By Ajnos Gamgee
While CS Lewis’ Space Trilogy is somewhat less well known than The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis fans around the world recognise the brilliance of these beautiful science fiction tales that show a whole different side of Lewis’ creative genius, especially as he writes for an older audience.
While most of Lewis’ readership will have heard of and are familiar with these tales of interplanetary travels written back when such would have been considered as much a fantasy as travels through a wardrobe to Narnia, it is little known that the second of Lewis’ works, Perelandra (or Voyage to Venus) was made into an opera in the 1960s.
During the years since Lewis first penned the tales of Narnia, these works (and in particular his first, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) have been adapted into numerous stage shows, musicals, audio editions and films. Some may have wondered if and when any of his space tales might undergo the same treatment. It is surprising to learn, therefore, that Perelandra already has.
What is more astounding, is the fact that the Perelandra Opera was the brainchild of none other than Donald Swann (of “Flanders and Swann” fame). This British composer is better known for his comic pieces and light opera, but wanting to work on something of a more serious nature, he collaborated with David Marsh to produce this adaptation of Lewis’ Venusian tale. The work was created with the approval of and contributions from CS Lewis himself.
The main reason the opera is so little known, is that it has only been performed a handful of times. In 1964, it was performed in Oxford, Cambridge and London, and in 1969 in Haverford and New York City as a student production.
Some time after Lewis’ death, however, the film rights to the Perelandra story had been sold and as a result, an embargo was placed on commercial dramatic adaptations. Following this, the Perelandra Opera vanished into obscurity for another 50 years, until the Oxford CS Lewis Society arranged a limited reproduction of it in 2009. There are no commercially available recordings of the performance, but it was recorded and high-quality archive CD-sets made available at selected research institutions.
The Oxford CS Lewis Society, The Bodleian Library (Oxford) and The Wade Centre (Wheaton, Il.) have copies of the recordings. Recently, selected sound clips were made available on Transpositions.
For more on the opera and its history read here