• Arthur Bliss
  • Tobias and the Angel (1960)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)
  • 2(2pic)222/4231/timp.perc/xyl.glock/hp/str
  • SATB
  • 10 characters
  • 1 hr 30 min
  • Christopher Hassall

Programme Note


Tobias sets out from Nineveh to collect his father’s debts taking a hired man, Azarias, as his guide. On the first night, as Tobias washes his feet by a river, he catches a large fish, from which Azarias tells him to remove the heart, liver and gall. Later, the heart and liver are used to cast out a demon from Sarah, whom Tobias takes as his wife, while the gall cures his father’s blindness. During this climatic scene Azarias reveals his true identity – he is the Angel Raphael.


I'm sorry now that I didn't turn my hand to opera much earlier, because it's a form that suits my inclinations. I've written four ballets and a good deal of music for the theatre. The chief difficulty is to find a good libretto, and a librettist who isn't too parental about his text to alter passages when the composer feels the need.

I must say that Christopher Hassall, who's written the libretto of Tobias and the Angel for me, has been a perfect collaborator. Sometimes he's written a beautiful verse, and I've asked him to change it because there's a word that doesn't set to music easily, or a thought that's too complicated to be sung; and he hasn't complained at all. It's very important that the thought should be simple, and the words short, in sung music. And at one point in this new opera I wrote the music of a vocal quintet before the words, and sent it to him, and he made a text that perfectly expressed the different feelings of the five characters…

I wouldn't care to write an opera on a contemporary subject, though Menotti has brought it off wonderfully well in The Consul. I once planned a contemporary opera with Wyndham Lewis; the first scene was going to take place in St Pancras station. But we had to give it up because such realism didn't seem suitable for opera: people would laugh if they heard a soprano singing 'Porter, porter!'

What's so interesting about working on Tobias and the Angel is that, since it's intended for television, the time-scale has to be much smaller. It isn't simply that they don't want an extended opera, and only partly that they're afraid people will switch off the set unless they're held in suspense. Audiences of today don't want to be told everything in detail, as in Wagner's symphonic monologues, and they certainly don't need to be told it a second time, as in the old formal aria with recapitulation - once is enough.

There's a moment of climax in Tobias and the Angel where this servant is suddenly revealed as the angel Gabriel. An earlier opera composer would have expatiated at this point on the reactions and feelings of everybody present, and even a modern composer wants to make this an impressive moment. When I asked how long this passage should last, I was astonished when the music representative of BBC television insisted that it must, on no account, take longer than one minute. Another thing I've discovered while writing this opera: it's generally accepted that music moves more slowly than the spoken word, but for the intimacy of television presentation I've found it advisable to set the text almost at the tempo of speech.

© 1959 Sir Arthur Bliss