A Question of Taste – Libretto


Opera in one act

Libretto J. D McClatchy
(based on a story by Roald Dahl)

The dining room of an elegant New York brownstone, 1910.

No, no. The knives go on the right.
Fish knife, meat knife, salad and cheese knife.
The forks go on the left–
My, what a dinner tonight!
Forks to within an inch of vour life.
The napkin folded like a linen duck
Floating across its service plate.
Give that one an extra tuck.
Yes, yes. But hurry. We’ll be late.

There you go. Lost in your dreams, my pet.
Now mind the table is properly set.
Salt dishes, dinner rolls,
Nut dishes, fingerbowls,
Decanter and corkscrew. Louise dear,
We put the wineglasses here–
Now watch me–
Not in a row but at an angle–so.
So. And so. And so. And so. And so.

Why must everything be comme-il-faut?
I know, Missus Hudson, I know.
Oh, why must everything be in place?
What does it matter?

Such a long face!
It matters because that is the way
It is always and everywhere done.
Now help me with these chairs.
One at each place, just where I say.
Start with your Mother. In her usual place.
Poor woman, she’s gone and exhausted herself.
You’d think she’d run the steeplechase.
Up and down all day,
And your Father in a stew.
I only hope you’re grateful, dear,
For all the things your Mother does for you.
–Louise, do you hear?

Yes, Missus Hudson. Mother sits here.

And your Father over there,
At the head of the table,
To taste the wine and carve the roast,
Then raise his glass and drink a toast…
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the toast
Were to young Mister Tom
Who’ll sit right there.
Now fetch his chair.
Such a fine young man.
He’ll be a lucky catch
For some smart girl.
A perfect match.
But I wonder for whom?
Could she be in this very room?

Oh, Missus Hudson, you embarrass me.

I see all sorts of things
Out of the corner of my eye.
I can see when a girl and a boy
Give us the telltale sigh.

A sigh.
Oh my, yes, Missus Hudson.
Our looks don’t lie.
If I can’t have Tom
I think I should die.
But Father demands
“Someone more suitable.”
Who is more suitable
Than the man you love?
My mind’s made up.
Why won’t he see that?
Oh why?

When I was your age
I was made to marry a man,
A much older man,
I scarcely knew
And never loved.

To live without delight,
To languish day and night,
My child, it was no life
To be an old man’s wife.

Time, it goes so fast.
It will not, cannot last.
Hold, hold onto your youth.
It guards against this truth:
Like me, you’ll soon be old.
Like mine, a heart grows cold

But your heart is so warm.
You are goodness itself–
Dressed in a uniform!

Yes, with duties to perform!
Now Tom sits here.
Now here is the guest of honor, Phillisto Pratt.
When it comes to wine, he’s an aristocrat.
Phillisto Pratt and his famous bets.
Your Father’s been pacing his study all day.
Something’s up. I’d bet a month’s pay.
Another of his famous bets with Mister Pratt
Whose tastebuds are the most famous in New York.
He’s a man with a nose for the cork.
Your Father’s seen to the wine himself.
Been fussing all day.
It’s another of their famous wagers.
And your Father expects you
To help him and charm
The remarkable Mister Pratt.

Your Father expects this.
Your Father requires that.
Where did he leave his spectacles?
Please hand him his hat.
Sit here. Stay near.
Look pretty, my dear.
It’s as if I didn’t exist.
Suppose I became an anarchist,
Or suddenly decided to enlist
In the army of suffragettes–
Or worse, suppose I went on the stage!–
Why, then you could bet
There’d be a furious, but dignified rage.
Why, thenI might even be missed.

I feel so helpless, trapped inside
This cage of polished silver and glass,
Of manners and money, of manly pride
In slogans as smug as “One’s Own Class.”

I may not know the world outside
But I can hear my heart. It’s never lied.
It tells me now’s the time and place,
Now’s the where and when.
These are modern times.
My life can start again.
Women must stand up.
It’s Nineteen-ten!

It’s Tom who will save me, if only he’ll try.
He’s given me his love, and he has mine.
Still it’s a secret we’re forced to deny.
Poor Tom delays. The dear heart, he’s shy.
And Father stares past us, intent on his wine,
While Mother is worried I’ll “die on the vine.”

If only Tom could speak what he feels.
Love is no coward, it never conceals.
This wineglass tonight will bubble and sing
Of the joy it gives, the warmth it will bring.

Oh, love is the glass and love is the wine.
Look, my heart, look at it shine.
Oh soon–please, soon–let love be mine.
Oh, love is enduring, and it never flees.
Love’s beyond price–

–its name is Louise!

How handsome you look in a collar and tie.
Do Father and Mother know you’ve arrived?

Not yet. I slipped in the back way.
I needed to see you. I’ve something to say.

I’m not a man to your father’s taste.
I know what he says behind our backs.
That my family comes from the wrong side of the tracks.
That there’s nothing further to discuss.
He’s a nice enough lad, but not one of us.
He doesn’t know wine, he likes to drink beer.
He doesn’t even have a proper gentleman’s career–
He’s not yet a lawyer, just a penniless clerk
In an office–with a dozen men–who work!
There’s nothing further to discuss.
I’m happy to see him for a dinner or a chat–
Even invite him with old Mister Pratt–
Yes, a nice enough lad, but not one of us.
No, I’m not a man to your Father’s taste.
Not a man of parts. Not a man of the world.
And above all, no fit suitor for his “little girl.”

But that’s why I’m here.
It’s money that keeps us apart–
A fact that won’t disappear.
But money can’t buy a heart,
And already we’ve waited a year.
lt’s high time I went to your Father.
I’ll speak up tonight.
I’ll demand–

Yes, Tom?

No, I’ll ask him for your hand.

Yes, Tom.