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The plot for an opera can be derived from many sources. With seemingly endless opportunities for inspiration, it is curious how composers are drawn to comparable areas of interest. High on the list are fables and fairy tales inhabiting a world of magic and mystery. Nor is the basic plot an end in itself: hidden meanings, trips into the subconscious, transfiguration and symbolic gestures are often contained within the story. If we take a brief look at the text of three operas, interesting parallels can be found.

The basis of Shikaneder's libretto for Mozart's The Magic Flute came from Liebeskind's 'Lulu oder Die Zauberflöte', itself published in Wieland's collection of fairy tales, Dschinnistan. The story combined with additional magic and ritual - the latter derived from contemporary freemasonry and Terrasson's novel Sethos with its ancient Egyptian settings - lifts the libretto out of the fairy tale genre into a work of profound meaning operating on several levels; primarily the search for enlightenment and an 'ideal union' by the two main characters, Tamino and Pamina.

Tippett was fully aware of this when he was writing the libretto for his opera The Midsummer Marriage. In a letter, he described it as being 'bang in the fantasy world of Zauberflöte'. He saw the setting in 'the world of symbolic dream theatre' - a concept Covent Garden was unable to cope with in 1955.

Tippett's opera takes place in the realms of the natural and the supernatural. His fascination lies in the interaction between the two.

There are two pairs of young lovers in conflict not only with each other but with the older generation. The 'marvellous' couple are Mark and Jenifer (Guinevere) - names from Celtic mythology - and the 'everyday' couple are Jack and Bella, which is how Tippett refers to them.

On the human level it is a story of upset and reconciliation: in other words a battle of the sexes; and the defeat of Jenifer's business tycoon father, King Fisher. Only Mark and Jenifer take part in the leading supernatural manifestations. Their progress is steeped in the Jungian philosophy of 'light' and 'shadow' that eventually reveals the true self. As in The Magic Flute, ritual is used to attain an elevated state of consciousness.

Both of the above operas are known to us. The same cannot be said of Frederick Delius's The Magic Fountain, which was written in 1894-5 when the composer was in his early thirties and living the Bohemian life in Paris.

The background to the opera's composition is redolent of Delius's sojourn in America. In 1884, his father lent him the money to set up as an orange grower in Florida at Solano Grove near Jacksonville. The venture was short-lived and he soon turned to music. After America, Delius went to study in Leipzig and then - supported by his father - went to live in Paris.

Like Tippett, Delius fashioned his own libretto with the help of Jutta Bell, a former neighbour in Florida. It confronts the racial issue head-on, a subject avoided by many composers. The story is symbolic.

A young European man, Solano (probably named after the composer's orange grove) sets sail for Florida to find the spring of eternal youth. A young American Indian girl Watawa is to show him the way. She plans to kill Solano as a vengeance on the white race. Eternal youth can not be had cheaply. The Indian Priest predicts that to drink from the fountain unprepared will result in death. Watawa's destructive desire for vengeance is redeemed by feelings of love for Solano. They sing a Liebestod which transfigures racial conflict. Watawa makes the supreme sacrifice and drinks from the fountain to show Solano the danger. Not wishing to leave her, he also drinks. In death they are united.

At its first staging in Kiel in 1997, the Frankfurter Rundschau described the opera as 'a dreamlike journey into the Self'.

While writing the opera, Delius was diagnosed as having syphilis. Did his plot become a verbal metaphor whereby he sought to return to a younger pre-syphilis state? A ritualistic cleansing by water to wash away the results of his hedonistic life-style? We can only conjecture. His libretto has a sting in the tale. He knew that there is always a price to pay. His was eventually the ultimate one.

Coincidentally, in 1963, Norman Del Mar (who has never been accorded the true recognition he so richly deserves) conducted a BBC Radio performance of The Midsummer Marriage that Tippett described as 'superlative' and that 'turned the tide in its favour'; 14 years later Del Mar brought to life The Magic Fountain in a concert performance for the BBC. The work had been lying dormant for 82 years.

Richard Armstrong will conduct the first UK staging of The Magic Fountain mounted by Scottish Opera in Glasgow (20 February; 4 & 6 March) and Edinburgh (26 February). The cast includes Stephen Allen, Anne Mason and Stafford Dean, with production by Aidan Lang.

The Magic Fountain is published by Boosey & Hawkes (
Scottish Opera is at

Copyright © Shirley Ratcliffe, 4 February 1999