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Nigel Keay - At the Hawk's Well

One-Act Opera written in 1991, duration 52 minutes. An operatic setting of the play by W.B. Yeats with 5 soloists and chamber orchestra.


Highlights: Extract from Part 2 (Dance Music) mp3

Extract from Part 3 (Final Song, 4' 23") mp3

Complete Opera: Recorded 29th March 1992.
Part One (in 4 sections, duration: 13' 42") mp3
Part Two Complete (duration: 28' 08") mp3
Part Three (duration: 9'13") mp3

French flag Page en français

Full Score in Three Parts (144pp): Manuscript score PDF 1 -4.30Mb
Manuscript score PDF 2-31.47Mb
Manuscript score PDF 3  -7.00Mb

Computer-set samples: Full Score (pages 1-16) (269Kb)
Full Score extract - Part 3, pages 1-6 PDF
Full Score sample (Final Song)

Instrumentation: Flute, Alto Flute, Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn, Trumpet, Trombone, Piano, Percussion (up to 2 players*) & Strings (suggested 4,4,3,3,1 with electric-violin solo is doubled by a member of violin section), women's chorus (12-15 singers - a small but important part), dancer, and optional Indonesian Gamelan instruments to augment the orchestral percussion section. Links to: Orchestral Parts & Vocal Scores

Commissioned by the Nelson School of Music (NZ) for the Nelson Sesquicentennial Celebrations and first performed 28 & 29 March 1992 at the Nelson School of Music by the Nelson Symphony Orchestra with Miranda Adams as Musical Director. The vocal soloists were David Clark (tenor), Paul Densem (bass), Joanne Hodgson & Helen Bowater (sopranos), & Ben Ayre (bass).


Nigel Keay's At the Hawk's Well is also performable as a cantata in a concert version. This one-act work is ritualistic in nature reflecting Yeats' modelling of the text on the Japanese Noh play. The music is at times dark and atmospheric, and the archetypal symbolism and metaphysical suggestion of the text, with its archaic language and bleak images, is a rich source of inspiration for this. The musical language is both tonal and atonal, and this conjunction helps express literary ideas. Written for five solo singers with the main roles being a tenor and a bass, and a dancer, the backing is provided by a chamber orchestra including piano, solo electric violin, and optional gamelan instruments.

There are six on-stage roles as follows:

  • Old Man (Bass) the biggest and most demanding of the singing roles.
  • Young Man (Tenor)
  • First Musician (Mezzo-Soprano)
  • Second Musician (Mezzo-Soprano)
  • Third Musician (Bass)
  • Guardian of the Well (Female Dancer)

The Old & Young Man's role are the two major parts with the Three Musicians being smaller roles.

*In the Nelson production the percussion instruments used were as follows:

Timpani, Javanese drums (medium and large), Bass drum, Tam tam, Large Javanese Gong, Gender, Slentem and Kempul.  The last three instruments can be treated as optional and the Gong could be replaced by a larger tamtam. The percussion instruments can be performed completely by the Three Musicians or in part, or by an orchestral percussion section depending on the Stage Director's & Musical Director's concept of the production. In the Nelson production the 3 Musicians only sang but the score allows for them to play also.

Costumes and sets:

In the Nelson production only the Old Man, the Guardian, and the Young Man had elaborate costumes. The Old Man looked quite ragged, the Young Man had quite a regal costume. The Guardian had a large dark cloak and underneath a gray scaly bodysuit. The Three Musicians wore simple black uniforms like a kung-fu suit. The stage was bare and minimal, and the lighting was an important element. Mounds of dried leaves with stairs provided interesting contours on the set.

Full Score extract - Part 3, pages 1-6 PDF

Full Score extract - 4 page PDF of Final Song

stylised image of the hawk

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Full review published in the Nelson Evening Mail on March 30, 1992:

At the Hawk's Well opera impressive

At the Hawk’s Well, opera by Nigel Keay. World premiere performance, Saturday March 28, Nelson School of Music. Reviewed by Martin Lodge.

  It was a bold stroke for the Nelson School of Music's director, Bob Bickerton, to commission a new opera by way of a contribution to the city's l5Oth anniversary celebrations. On Saturday night that optimism was proved justified with the premiere of Nigel Keay's At the Hawk's Well.
  Playing to a sold-out house, the large cast of musicians delivered a strongly-committed performance under the powerful and inspiring direction of conductor Miranda Adams.
  The well of the opera's title is one whose waters impart immortality to those who drink them. But the well has been dry for 50 years, and beside it a man has grown old waiting for the water to return.
  Now a young, optimistic man approaches the well. He tells the old man how, on his way, he fought off a hawk.
  Unknown to him, the bird is the spirit of the locality, and it comes to possess the Guardian of the Well, transforming her into a beautiful young woman.
  Her dancing leads the young man away, while the old man falls asleep. Then the waters return to the well. When the old man awakes and the young man returns the stones are wet, but the waters have receded again out of reach.
  Yeats' pessimistic play dates from 1917. Nigel Keay's verbatim treatment of Yeats' text is intricate and musically uncompromising.
  All the musicians rose to the challenge, with the Nelson Symphony Orchestra playing confidently. There were some splendidly atmospheric moments, notably during the dance sequence when the orchestral texture was augmented by an amplified electric violin.
  The choreography of the dance itself could have been more overtly seductive, but the performance from Kate Burton as the Guardian of the Well was beautiful.
  Of the soloists, only David Clark as the young man and Paul Densem as the old man were from outside Nelson.
  Both are young singers, still completing studies in Wellington.
  They approached their roles with commendable conviction, for the most part singing strongly and convincingly.
  The age difference between these two characters though, really needed to be more accentuated both with makeup and acting. On the evidence of what we heard in At the Hawk's Well, we can expect to hear more of these two singers in future.
  The other solo roles are allotted to three "musicians" (so-called by Yeats). Keay was fortunate to have the services of current composer-in-residence at the School of Music, Helen Bowater, as the soprano musician. Her rich, mature voice complemented the fine, youthful mezzo of Joanne Hodgson nicely. Third musician Ben Ayre delivered his part in an impassioned and forthright way.
  The Polyhymnos choir provided moments of marvellously veiled sonority. The composer used the choir as an additional tonal colour on his orchestral palette. Discreet use of Indonesian gamelan instruments as an expanded percussion section worked well too, blending surprisingly easily into the opera's overall sound world.
  Darien Takle's direction of stage action was masterly in its simplicity and control of stylized movement. She managed to use the unwieldy concert platform of the auditorium as an effective operatic stage without resorting to elaborate curtains, sets or props. Costumes, designed by students of the Nelson Polytechnic craft design department were suitably dramatic and symbolically coherent. Lighting by Steve Thomas was exemplary in its design and accurate cueing.
  At the Hawk's Well is a most impressive achievement, both in concept and execution. Composer, performers, director, crew and indeed the whole city of Nelson can feel justly proud of having had the courage and energy to bring a project of this imagination through to successful production. It is an achievement larger cities may regard with envy.