Music by Mark Zuckerman

Outlaw & King


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The Outlaw and the King

an opera

Libretto by David Herrstrom

Music by Mark Zuckerman

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click on the image to see video from State of the Arts broadcast 1/16/09 on New Jersey Network

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Act I of The Outlaw and the King was presented in concert form by the Rutgers Opera Workshop Friday, December 15, 2006, under the auspices of the Mason Gross School of the Arts and the Department of Music, Rutgers University.


  Meet the Rutgers cast   Get a CD of the performance  

Act II of The Outlaw and the King was presented in concert form at the Nicholas Music Center at Rutgers University Monday, December 1, 2008, under the auspices of the Roosevelt Arts Project and the Department of Music, Rutgers University, with support from the Geraldine R. Dodge and Edward T. Cone Foundations. Publicity materials: press release and feature story.

  Meet the performers   Read Publicity Materials  
  Watch Scene 1   Watch Scene 2  

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ZERUBBABEL (baritone), Saul’s husky weapon’s bearer, short and bearded, occasionally called Zubal by Saul, with affection.

SAUL (bass-baritone), the King of Israel, a tall fighting man of 35 with an obsidian mane of hair and a hardened mien, powerful but somewhat awkward.

HANNAGAIL, three-voice (SSA) female chorus of the Decider, onstage but unseen by all, and heard only by Saul (Act I) and David (Act II).

DAVID (tenor), Saul’s son-in-law and favorite warrior and singer, a beautiful, slightly ruddy young man of 20, shorter than Saul, with graceful moves and a charismatic, tightly-wound athletic presence.

JONATHAN (baritone), Saul’s son, the Prince, about the same height and age as David, but finer boned and sinewy, capable of climbing a rock cliff and garroting an enemy sentry.


The opera’s first act takes place in King Saul’s late Bronze Age court in Israel just after a victory on the battlefield. The second act takes place in Philistine hill country, enemy territory. Its first scene is Saul’s camp outside his tent the night before his last battle; the second is David’s camp outside his tent the next morning, the battle over.


In Act I, Zerubbabel, weapons bearer to Israelite King Saul, enters Saul’s tent lugging home gear from a just-finished battle. As he prepares for Saul’s impending arrival by stowing the gear and making ready for a meal, Zerubbabel frets over Saul’s increasingly troubled state of mind and growing antagonism toward David, his son-in-law and lieutenant. Zerubbabel traces the beginnings of Saul’s torment to his sparing the life of the Amalekite King Agag against instructions by the prophet Samuel. Saul enters, brooding, along with Hannagail, a chorus no one can see but only Saul can hear. Zerubbabel’s attempts to raise Saul’s spirits are foiled by Hannagail, who torments Saul with bleak caricatures of his thoughts and bright encomia about David. Saul vacillates between his rage at and love for David, finally sending Zerubbabel to fetch David in the hope that David can sing Saul’s troubles away. David arrives and sings Saul’s favorite song but fails to change Saul’s mood. Saul’s son Jonathan comes in, singing a snippet from David’s song, and is so overjoyed at seeing David he momentarily forgets to acknowledge his father, a slight that feeds Saul’s growing sense of betrayal. After returning Jonathan’s affection, David sings several songs to the delight of everyone except Saul, who grows increasingly angry at David, egged on by the taunting of Hannagail. Despite David’s pledges and pleadings of love and loyalty, Saul accuses David of treachery, declares him a mortal enemy, and chases him from the tent. Hannagail utters a grim prophecy and follows David. Saul abruptly turns his attention to dinner but Jonathan, upset, has no appetite. Jonathan tries to change Saul’s mind about David but Hannagail’s departure convinces Saul he is right. Jonathan’s entreaties merely cause Saul to suspect Jonathan’s loyalty. Saul angrily chases Jonathan away. Act I ends with Saul, now by himself, bitterly reflecting on his fate.

As Act II opens (Scene 1), nightfall finds Saul’s men encamped deep in enemy territory. In Saul’s obsessive hunt for David, he has penetrated Philistine lands and, surrounded, now faces an attack the next day. Beside a camp fire, Jonathan and Zerubbabel voice their fears; both wishing David was with them for the battle, though Jonathan is torn between loyalty to his father and to David, while Zerubbabel dismisses him as a traitor. Saul himself admits that though they hunt David, they need him if they are to win the upcoming battle. As they all drift off to sleep, and Saul’s dream of losing the Decider’s favor torments him, David stealthily enters the camp, knife in hand. Feeling betrayed by Saul who banished him in Act I and now hunts him, David is intent on killing Saul before Saul kills him. He raises his knife but discovers that he still loves Saul and cannot kill him, asking why he’s meant to destroy those he loves. Instead, he cuts off a piece of the royal robe. Sheathing his knife, he picks up Saul’s spear to leave, but Jonathan halts him. Zerubbabel also wakes, wanting to kill the traitor, but Jonathan stops him, knowing they have little chance the next day without David. When they can’t persuade him to stay and fight with them, they convince him to at least leave Saul’s spear behind. As Zerubbabel goes back to sleep, Jonathan realizes the threshold they’re about to cross in parting and how much he loves David as companion and brother. They remind each other of their bond in war and peace, and affirm their mutual affection—brothers forever—but David’s words are ambiguous. He goes off into the night, while Jonathan faces what he fears is an inevitable fate at dawn.

