Libretto: 'Vireo' Episode One

Artbound presents "Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch's Accuser," a special episode showcasing a new opera by Lisa Bielawa on a libretto by Erik Ehn, directed by Charles Otte, that considers the usage of "female hysteria" throughout history. Vireo is presented in partnership with California State University, Fullerton's Grand Central Arts Center. 

Episodes 1 and 2 feature the Kronos Quartet, mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin as the Voice/Witch, the San Francisco Girls Chorus, the Orange County School of the Arts Middle School Choir, mezzo-soprano Maria Lazarova as Vireo's mother, tenor Ryan Glover as Raphael, baritone Gregory Purnhagen as The Doctor, drummer Matthias Bossi, and in the title role of Vireo, 16-year-old soprano Rowen Sabala.

The "Vireo" broadcast special is executive produced by Lisa Bielawa, Anne Marie Gillen, John Spiak and Juan Devis; directed and designed by Charles Otte; director of photography Greg Cotten; music produced by Lisa Bielawa; audio capture supervisor Dan Dryden; costume design by Christina Wright.

"Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch's Accuser" debuted March 31 on KCET.

Read episode one of "Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch's Accuser" below:

Story continues below



Music by Lisa Bielawa
Libretto by Erik Ehn

Pt. 1


Vireo: A fourteen year old girl genius. Lives in the 16th century, born in the 19th, does forward roll into the 20th.

Doctor, Priest
Raphael:      A romantic young man

Caroline:      Vireo's double
Pernette, Voice, Spirit, Witch

Cow, Dog, Reindeer, Farmer

The Afflicted Girls


Loire, 1590's
Reims, 1893
Stockholm, the present


1. The Blow.

     (A forest. An unseen chorus establishes the environment.)

The beetle intervenes
The scene is, like you,
Beetle nerve.
Agitation, shifted leaf
The elements of word.

(The sound of a vireo. A girl comes running through the underbrush, on an adventure. She carries a covered iron skillet that she must mind).

FEMALE VOICE (Surprisingly close, intimate, and human.)

(The girl does.)


VIREO (Singing, like bird song.)
My name is Vireo.

Two flowers on a tree, never before. Look up!

Forest. Fog down steady, hills of France. Five thirty a.m., early summer. Fog comes kind, to help. Beds of light. The fir trees and nettle polishing the semi-precious stones of the day. Day's reliquary. Bone white, on display.

(A woman appears, pulling turnips. She is Vireo's mother. Vireo senses her, but doesn't see her.)

The forest stands up from the beds of light and walks to form corridors. Mothers and doctors walk down halls. Closing the woods to a room. Vireo.

(Footsteps down a hall, a doctor dressed as a priest enters, not hurried; the sounds stop with his entrance. He crosses slowly to the woman.)


MOTHER (To the Doctor, but not turning.)
Vireo. Her name is Vireo. 1590. The woods of France.

Fog passing light and shade over the woods in rhythm. 

My daughter is a genius.

You are not pulling turnips, although your arms work as if they were. You are lifting your daughter from the floor.

A fourteen year old girl in 16th Century France.

(A woman appears standing in an oak tree, her head wrapped in gypsy-moth gauze.)


Now, see? Vireo. Vireo falls to fits, falls to fits. Now, see? Now, see?

She's having a vision? Where did this come from? Who was she watching?

How did you get up in the tree?
Did the gypsy moth take you there?
Oh, shut up, Vireo
I didn't ask.
Can we start over? 


Can we start over? 

(Vireo moves in and out of the voice's song; Vireo is being overtaken by the sound of it.)


In the hardwood forest
The bird, moth and cricket
Sense the plague that will shed one in four
They see, suffer and encrypt it

     They see, suffer and encrypt it

Sensation and in between
Sending and receiving with every part
Fleet energy in the oak's machine
Cricket, bird, plague, and mouth
  Chirr, sing, die and weave
    In stead of your heart

I was passing
To the neighbor's house
To borrow fire
Oh the neighbors - they live too far away
I was thinking how does fire burn
Thinking idly, and trying to pray
The neighbors live too far away
The neighbors live too far away
My mother says to pray and I
Practice, practice, practice
But now I feel that words are praying me
How did you get so high in the tree?
Or are you only moth-voice,
Or have I chosen you?
I am passing to the neighbor's house
They live too far away
They live too far away
How does fire burn
How does fire burn
How do I burn away?

