “one of Herod’s evil forces.”  The Soldier protests and insists he can help the Messenger complete his mission, but the Messenger remains skeptical. Revealing that he is an angel coming down to Earth in the form of a man, the Messenger enumerates all the limitations he has discovered by being incarnate in the body of a human. Although the aria is humorous, it again prompts serious theological reflection on the meaning of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. The Child, Jesus, was born as God's Incarnation in human flesh, fully God and yet fully man (in the words of the noted contemporary hymnist Brian Wren, “constricted into maleness, and of a woman born”). He willingly takes on the limitations of the embodied experience of humans, the very limits that the angel is now finding so onerous, to be Emmanuel, God with us. The angel doesn't understand that "a helpless, hopeless man" is the only way to achieve God’s purpose. But he is about to find out.

Despairingly, the Messenger proclaims that "it would take a miracle to help me now," and the Soldier declares that this inn is a place of miracles. He excitedly recounts all the signs that already have occurred here: the star, the Wise Men, the shepherds, the animals talking, and the singing from the sky. The Messenger brightens at the mention of the singing in the sky. He is the soloist of the Heavenly Choir and is very interested in the Soldier's assessment of his performance.   The Soldier reluctantly admits that he didn't see or hear any of the miracles, but he still believes in all of them! In so doing, his belief reflects what the Child, grown-up, crucified, and resurrected, would someday say to the Apostle Thomas: “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)  And blessed the Soldier proves to be. Although he doesn't realize it, the Soldier’s story has suddenly caused the Messenger to remember that he knew all along where to find Joseph, Mary, and the Child. As the soloist in the Heavenly Choir, he had sung the words himself: “And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”  (Luke 2:12)  He rushes off to the stable, leaving the Soldier still bound, powerless to help Sylphinia, whose screams are heard from offstage as the Landlord tries to whip her into revealing the location of the Child. In a short scene that inevitably will remind opera lovers of Act II of Tosca with the tenor and soprano exchanging roles, the Soldier alternately calls offstage to exhort Sylphinia to be brave and reveal nothing to her torturer and frantically prays for deliverance for both of them.

Sylphinia, however, is made of sterner stuff than Floria Tosca. She successfully resists the Landlord, and he returns, angrily exclaiming, “That girl has more character than I gave her credit for.”  His new plan is to exploit her virtue for his end. Although she will not reveal the Child’s location to save herself, perhaps he can worm it out of her by threatening to kill the innocent Soldier if she does not. He offers her the choice.   She tells the Landlord that she cannot betray the Child but begs him to spare the Soldier. All he cares about is the reward, she says, so she produces the bag of gold with which she had hoped to buy her freedom and offers it to the Landlord in exchange for the Soldier’s freedom. The Landlord is astonished, but not quite enough to forget to claim that, under the law, the money is his anyway, so he will take both this bag of gold and Herod's reward. Either she tells him the Child's location, or the Soldier dies. Before she can say anything, the Soldier interjects that he is willing to die for the Child. Sylphinia has done the right thing in refusing to talk, and her generous gesture has made his last minutes on Earth his happiest.

Just as the Landlord prepares to slay the Soldier with his own sword, the Messenger, now restored to angelic power, re-appears. The message has been delivered to Joseph, and the Holy Family is safely on its way to refuge in Egypt. Herod is foiled. The Messenger causes the sword to fall out of the Landlord's grasp and the ropes to fall off the Soldier they were binding. He admits he had misjudged the Soldier, whose willing and guiltless self-sacrifice for the Child foreshadows the sacrifice the Child himself will make only thirty-three years later. The Messenger proclaims that Sylphinia’s ransom has been purchased by the Landlord's acceptance of the gold, and she is now free to go where she pleases. Her pleasure, it turns out, is wherever the Soldier is going, but he cannot return to Jerusalem; Herod would have his head. Where can they go? The Landlord continues to object to Sylphinia’s freedom and proclaim that he will find Herod and claim the reward before the Holy Family can complete their journey to Egypt.  

