Libretto for Scott Ordway's choral opera, "The Outer Egge of Youth"


a choral opera in two acts
Text, music, and video projections by Scott Ordway
Commissioned by The Thirteen Matthew Robertson, Artistic Director
Updated April 12, 2022


Before women and men and beautiful children walked
upon the surface of the earth,
the birds all sang from high above.
They did not search for answers.
They did not need forgiveness.
They sang clearly and with the endless breath of god.

And they made their home in the forest.

Their children slumbered
In the warmth of their small shells.
Their world was without form,
Only soft, flickering light,
Shadows cast by leaves of permanent tress.

The only sound in their floating world
Was the soft beating of tiny hearts.
No beginning, and no end,
Only heartbeats, rocking branches, and light.


SCENE 1: Two boys enter the forest

1a. Introduction

Two boys, both serene, both innocent.
Theirs was a singular friendship,
All made of silence and stillness.
They did not crave attention.
Neither had the gift of strength.
Neither had the gift of action.
Neither had a taste for violence.
These are the ones who listen.
Someday, both would have become men of grace.

You will meet them in the Twilight of their boyhood,
Before they open their eyes and See the beauty of all things,
Before they know love,
Before they know the passage of time.

They are children:
They take their world for granted,
But they long to understand.

And they love the forest.
Oh, how they love the forest!
The cool stillness,
The shadow, the soft light,
The moss and the lichen,
The strange flowers,
And the secret, silent creatures.

On this day, a strange day,
They approach the forest edge.
They hear tiny voices laughing, singing, playing.
The birds! The birds! The birds!

1b. Chorale

Hello, hello, hello,
Will you listen as we
Tell you of the forest?
We will tell you of the grazing deer,
And the fallen branches,
And a quiet secret hiding:
Little rabbit and her family
Make a tiny sunless home
And shelter one another.

Look below and see the river,
Passing through the shadowed canyon,
Hear the sound of coldest water.
And butterflies that once were so
Abundant now are difficult to
Find, to see, to follow.
But from time to time they all appear,
A great big cloud of color,
Shifting back and forth with changing wind,
Their inner life so difficult to see
For even those of us who fly along right by their side.
The mystery of nature is not
shown in all its fullness to one
Bird or beast or growing thing.

Welcome, welcome, all are welcome!

Why have you called us here?
Why do you welcome us?

You seek a world beyond your own,
More perfect, more forgiving,
More delicate, more silent.

1c. Dialogue

Is it strange to understand these words?

Is it wrong to understand these words?

Am I alone in understanding?

Are we alone?

Do you trust these birds?

I trust them more than anyone but you.

Do think they will hurt us?

No, they would welcome us.

Do you think we will hurt ourselves?

We should join them.
We belong in the forest!

SCENE 2: The foxes’ wedding

2a. Introduction

As the boys enter the forest,
the sun is shining brightly,
but springtime rain is falling.
They huddle together,
out of sight, beside the path.

In the distance, hidden by the
Leaves and branches, they can see
A strange and wondrous thing.
A small parade of tiny foxes,
Walking two by two in silence.
With slow and simple sacred gesture,
They perform a wedding march!
Yes! Yes! A slow procession of these joyful
Creatures in their brightest hour.
Two young lovers, bathed in sunlight,
Followed by their closest kinsmen,
Trailed behind by those who love them.

The boys will learn—with trembling breath—that
Foxes teach us something special:
All of us are nothing more than
Creatures walking slowly through the forest,
Looking for another soul who
Might just bring some love and laughter
To us in our failing hours.

But to see this sacred rite, the
Boys remain in special silence,
Out of sight and hidden from the
Foxes’ ears and piercing vision.

2b. Interlude (Wedding March of the Foxes)

[ instrumental ]

2c. Dialogue

BOYS (alternating)
But why do these foxes gather here?
They walk in pairs, two by two.
They walk so slowly, like a secret.
They stop and pause to look around.
Are they frightened? Are they cautious?

Why are these foxes bound together?
What draws them close?
I want to know what pulls them together!
What force is strong enough to bind these
Souls up tight for all the long expanse of life?

Why don’t they walk alone
Like all the other foxes do?

