A guide to The Black Spider

26 May 2022

Loosely based on Jeremias Gotthelf’s 1842 novella, The Black Spider was written by British composer Judith Weir in 1984, specifically for young singers, whether school students or members of groups such as WNO’s Youth Opera. Welsh National Opera’s performances mark our different Youth Opera groups joining together and returning to the public stage for the first time after the pandemic, and their first full production since Brundibár during our FREEDOM Season in 2019.

The Black Spider explores the ideas of good and evil, like a traditional morality tale – a typical theme for folk tales such as those the original novella, of the same name, took for inspiration. 

The plot is split into two timelines, the main action taking place in Ancient Poland, back in the Middle Ages in a small village where an evil landlord, Count Heinrich, oppresses his tenants. One day a Green Man appears in the village, offering to help carry out the landlord’s latest impossible task. A task that involves the movement of a whole forest up to a bare mountaintop, just because he so desired it. But the Green Man has a condition, he will only help the villagers if a young girl, Christina, who is due to marry her boyfriend Carl, marries him instead. 

The Green Man completes the task, but Christina goes ahead with the wedding to her sweetheart. The Spider of the title appears from Christina’s hand, from the exact spot the Green Man had kissed her, during the wedding ceremony. The Spider proceeds to spread a terrible plague through the village. It is Christina herself who eventually defeats it, burying it in a church yard and with it, the Green Man’s curse. Or so the villagers believe.

The opera is in three acts, intermingled with spoken parts, and it is these dialogues that feature the second timeline. Set in modern day, they tell of the reactions to a newspaper article. The article reports on the strange aftereffects of the excavations of an ancient tomb – a mysterious virus that seems to have originated at the dig site in Kraków, initially infecting the archaeologists working there. Are the two related?

What is the truth? Grab a ticket to this comic opera described by Weir herself as ‘somewhere between a video nasty and an Ealing comedy’ and come and find out for yourself.