The Messenger gives the Landlord one last chance to repent, but when he continues to act like a jackass, the angel declares that he might as well sound like one, too. In an aria of rage and despair that is extremely funny (to everyone but him), the Landlord discovers that he has lost the power of speech and can only bray like a donkey. He is forced to beg Sylphinia for help. As the Messenger translates, he agrees to free her and make her his partner in the inn. Anticipating Jesus’s teachings in the parable of the Good Samaritan and in John 13:34 (“A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.”), Sylphinia proclaims, “We must help each other. That's what the Wise Men said the Child would teach, that we must help each other.”  She will stay in Bethlehem and settle down at the inn with the Soldier, who likely will have far more success as a friendly innkeeper than he ever did as a fearsome soldier. She wishes she could have said goodbye to the Holy Family, but she will remember them always. The Messenger replies that the whole world will remember them always; all these events will be celebrated forever at a time called “Christmas,” when, “to remember the gifts of the Wise Men, presents will be exchanged.”  The Landlord’s speech is restored, and all four characters join in singing that this little play they have presented is their Christmas gift for the audience, to which they wish a very merry Christmas as the curtain falls.

Despite being a very lighthearted and sometimes even farcical comedy, Seymour Barab’s Only a Miracle clearly presents much of the theological significance to Christians of the Nativity of Jesus and even acts as a didactic parable much like the ones Jesus himself told during his teaching ministry. The work is well suited to performance by school and church music programs and can provide them with the opportunity to offer a production that is both widely entertaining and theologically instructive. After collaborating with Barab as the librettist of his Cosmos Cantata, the writer Kurt Vonnegut said: “Barab’s music is full of magic. He proved to an atheist that God exists.”  Although Barab himself was not a religious man, in Only a Miracle, he treats the Christmas story with great integrity and respect, fully engaging with its implications for believers while also creating a very satisfying comic drama. 

About our Contributor:


Kurt-Alexander Zeller began performing in opera, musical theatre, and oratorio in his native Pacific Northwest at age eight. Since then, he has performed throughout the United States, Spain, and Austria, and has appeared on German television, winning acclaim for his memorable characterizations as a singing actor. Among his favorite roles are Don Anchise il Podestà in La finta giardiniera and Monostatos in The Magic Flute by Mozart, Eumete in Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, Filippo in Haydn’s L’infedeltà delusa, The Minstrel in Once Upon a Mattress, Tschang-Ling in the American premiere of Alexander Zemlinsky’s opera Der Kreidekreis in Cincinnati, and many roles in the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, Johann Strauss, and Franz Lehár.  His other performance activities have included a tour of Austria in a revue of the music of Kurt Weill, performing weekly “operatic soap operas” on the streets of Portland, Oregon, under a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and two seasons in the company of the Tony® Award-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Dr. Zeller is in demand as an oratorio soloist and recitalist and has appeared as a concert soloist for the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra, New Trinity Baroque, the Terra Nova Consort, the Portland and Salem (OR) Chamber Orchestras, the Southern Crescent Symphony, and many other symphonies and concert series.

He also has served as stage director of Rogue Opera’s productions of La Cenerentola, The Barber of Seville, and Don Pasquale and staged a program of sacred opera scenes for the Sacred in Opera Initiative of the National Opera Association at its 2013 national conference in Portland, Oregon. His 2009 staging of Britten’s Noye’s Fludde at Clayton State University, in partnership with schools in the Clayton County Public Schools, was profiled by Opera America’s Education Talk as an example of excellence in opera education and community outreach.  He has previously directed Cosi fan tuttè and The Elixir of Love for Peach State Opera.

Dr. Zeller is Director of Opera and Vocal Studies and Coordinator of the Division of Music at Clayton State University in Morrow, Georgia, and is active throughout the country as a vocal adjudicator and clinician. Dr. Zeller trained at the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. His graduate studies were at the College-Conservatory of Music of the University of Cincinnati, where he was awarded the MM in Voice Performance and a DMA in Voice Performance with cognate studies in Opera Directing and Musicology.