2d. Chorale
on the nature of love: the first argument

You wonder: why are these foxes all walking together?
This kind of love comes only through process And gesture,
And sacrifice,
See how both our foxes look
At one another with conviction?
All they yearn for is the chance to
Serve each other in their failing hours?
Can you see the way they look out
At the world with satisfaction?
Only sacrifice will
Build a love so soft and sound and free.
This is why our foxes walk in
Calm and careful, stately steps.
Breathing deeply,
They pass with all contentment!
Their love is sacrifice!

2e. Chorale
on the nature of love: the second argument

We do not know much of love,
But surely it is more than you say.

Yes! Some would say that
Love is more enchanted than that,
Than the afterglow of duty.
Than a process, than a service.
Love is a spark that
grows and gathers on its own, a
Force beyond all knowing,
Spreading outward from the center,
Burning forward on its own,
Bringing forth a transformation
Like a slow and certain dawn!

What lights this fire?

What allows it to grow?

There is no source!
It just becomes!
It cannot cease,
It cannot lessen,
Or diminish,
Or decay.
It cannot fragment, break apart,
Or falter, or fail.
This spark is all that we retain,
The only parcel to remain,
From that time outside of time.
This fire is love,
And we are love.
We are all love.

These calm and silent creatures
Passing by us now,
Where are they going?

Now you have seen love.
One day you’ll know love.

SCENE 3. The orchard and the falling snow

3a. Introduction

But soon these two will see another
World: a strange, unlikely thing that few have
Seen, and even those have only seen in dreams.
Inside the evergreen and redwood grove,
There is a secret, unexpected place:
An orchard rich with apple trees and flowers.
Their fruit is scattered on the ground and mingled
With a thin and fragile layer
Of petals, fallen earlier this spring.

Someone came here once to make a home,
To cultivate a place in wild spaces.
A sunlit place to make a home,
To bring the sweetness from the branch and heavy vine.

Here, inside this forest glade, a
Cool and fragrant wind is blowing,
Rising up, it finds a pathway through the branches,
Leaving breath-marks on the leaves,
Drops of water on the leaves.

But when it rises past the darkness,
This air does something special,
Calling up the pale, white blooms, and
Lifting up the fallen flowers.
As the petals rise around the boys,
With the mid-day sun still shining,
Slowing falling, drifting snowflakes Meet the flowers in the middle,
Touching at the long horizon,
Always blending, always touching,
Ever closer, ever softer,
Always silent, always perfect.

3b. Monologue and response: Sebastian’s longing

Flowers rising: still, but moving,
Soaring up to meet the falling snow.

Only in dreams do these fragments
Come together, all suspended, all in balance,
Soft at first, but soon becoming
Overwhelming, all too much to
Hold inside and all too strong and all too perfect.

How can snow fall in the sunshine
Of the springtime, near the ocean?
In the coastal forest region
Where the winter never comes,
Where the cold is never felt?

It’s strange:
I do not need these flowers,
I cannot eat or drink them,
They will not help me,
They cannot hear me,
Or understand me.

But I cannot contain this feeling,
Welling up inside me
Making breathing
Such a struggle!
All this beauty all around me,
All above me,
softly shining,
All beside me,
never ceasing,
Without boundary,
Never leaving!
This endless longing overflows.

How can I express my gratitude
For all of this, for all the beauty in the world?

I want to say “thank you” for all of this,
But who would hear these words?

I can thank the flowers for their fragrance,
And the water for its cool stillness,
And the owl for her wisdom,
And the foxes for their slow procession,
But all of this?

All of what?

Who can I thank for all of this?
I can see our
Friend the bird who
Has been given
Many things:
Vibrant clothing,
Warmth and safety;
a singing voice and blessed song; the
Gift of flight and
Endless freedom
High above her
Earthen kingdom!

And in return her
Needs are set in
Perfect balance
With the forest,
She takes nothing
But what’s needed,
Never grasping
For the excess.
She is not in
Debt for all the
Gifts that she’s been given.

But I am overwhelmed
With gratitude for all that
I have seen today.
How can I repay this debt?
To whom can I address myself?

I want to say thank you for all of this,
But who would hear these words?