In Act II, Scene 2, sunrise finds David plagued by thoughts of Saul’s possibly losing the battle that morning. Though he rationalizes, David knows in his heart that by not joining Saul in the fight, defeat is certain. And the thought of Jonathan dying pains him. In the absence of news about the outcome, David pretends to himself that perhaps Jonathan escaped death but knows better, and Hannagail’s words are not comforting. He takes refuge in a now overwhelming sense of living out his own story in which he is the chosen one. News arrives with Zerubbabel who staggers into camp and announces that Saul has been killed in a terrible battle, as the Philistines overwhelmed them. Feeling guilt at abandoning Saul and Jonathan, David demands to know precisely how they died. As Zerubbabel recounts their last words, the ghosts of Saul and Jonathan appear who utter them directly. Jonathan accuses David of confusing his will with the Decider’s, which David does not deny. But their ties of affection are still strong; and they recall together the power and beauty of a shared bond. After Saul utters his dying words, which includes begging Zerubbabel to help him die, a request he grants, David turns on Zerubbabel, accusing him of murdering the king. Despite Zerubbabel’s faithful service, David runs him through with his sword. As the new king, knowing that he had to engineer the deaths of Saul and Jonathan by not acting and Zerubbabel’s by acting decisively, he laments that he had to destroy all those he loved the most. As Zerubbabel is dying, Hannagail praises David’s kingly act, but the ghosts of Saul and Jonathan remind David that death awaits him as well. The full force of what he has done falls on David, and he utters a paradoxically sincere lament for Saul and Jonathan. Hannagail proclaims David the chosen one, and he places his hand in the hand of the Great Decider.

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Librettist David Sten Herrstrom, a resident of Roosevelt, New Jersey, is a poet, writer, lecturer, and Vice President at Citigroup in New York. His poems have appeared in numerous magazines, such as Columbia: A Journal of Literature & Art, Nimrod, and US1 Worksheets. In addition, his hypertext poems are available on the web at New River, and he has published two books, including Jonah's Disappearance, a sequence of poems with drawings by Jacob Landau. Recipient of a Poetry Fellowship from the NJ State Council on the Arts and a Nimrod prize, his poems have been selected for the Columbia 40th Issue Retrospective and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Since moving to Roosevelt in 1975, he has served on the Board of Education and was a founding board member of the Roosevelt Arts Project, serving for over 15 years as President. David holds a doctorate in English literature from New York University and has taught at Queens College.


  Act I   Act II  

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Act II Publicity Materials

Click to meet the Performers

Click for flyer

Press Release


The second and final act of The Outlaw and the King, based on the Biblical Story of Saul and David, will be presented in a concert version free of charge at 8:00 p.m. on Monday, December 1, 2008, at the Nicholas Music Center, Douglass campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick. (The dress rehearsal at 3:00 p.m. on November 30 is also open to the public.)

Roosevelt, NJ – September 29, 2008 – Five years after composer Mark Zuckerman first hatched the idea of an opera, Rutgers University will host a concert version of the second and final act of The Outlaw and the King: David & Saul, a Tragedy, his collaboration with librettist David Herrstrom. Neighbors in Roosevelt – a small New Jersey town known as a haven for artists – Mr. Zuckerman and Mr. Herrstrom hold Ph.D.’s from Princeton (music composition) and New York University (English literature), respectively, and are recipients of music and poetry fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

The first act of The Outlaw and the King was developed within the framework of a special section of Rutgers’ semester-length Opera Workshop, led by Pamela Gilmore, a course in the Department of Music under the auspices of the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. Mr. Zuckerman’s collaboration with the Workshop proved to be a unique artistic partnership. As he says, “nowhere else does a composer have the opportunity to develop a large-scale musical work over the course of several months.”

This collaboration culminated in a December 15, 2006, performance of Act I with mostly Rutgers doctoral students in Schare Recital Hall on the Rutgers University campus, under the direction of Rutgers Professor of Music Judith Nicosia. Its enthusiastic response generated momentum for the two Rooseveltians to complete their final act and garner funding from the Geraldine R. Dodge and the Edward T. Cone Foundations, under the auspices of the Roosevelt Arts Project (RAP) with the support and cooperation of the Rutgers University Department of Music, for the upcoming concert performance of Act II 8 p.m. Monday, December 1 at the Nicholas Music Center in New Brunswick.

