• Kirke Mechem
  • Befana: A Christmas Fable, Op. 85 (2021)

  • G Schirmer Inc (World)

Commissioned by the Cabrillo Choirs, Cheryl Anderson, conductor, and Ensemble Monterey Chamber Orchestra, John Anderson, conductor

Opera in One Act or Choral-Theater Cantata (may be staged, semi-staged or performed in concert). Certain territory restrictions apply before February 2022.

  • Mz[S],T,Bar,B + SA + SATB;
  • SA, SATB
  • Mezzo-soprano/Soprano, Tenor, Baritone, Bass
  • 40 min

Programme Note

Cast List
BEFANA: Mezzo-soprano or Soprano
THE MAGI (ideally representing three different races)
   KING MELCHIOR: Baritone
VILLAGERS: SATB mixed chorus
CHILDREN: SA children's chorus
SHEPHERDS: TB men's chorus (can be drawn from SATB chorus)

Composer note
I have found more than a dozen different versions of the Befana legend, celebrated each year by Italian children and their families. The stories have much in common, but each offers a different point of view. Mine is a distillation and expansion of the versions that most appeal to me. The only borrowed phrases are in the final stanza, which has been adapted from part of a poem by Phyllis McGinley (1905-1978), “The Ballad of Befana.” This was the poem that inspired me to find out more about this poignant legend.

Nearly every version of the parable shows Befana as an old woman in a small village. Her compulsive sweeping brings ridicule from the children of the villagers. She is visited by the Magi, on their way to Bethlehem to deliver gifts to the new-born Baby King. They invite her to join them, but she declares that she is too busy with her housework, and promises to join them later. When she realizes her mistake the next day, it is too late. Every year on Epiphany night Befana is doomed to fly on her broom with her gifts, searching for the baby. She leaves candy and gifts at every house where there are young children.

For the music to this folk legend I have chosen simplicity of expression. I have often used the styles of early music, especially Italian, including the ancient church modes. The introduction, for instance, is written almost entirely in the Phrygian mode, and is based upon the time-honored use of a descending scale.

The work is a reinvention of the 16th-century Italian madrigal comedies of Vecchi, Banchieri and others. Those were not always comedies — the name “madrigal comedy” was coined by a musicologist in the 20th century — but they were always stories with plots and various characters, using not only madrigals but other types of ensembles and soloists. Often called the precursors of opera, they were performed with staging and costumes, which can be used in Befana. The work offers many opportunities for imaginative projections, whether performed as opera or choral theater.

— Kirke Mechem

I. Introduction
II. The Children
III. Arioso and Aria
IV. Procession
V. Befana Awakens
VI. Pastoral
VII. Befana’s Search
VIII. Finale


piano/vocal score
full score