3c. Chorale: the litany of the birds

We have no answer for you.
Are we mistaken?
Are we lost?
Are we forsaken?
Have we been reckless?
Do they miss the point?
Do we take a longer path?
Can we see the sky?
Can we feel the sunshine?
Can we know love?
Can we know perfection?
Are we lost?
Have we been reckless?
Do we fly in circles?
Do we long for love?
Can we know perfection?
Is there more than this?
Do we see the sky from here?
Do we ask a question?
Do we hear the water?
Is this a place of pleasure?
Do we long for comfort?
Do we know gratitude?
Do we fly in circles?
Have we been listening?
What does it mean to suffer?
Does it mean to know perfection?
Can we understand?
Can we believe in love?
Can we know love?
Does it mean to suffer?
What is gratitude?
Have we known love?
What is our long distraction?
Do we fly in circles?
What is our long distraction?
Is there not pain in sacrifice?
Do we not sing in summer?
Do we not soar out above the waves?
Do we know perfection?
Is there not grace in pleasure?
Can we not walk in peace?
Is there no home without comfort?
Is there not grace in weakness?
Is there no blessed failure?
Can we understand?
Are we alone as we wander?
Is there no tender land around us?
Is there no grace in pleasure?
Is there not pain in sacrifice?
Will they both despise us?
Do we fly in circles?


SCENE 4: the bear in the trap

4a. Introduction

And now, we come upon a dry,
Forgotten ground, a clearing very different
Than the snow-lit patch we saw before.
A shattered creature lying here, her leg
So badly broken that she’ll never leave
This place. But still her eyes are bright and round
And searching and alive!

What man has set the trap that keeps this bear
Bound up and broken?
What wretched soul?
Where is he now?
Why does he not return
To come collect his awful wage?
Two of her little ones are also there,
Neither knowing why their mother cries,
Nor why she remains in place.
Oh! Our poor and wretched boys have not
Prepared for what they must encounter here.
Here they meet with life itself, and all its suffering.
And so we must, with all reluctance, welcome
Back our friends to meet this somber place.

4b. Dialogue and response

Why have you brought us here?
Why do you show us this bear?

This place contains both joy and sorrow.

Can we help her?
Can we release her?

No! Here we only act as witness.

I cannot see this thing alone.
( Turning to SEBASTIAN... )
Do you see her?
The dying creature in the clearing?
Her hind leg is shattered,
The fur is softened with blood,
White fragments of bone.
She will not survive.

Why must she endure this torment? We must go to her!
Can we not help her?

No, she is bound up and dying
A death with no purpose.

SEBASTIAN We must go to her!

You are but dreamers,
You are the final witness,
You are nothing but the witness.

Her breath is growing shallow,
And still her young ones do not understand.
They burrow, tender, by her side, unknowing, and soon, unloved.

Uncared for, their mother is now
Departing, slowly disconnecting.
Their language has no word for this.
I would fall beside her,
And comfort her.

There is no comfort.

I would care for her children.
I would tend to them.

They would not know you.
You are not of her world.

But I can see her!
I would embrace her,
I would bring her water.

Her eyes are gleaming:
She is living, but she is not alive.
( to the birds )
You have betrayed us!

( to the birds )
Why have you brought us here?

My young friends!
You feel the pain of others:
It makes you different from us.

Stop! Compassion will not help her.

You are human!
Your compassion is a blessing, It is your boldest gift.

Even as I am a child,
I see a wider world.
But these young ones, they see nothing!
This compassion is nothing when
There is only suffering!

There is only destruction!
You have shown us a world
That falls and decays.

Be calm! We beg you!

I cry out to them!

I cry over them!

BIRDS Stop! Be calm!

SEBASTIAN They are alone!

NICHOLAS They are alone!
There is no home
For grieving children.

Be still now!

Seeing that they have lost control of the situation, the BIRDS are forced to intervene. As they sing the word “now”, SEBASTIAN suddenly falls into a deep sleep. NICHOLAS remains standing, entranced, and stares into the middle distance, away from the bear.

4c, 4d, 4e. Monologue and responses

Slowly, time awakens.
I have passed through something.
Have I left the forest?
We saw a creature suffering.
We saw her young ones suffering.
I saw her rest her head,
Even as I rest my head.
We saw her disappointment,
Even as I am disappointed.
She falls away,
Even as I fall away.
We stand apart from all the world.

Your solitude is part
Of something greater:
The forest and its creatures suffer,
But only humankind is cursed to feel
The pain of all the other dying things,
You see yourselves reflected in the young
And tender children that are born of all
The birds and all the bears and all the foxes.
Even green and tender saplings bring your
Thoughts back to yourselves, and visions
Of your children and your desperate need
To make a home and find a place to rest your head.

The BIRDS slowly leave...