Feature Story

Garage Bands, Yes, but a Garage Opera?

How two neighbors with the help of neighbors built an opera

It was an unlikely project that Mark Zuckerman proposed one sticky day in the summer of 2003 to a neighbor across the street, puttering innocently in his garage: “I want to write an opera but I need a libretto. Could you write one?” Emerging into sunlight, David Herrstrom accepted the challenge, and this December 1 at 8 p.m. at the Nicholas Music Center in New Brunswick, Rutgers University will host an admission-free concert version of Act II of the The Outlaw and the King, the final act of their chamber opera hatched in a Roosevelt, NJ, garage over five years ago.

Neighbors by chance, it helped that Mr. Zuckerman and Mr. Herrstrom were composer and poet, respectively, holders of Ph.D.’s from Princeton (music composition) and New York University (English literature), as well as recipients of music and poetry fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, but it’s been a long journey for the two artists who still had to make a living while working on the opera, Mr. Herrstrom as a Vice President at Citigroup in New York, commuting to Manhattan and Tampa on alternate weeks, and Mr. Zuckerman as software developer and consultant.

The nature of their home town, Roosevelt, NJ, encourages such happy accidents. Built during the New Deal as Jersey Homesteads, a Utopian socialist community for immigrant Jewish tailors, it soon became known as an artist haven with the arrival of painters like Ben Shahn, who came as part of the WPA and stayed. Thereafter, Roosevelt became home to painters, sculptors, playwrights, poets, composers, and performers in every artistic discipline. The town is small enough so you can walk easily from one end to the other, but, as it happens, Mr. Herrstrom and Mr. Zuckerman live across the street from each other.

It’s one thing to agree in the heat of the moment, but where to start, what story to tell, so Mr. Zuckerman proposed Chekhov’s play, A Marriage Proposal, but Mr. Herrstrom was understandably reluctant to compete with Chekhov, to adapt a ready-made drama, and proposed instead a libretto based on a very old and well-known story, a favorite of his since childhood when, as he admits, “I remember assigning roles to my friends and acting out the violent, and what has become for me the intensely psychological biblical drama of King Saul, Jonathan, and David.”

Tentatively, Mr. Zuckerman agreed, and Mr. Herrstrom wrote a scenario for a libretto called “David & Saul” in three acts, whose basic premise, still the spine of the opera, was how David’s growing love of himself as the chosen one, coming to identify his will with God’s, leads to the destruction of those who love him and whom he most loves—Saul and Jonathan, his adopted father and brother.

Yet how is it, we ask, that an ancient story centered on the triangle of a late bronze-age Israeli king, his prince, and his favorite, has relevance to us and our neighbors in 2008? Why would we care about the conflict between King Saul and his demons, or between the king and his upstart favorite, David, who ultimately turns guerrilla warrior and displaces him?

The answer to both questions, Mr. Herrstrom explains, is that “this tragic story, where the bonds of love are rent by the necessity of self-creation and the demands of succession, is one woven into the fabric of our families and society. It is a familiar story of psychological conflict and incipient violence. The personal struggle for power only too often becomes a political struggle that affects us all. Once power is gained, it becomes entitlement, as if granted by God or the fates themselves. And in our age we know well the dangers of identifying one’s own will with God’s.”

The composer was sold, and on numerous commuter bus trips to New York and flights to Tampa, Mr. Herrstrom drafted Act I of a libretto for “David & Saul” by April, 2004. Then his nights of hammering out with Mr. Zuckerman over a bottle of wine began, revising and arguing and revising some more, soliciting comments from an ex-neighbor, the playwright Neil Selden, and of their growing sense that the tight family story of Saul, Jonathan and David needed to include another point of view. This resulted in Mr. Zuckerman’s drafting a scenario with “George,” a placeholder name, who would provide another perspective on the family struggle. From this suggestion, and based on Saul’s servants in the biblical story, Mr. Herrstrom invented Zerubbabel, a husky, no-nonsense armor-bearer to King Saul who views life from the trenches rather than the court benches.

With all characters present, including a chorus of women introduced early on who comment ironically on the action, and after comments from another neighbor, the writer Judith McNally, and more revisions, by September Mr. Herrstrom delivered a complete first act now titled, at his wife’s suggestion in order to better capture the conflict, The Outlaw and the King. And by the end of the year, Act II was complete, but now how to get perspective as librettist and composer on the draft? The answer, of course: invite the neighbors.

