premiered works

paul’s case

Libretto by Gregory Spears and Kathryn Walat

Music by gregory spears

Based on the Story by Willa Cather

Paul’s Case

Paul’s Case is a two act evening length chamber opera for seven singers that chronicles the dissolution of a high school dandy living in sooty turn-of-the-century Pittsburgh. Paul, who spends his free time working as an usher at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Hall, eventually runs away to revel in the luxury of New York City's Waldorf Astoria hotel. Through the deft use of post-minimal and Baroque styles, the opera reminds us of our own struggle to cope with what Cather calls ‘the homilies by which the world is run’.

The vocal lines, both pastoral and mechanistic, suggest the world of nature, luxury and art that Paul loves and the gilded-age machinery that will eventually destroy him. The opera may be performed with or without an intermission in small to medium sized opera houses.



Kathryn Walat   Librettist

Kathryn Walat



[a] masterpiece... tempting to call this show “the best new opera I’ve heard in years”
— The New York Observer

“a taut, splendid operatic adaptation… Ms. Walat’s libretto turns Cather’s poignant story of alienation and unspoken longing into economical poetry. Mr. Spears’s elegantly spare music, with its gamelan-redolent modes and clockwork repetitions, Baroque vocal fillips, intricately woven ensembles and dramatically placed dissonances, further infuses the tale with a sense of ritual and inevitability.” —The New York Times

"[a] masterpiece... tempting to call this show “the best new opera I’ve heard in years,”… a perfect marriage of text and music." —The New York Observer

“an arresting little piece that communicates its haunting story with clarity and a sense of inevitability.” —The Washington Post

“I was haunted most of all by Gregory Spears’s 'Paul’s Case,' based on Willa Cather’s classic 1906 tale of a doomed young Pittsburgh aesthete. …his plaintive, eerie score delves into the inner world of Paul, who defies his teachers, steals from his employer, lives grandly in New York for a few days, and ultimately chooses death over shame. Spears, too, has minimalist roots, and draws also on the bittersweet textures of Renaissance consort music and the vocal ornaments of Baroque opera…. The ending is as quietly harrowing as anything in recent American opera." —The New Yorker

“Dance and opera certainly have been blended over the centuries, but not often with the sort of intensive interaction demanded by Williams and composer Gregory Spears, both in their mid-30s and seemingly fearless about striking out in new directions.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer

"Gregory Spears combines minimalism, baroque gestures, and extended vocal techniques into a distinctive and pungent musical language. This haunting 90-minute work is based on a story by Willa Cather: Paul, a high-school boy with artistic and status yearnings beyond his middle-class life in 1906 Pittsburgh, steals money and goes to New York. He lives the high life in the Waldorf-Astoria for a few days, and when exposure is imminent throws himself under a train. Mr. Spears and Kathryn Walat distilled the tale into a surreal fever dream, with other characters continually commenting on Paul's "case." Unlike many contemporary opera composers, Mr. Spears has a gift for writing ensembles, and they are original. In the powerful opening scene, as three female teachers and the school's principal try to articulate what disturbs them about Paul, short lines of text overlap, creating a tense, fragmented environment, like Cubism in sound." —The Washington Post

"The clear [Prototype Festival] highlight was Paul's Case by Gregory Spears (seen on January 13). With a smart libretto by Kathryn Walat and Spears himself... And the music made the show. It was basically tonal, with an underlying minimalism that sounded nothing like the Glass-Reich template. There were many repeated phrases, vocal and instrumental, which may have alluded to Baroque practice. The vocal lines were eminently singable, without breaking down into obvious arias; many of them began with an odd, hiccup-like ornament. What was even more remarkable was the instrumental colour, with the piano providing intensely dramatic punctuation, a harp accenting quietly, two clarinets lending a soft, floating quality ideally evocative of Paul's dreaminess, and a string quintet filling out harmonious pungent accompaniment, lush and billowing. To these ears, it was all very beautiful." —Opera Magazine (UK)

"The compact grit-to-glamour tragedy, with its willowy protagonist and its chorus of disapproving adults, seems ready-made for opera. ...Finally, it arrived at the Prototype Festival, and the result is a compact, alluring, and attractively obsessive work that bangs around claustrophobically inside Paul’s mind." —New York Magazine

Top 5 Buzzed-About Young American Opera Composers "Paul's Case, taken from a Willa Cather short story, was developed over several years through American Opera Projects to become the hit of the 2014 Prototype Festival." —WQXR

Paul’s Case, taken from a Willa Cather short story, was developed over several years through American Opera Projects to become the hit of the 2014 Prototype Festival.


Duration 85 Minutes / with or without intermission

Commission Developed by American Opera Projects with support in part by the BMI Foundation, the Virgil Thomson Foundation, the National Endowment for the Art’s ART WORKS initiative, and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Premiere April 20, 2013; UrbanArias, Artisphere, Washington D.C.; American Opera Projects; Robert Wood, Music Director; Kevin Newbury, director.

Roles (7) Paul · tenor ; Paul’s Father · baritone ; History Teacher/Opera Singer 1/Maid 1 · soprano ; Drawing Teacher/Opera Singer 2/Maid 2 · soprano ; English Teacher/Maid 3 · mezzo-soprano ; Yale Boy · tenor ; Principal/Bellboy · bass

Development Artists Eric Southern, Amanda Seymour, Timothy Mackabee, Jonathan Blalock, Keith Phares, Melissa Wimbish, Amanda Crider, Michael Slattery, Erin Sanzero, James Shaffran, Daniel Curran, Alex DeSocio, Phillip Gay, Rebecca Belczyk, Samantha Korbey, Nicole Rodin, Amanda Crider, Siddhartha Misra, Branch Fields, Chloe Moore, Toni Marie Palmertree, Hai-Ting Chinn, Jean Bernard Cerin, Kyle Bielfield, Jennifer Berkebile, Marcus DeLoach, Abigail Fischer, Melissa Fogerty, Thomas Wazelle, Chad Johnson, Kirsten Chambers, Katherine Wessinger

Instrumentation 2cl(1.cl in A, handheld school bell 2.bcl, bird whistle)-hp.pno-str(2vn.va.vc.db)

Publisher Schott Music / Staged performances of this work require licensing through the publisher.