My soul dies for sorrow
Look at the world and hate it
Soon the crowd will gather, loud
You will flee, a bird, a cricket

Did you come to gather fuel?
The flame bends to new fuel
The flame bends to new fuel

There is a fire in this cold air

What I burn is beautiful
 Separate but enrapt
The burning is beautiful
 Separate and in between

The fog comes in to help people
Then changes its mind
When material day speaks its white word, unkind

(The Voice starts to leave. Vireo falls down and begs.)

Questions before you go Who are you? And What do you know?

VOICE (As itself.)
The fit isn't the voice; it's the voice leaving. The woods close to a room, and the helpers come in from the hall.

(The Voice leaves. Vireo is overtaken by a fit of hysteria. Mother holds her steady and
mutters under her breath.)

Daughters don't die. I don't live in such a time. Daughters don't die. I don't live in this time.

(The Doctor draws near.)
We found her this way in the woods this morning. What is it?

Leave her lie.

(He tries to draw Mother away. Partial Success.)

Vireo is not going to die.

I am blown through.

(Raphael bursts in. The doctor holds him back from Vireo.)

RAPHAEL (Joined by Chorus)
In the name of God, tell us who has afflicted you! By all that is, by all that is, by all that is...

My daughter! She won't die. Other daughters do.

There was a rhythm.

Say who, say who, say who - 

The fog came through the woods. Making it dark, and then pale. In between the two I heard... a voice.

(Through a steady series of small moves, the Doctor takes Mother's place as the one steadying Vireo.)

Who's voice?

The line between the fog and the not-fog was a hole. And I could go through the hole to see sad things, in a wonderful way.

DOCTOR (Explaining to Raphael.)

Can you repeat what was said to you? 

I have nowhere to go.

Grace light up a strange new seeming
Franction factors math by dreaming

CHORUS (Split.)
In. The. Name. Of. God. In. The. Name. Of. God.
Math. Fraction bar. Dream.

DOCTOR (To Mother.)
I set your daughter down as a case of possession

What will you -

She'll be cloistered at the convent in pace.

In a room - a high place. She's a weather-vane that moves to face witches, and will point them out to us.

(The Doctor and Raphael leave.)

It's over.

Where'd that come from?



2. Mercury.

    (Vireo looks out of a high window.)

From my window I see a witch being set up for burning. Two candles lit in my room. Children throw trash at the bound women.

(A woman stands on the ground. She isn't literally bound - she can use her hands and move - but she is the woman at the stake. Her face is obscured, as the Voice's was. A chorus of young women circles her, stooping to pick up rocks and trash to toss; percussive feet.)

No no no
Silly witch
Candle you
Cast no light
Stake stinger in
Fire hand itch
M-hm goodbye

Don't suppose it could rain, now, could it? No. Too much to ask.

So much the worse for you
I can't hear you


I can't hear you


(And, repeating.)

Through the window
I see your face
In an aureole
Of mercury
I can't hear you.
I lived through my house's discipline.
Concentrated when
Calves were born
Turned and corn
Wouldn't top out.

(Flames start to rise. She loses mobility.)

My discipline was concise. All drafts were at once.

Moon mercury makes you mad as a hatter. You are not still.

I am, or was.

No. No. No.
No. No. No.
No silly witch.
Fire. Hand. Itch.
Aha goodbye.

I heard martyrdom was lovely. Be lovely

And your fits are lovely and not lovely.

Am I having a fit now?

It's hard for me to say
I'm dying
I'm dying

They're burning a witch!
They're burning a witch!
They're burning a witch!

For a while with my two candles there was a perfect balance between the bound woman in the hateful world and the picture of my face. When the fire rises, my room goes away.

You turn. Don don't turn -

I slide down, my back up under the window, and firelight shines of every hard surface.

WITCH (Singing.)
The air is reading a book of fire
And the air is taken away
The consumer, consumed
By the fire assumed, the
Breath follows fire to silence

I do not submit, I do not prefer
I am horrified, in love
I gather without gaining and
Am no less for dying

Page after page of flame
Language kills you sometimes
On every page my name
Book of fire
Flammable lines
Apnea of reading

I do not submit, I do not prefer
I gather without gaining and
Am no less for dying
I am horrified, in love

VIREO (Re: the Voice.)
Not again. But you see, this time I won't sing along.

     I won't sing along
By the window you see
How in love I am,
How many places I can be,
Redeemed by the plural your
Youth and fear give me.
And now how literal to you
A death is, the preference,
Save the size of my
Horrible love
In your heart
When the fire sinks to
Gentian blue

I see. Am I a witch now too?

(Knock knock.)
Not again!

In the end my bones drop to one another and knock with the sound of wooden balls.


End of Episodes One and Two


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