Why have I been left alone?
Where are all the birds?
And the foxes?
And the flowers?
And my friend?
Return to me! Come to me! Return to me!
( slowly, the BIRDS reappear and begin to gather around NICHOLAS )
What sorrow you have shown me!
You cannot know the burden you have made!
Save me now! Take me now!

This day has set something in motion
That cannot be unmade or undone.
I want you to hold me among you:
I want you to make me one of your own!

But all of this is just a dream!

Let me rise, and fly among you!

As you climb,
You will fall away
From those you know
And all you love.

Let me rise!

To be as you ask is to die as a human!
The pain of others shows you what you are!

I will rise! I will rise!

If you want that,
We will welcome you.
But you must make that Choice alone.
You must say
Goodbye alone.


Yes, goodbye.
We will make you one of us,
But these things cannot be undone.

I understand.
Let me join you.

The birds suddenly retreat from the conversation—but do not exit—leaving NICHOLAS alone. He collapses, and then gathers himself.

4f. Monologue

My friend!
Where have you gone?
I must leave you now.
You must be somewhere, sleeping,
Softly breathing,
Your head at rest
Against the ground.
Goodbye, my friend! Goodbye!

Do not mourn for me, and
And I will sing for you.
I am home among the birds, and
I will sing for you.
You are the goodness of all things,
And I will always sing for you.

NICHOLAS slowly removes his outer layer of clothing, revealing a costume similar to those of the HIGH BIRDS. He leaves his old clothes behind (near where SEBASTIAN is sleeping), and joins the choir of HIGH BIRDS.

4g. Chorale

( A somber, resigned procession as NICHOLAS is walking to join them )
Arise! Arise! Arise!
( with NICHOLAS now among them )
We are all together.
We are all suspended.
We are all unburdened.
We are all at peace.
We all stand apart.
We are all... [ vocalise on “ah” ]

ALL EXIT or are seated.

SCENE 5: Awakening

5a. Introduction

NARRATOR (T1, T2, wordless chorus)
Two boys, both serene, both innocent,
Entered the forest.
One of them remains there,
High above the ground,
Singing, flying,
without sorrow or regret.

And the other?
What has become of him?
For him this forest dream comes to an end.
He awakens.
The sun is shining brightly.
He beholds the vast expanse of the sea,
And the sky.

5b. Monologue and chorale

A wordless chorus accompanies the entire scene.

This sunshine, this water -
Where have I wandered?
My brother!
My friend!
Where are you now?
I must have wandered off. Have I lost you? Where are the birds?

( The BIRDS respond wordlessly—SEBASTIAN cannot make out the meaning )

I cannot understand you!
I cannot understand your words!

( The BIRDS respond again—still SEBASTIAN does not understand )

Why have you fallen silent?

( There is no answer. )

Where are you now?

( Despairingly ... )

Am I all alone?

The birds offer a luminous wordless response. Reassured by their hidden presence, SEBASTIAN turns his attention to the trees, to the sky, and to the vast expanse of the sea stretched out before him... )

Are you gone, my friend?
Did you stay
In the forest,
Lost among the trees?
Do you long for shelter,
Hiding from the World we know?
Were you abandoned?
Are you frightened
Or alone?

No, you must have
Found the place
Where you belong.
Hidden in the
Warmest burrow,
All covered in
Tender moss, or
Up among the
Swaying branches,
Your head raised up
Toward the sun.

I can hear you
Softly singing,
Rising echoes
Of your calm and
Perfect song:
Words you learned
Inside the forest,
From the river,
From the lichen,
From the flowers,
From the birds!

( The wordless chorus swells. )

All around me,
All above me,
I can hear your
Endless song!
You are home
Among the woodland,
Lost, away, and
Always dreaming,
As once, and
Now forever,
Like the birds
Inside their shells:
Free from torment,
Softly sighing,
Eyes cast upward,
Lost in sound!

( The BIRDS fall silent. SEBASTIAN turns inward once again. )

So sing, my friend,
In your time outside of time.
Be calm, my friend!
Find yourself at home
In your forest-dreaming
World beyond the world!
You are not alone
In sacred sleep!
Oh, promise me
That you are home!
Promise me that you are not alone!
Tell me now that
You have found a home!
Be calm, now,
For you are home!

SEBASTIAN fixes his gaze on the sky, holding this position as the wordless chorus swells to an ecstatic climax.