The Great God Pan takes its story from an eponymous 1890 novella by Welsh author Arthur Machen, which explores themes of scientific hubris, transcendental medicine, and unexplainable supernatural behavior. Composer Ross Crean adapted Machen’s narrative into the work’s libretto himself, an ambitious and rare undertaking for a composer. The story begins with a surgery gone wrong. Dr. Raymond invites Mr. Clarke to witness an important experiment based on elements of nontraditional, ancient rituals. Raymond sacrifices his ward, Mary, as the subject of his attempt to access a higher spiritual plane – referred to as, “seeing the Great God Pan” – and unwittingly initiates a series of mysterious supernatural occurrences that Clarke encounters over the next few decades. Crean’s ingenuity in composing the accompanying piano parts with the sounds of strumming and plucking combine to make the music that much more vibrant. — Courtesy Naxos of America
This project is partially supported by a CityArts Grant from the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events.
Music and Libretto by Ross Crean
Based on Arthur Machen’s novella
Scene 1: Dr. Raymond’s Laboratory. Raymond has invited his friend Clarke to witness an operation that will allow a patient to “see the Great God Pan”. Raymond has chosen his ward, Mary, to be the recipient of the procedure.
Scene 2: Clarke’s Office, London. Twenty years after the incident at Raymond’s, Clarke has compiled accounts to create his ‘Memoir to Prove the Existence of the Devil’. He adds a story about a young girl, Helen Vaughan, who spent days in the woods, traumatizing Trevor, a young boy, to the point of death, and bringing about the violation and disappearance of Helen’s best friend Rachel.
Scene 3: Villiers’ Parlor, London. Villiers plays cards with his confidant Austin, a woman who dresses and lives as a man. They ask Clarke’s opinion on several recent strange events, including one involving Mr. Herbert. Austin describes a homicide that happened in front of the Herberts’ house. Villiers adds that he visited the house, finding a drawing of Mrs. Herbert.
Scene 1: Mrs. Beaumont’s House, Ashley Street, London. Mrs. Beaumont poses for Meyrick. At Villiers’, Austin laments that London has seen a rash of suicides, including that of her friend Meyrick. Austin shows Villiers a sketch of Mrs. Beaumont; Villiers has witnessed another suicide at Mrs. Beaumont’s house. The duo to realize that Mrs. Beaumont and Mrs. Herbert are in fact Helen Vaughan.
Scene 2: The House on Ashley Street. Helen prays to Pan to aid her in her quest to bring paradise to earth. In Clarke’s office, Villiers and Austin come to Clarke with everything they have learned, then confront Helen with an ultimatum: kill herself, as all of her victims have, or face being exposed.
Scene 3: Epilogue. Clarke writes to Raymond describing Helen’s death: a series of transformations from male to female to beast. Austin and Villiers recall their journey to Caermaen, the place of Helen’s upbringing. Raymond replies to Clarke’s letter, revealing the truth about Helen.
I’ll be honest and say I’m not much of a horror movie fan. Not big on gore on TV. Don’t really enjoy suspenseful novels either.
I’ve found myself going down some unusual paths. Someone will recommend a film or a show or a book in the horror genre and invite me to take a peek. “I won’t,” I say. “Nope, sorry. I won’t.”
And then I find myself in front of the computer, or the bookshelf, daring myself to watch a trailer for “Saw” or read a passage from “It”. And then I ask myself: “How close can I get to pressing ‘play’ without actually pressing ‘play’? How far down the page can I read? Should I turn the page? Can I still turn back? When is it too late?”
It’s in these moments that I feel like Clarke from The Great God Pan. Oh-so-tempted to see what might be there on the page, oh-so-terrified to see what might be there. Desperately wanting to be shocked. Absolutely scared about what I might see and then never be able to forget.
In a scene from Arthur Machen’s original story, Clarke, a gentleman, having begun to collect articles and interviews about the existence of the devil, spends every night walking back and forth in front of the bookshelf where he keeps the papers, trying not to look, trying not to open his collection, trying not to indulge in horror by candlelight.
Clarke’s repression of desire is a hallmark of Victorian culture. It’s not that the Victorians didn’t have desires – deep, dark, sexual desires – they most certainly did. No, it’s that they had a unique ability to hide those desires in public and to be incredibly discreet about how they pursued them. Clarke is a textbook case: a rather dull investment banker who is obsessed with proving that the devil exists.
But Machen suggests another approach to desire, a path of embracing it. Helen Vaughan is conceived when her mother Mary sees, and is raped by, the god Pan. Later, when she’s grown up, Helen’s Victorian contemporaries find her to be “the most attractive and most repulsive woman” they’ve ever seen.
I think what they mean is that they find her beauty and sexuality utterly attractive, but the open, public display of it to be completely repulsive. They – men and women both – are drawn to the idea, and almost wish they themselves could be as open with their own desires as Helen is with hers. But they are equally troubled by intersection of the pagan history of Pan and his satyr race with their own pious, contemporary lives. They cannot reconcile the existence of an ancient half-animal, half-human god who spent his mortal life in the pursuit of nothing but pleasure with the sexual and social norms of an era where cleanliness was next to godliness, where abstinence was everything. And it’s Helen’s task to prove that the pagan and the contemporary can co-exist.
Although she drives her partners to suicide, Helen’s goal not one of murder; it is one of liberation. “Just come into the woods with me and I’ll show you incredible things”, she whispers to you, invitingly. One’s first reaction is of disgust, of horror, of not wanting to look. But when you lie down on your belly in the wet grass, when you peep through the leaves, what you find in the woods is shocking. Not because what you see is amoral, or depraved, but because it’s exactly what you thought it would be. What you wanted it to be. Deep in your subconscious. You knew you had the ability to imagine such debauchery and now Pan has made it real for you.
Helen’s partners – be they children or adults, men or women – perish not because they are murdered by her, but because they cannot admit to themselves that their desires are real and that they have the potential to be exposed. Within their Victorian society, death is not only preferable to public admission, it actually gives Helen’s targets the opportunity to achieve those desires in the spirit word, almost rather like gods themselves. These ghosts are not suffering; they celebrating their enlightenment, in seeing the world as it truly is, with all its naked desires.
At the beginning of the opera, Doctor Raymond tells Clarke that the goal of his experiment is to “lift the veil”. Being asked to “lift the veil” is like being asked to click the link, to watch the clip, to turn the page. What you read, what you see, might be terrifying; but it might be beyond your wildest dreams and fantasies.
Throughout this opera, what all these characters ask themselves – whether they are adolescents or adults, transcendental doctors, visual artists, or queer tomboys – they all ask themselves: “Can I still turn back? Or have I gone too far? They ask themselves: “Can I lift the veil?” Let’s ask that of ourselves: “If Clarke can dare, can I dare?”
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