Payne Hollow

opera in one act, for voices, orchestra, and electronic sounds (2014)


Libretto by Wendell Berry, after his play, “Sonata at Payne Hollow.”

Written for the Bard College Conservatory of Music’s Graduate Vocal Arts Program.

Commissioned by the Bard College Conservatory of Music, with support from the Claire Rosen and Samuel Edes Foundation Prize for Emerging Artists.

Payne Hollow is a love story, a ghost story, and a tribute to lives lived in harmony with the land. It celebrates two modern-day Thoreaus—Harlan and Anna Hubbard—who, from 1951–1986, lived in solitude and self-sufficiency, without electricity, in a small home they built on the bank of the Ohio River, at Payne Hollow. Their lives were filled with gardening, fishing, foraging, and scavenging, but also with reading, painting, writing, and playing music together. The opera’s libretto, by the distinguished Kentucky author, Wendell Berry, is an adaptation of Berry’s short verse play, “Sonata at Payne Hollow.” I am extremely grateful to Mr. Berry for his involvement in this project. For those interested in learning more about Harlan and Anna Hubbard, I would recommend Harlan Hubbard’s Payne Hollow: Life on the Fringe of Society. In their later years, the Hubbards became good friends with Paul Hassfurder, who subsequently inherited Payne Hollow from them when they passed away. For over 20 years, Mr. Hassfurder has lovingly cared for Payne Hollow, continuing in the Hubbards' ways.

The opera is set in the future. In synopsis, two riverboat drifters come ashore at night, recognizing the landscape and ruins of the Hubbards’ old home. To their surprise, the drifters then hear distant music and witness the ghosts of the Hubbards appear. As perhaps they do every night, the ghosts re-enact their courtship. After speaking to one another from a distance, they finally embrace, and in so doing are momentarily transformed into their former selves, in the “brilliance of a spring morning.” Abruptly, the ghosts and the light disappear, and the opera ends, as it began, with the trilling of toads in the night.

The Hubbards’ story is more important than ever. Faced with the increasingly daunting consequences of our destructive, and––Berry would say––blasphemous misuse of the sacred earth that sustains us, we could easily become resigned. Instead, we can look to the Hubbards: they made of their entire lives a powerful, humble protest against the systems of greed, waste, and ruin in which we find ourselves enmeshed. By living without many of the comforts we take for granted, the Hubbards achieved a simple, sustainable abundance and a spiritual wholeness that together stand as a shining refutation to the prevailing notion that more is better. In the words of Harlan: “What we need is at hand.”

Copyright 2007-2014 © by Shawn Jaeger


Payne Hollow Opera Trailer on Vimeo:

Press/Media for Payne Hollow

Blog Review: Prufrock’s Dilemma


Jaeger’s intelligently spare music moved artfully with the line of the story, painting in music what the libretto put into words.

Radio Interview: WAMC

    I join Bard College Conservatory Vocal Arts Program directors Dawn Upshaw and Kayo Iwama to talk with WAMC’s Joe Donahue about

    Payne Hollow.

Preview Article: Modern Farmer

    “An Ag Opera Inspired by Wendell Berry Gets Ready to Make Its Debut”


All photos © Kim Felktamp, 2014.

Pictured: Jeremy Hirsch, Sara LeMesh, Michael Hofmann, Devony Smith, Angela Aida Carducci, and Helen Zhibing Huang (Bard College).