So they did, enlisting the help of the Roosevelt Arts Project (RAP), a small, grass-roots arts group of some 20 years, dedicated to getting work out to their neighbors and beyond, as well as encouraging collaboration among artists. Like all Roosevelt organizations, including the local government, RAP is staffed entirely by volunteers. Mr. Herrstrom recruited neighbors and ex-neighbors, the poets Rod Tulloss, David Keller, and Scott Carpenter, as well as actor Judith Goetzman, singer David Brahinsky, and playwright-director Richard Lloyd to stage a dramatic reading of the libretto in the local Borough Hall, free to everyone in town.

Over 60 neighbors attended the reading on February 5, 2005, answered questions following the reading, such as, “If a friend asked you tomorrow what Saul is like, what would you answer?” and continued a lively discussion with the librettist and composer far into the evening. Maybe their enthusiasm was because, as one writer, Robert Friedman described it, the libretto-play had a “sense of strangeness to it – the feel of ancient voices speaking,” or because of the “force of the narrative” or its “jagged” language, or perhaps the “poignancy” of the ending, who knows, but they came and expressed their opinions freely.

Having gained a fresh perspective on the libretto after reviewing the comments from his neighbors, and encouraged by their response, Mr. Herrstrom returned to his seat on the commuter bus and plane to rewrite—cutting, tightening, cutting some more, sharpening characters, emphasizing Saul’s coming unhinged—and after more hammering out with his collaborator, Act I of The Outlaw and the King was ready for music at last. As Mr. Herrstrom turned to Act II, Mr. Zuckerman, excited by musical ideas inspired by the libretto reading, tackled the monumental task of composition, writing the opening bar almost two years after he first conceived the idea one hot summer day in 2003. The composition of Act I took a little over a year, with the composer subjecting the librettist (and both their wives) to periodic impromptu renditions as each section was completed, singing all the parts with synthesizer accompaniment.

While libretto revisions were being done on buses, trains, and planes, Mr. Zuckerman was working hard to get support for a concert version of the first act, talking with the new chair of the Rutgers University Music Department, Antonius Bittmann, who enlisted the support of faculty member Pamela Gilmore in taking on the opera within the framework of a special section of Rutgers’ semester-length Opera Workshop course in the Department of Music, and by the summer of 2005 they set a date for an Opera Workshop performance under the auspices of the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University.

Deadline in mind, Mr. Zuckerman now plunged into composition, completing the music for the first Workshop rehearsal of Act I in September, 2006. Mr. Zuckerman and several members of the Rutgers faculty provided instruction during the semester, most of the performers being Rutgers doctoral candidates taking the course for credit, supplemented by outside professional singers. Mr. Zuckerman’s collaboration with the Rutgers Opera Workshop proved to be a unique artistic partnership; as he describes it, “nowhere else does a composer have the opportunity to develop a large-scale musical work over the course of several months.” As the course met throughout the term, he was able to make changes to the score in response to suggestions from the performers and to what he heard in rehearsal.

The Workshop culminated in a December 15, 2006, performance in Schare Recital Hall on the Rutgers University campus. Under the direction of Rutgers Professor Judith Nicosia, and performed by Peter Ludwig (Saul), Michael Ashby (David), Justin Johnson (Jonathan), and Charles Schneider (Zerubbabel), as well as Bethany Reeves, Adrienne Alexander, and Patrice Jegou (Hannagail trio), with Cristina Pato accompanying on piano, the concert version of Act I, based on faith in a poet neighbor and inspired by neighbors not shy about reacting vociferously to the opera’s story and characters, met with an enthusiastic response from an overflow audience—over 100 people demanding a curtain call.

Buoyed by this response, Mr. Herrstrom and Mr. Zuckerman went on to complete Act II of The Outlaw and the King, debating, writing and rewriting, and garnering financial support from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the Edward T. Cone Foundation for this coming winter’s concert performance. The foundation support made it possible to have an entirely professional presentation, complete with instruments. Four male characters and a trio of women as the voice of God comprise the cast. The opera is scored for woodwind quintet, harp and percussion.

By turns “quiet and tumultuous,” as one critic has said, “seductive and threatening, Mr. Zuckerman’s powerful music wonderfully expresses conflicts as old as the human heart.” And, of course, an opera in the end is the music. Music that can be heard in Act II, the final act of The Outlaw and the King: David & Saul, a Tragedy, made by two Roosevelt neighbors for neighbors everywhere, in a concert with chamber orchestra, Judith Nicosia music coordinator and Andrew Cyr conductor, with professional singers, including former Rooseveltian David Arnold (Saul), Brian Vandenberge (David), Matthew Morris (Jonathan), and John-Andrew Fernandez (Zerubbabel), as well as Angela Bianca Beaton, Adrienne Alexander, and Barbara Mergelsberg (Hannagail chorus), free of charge at 8 p.m., Monday, December 1, 2008, at the Nicholas Music Center, Douglass campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, a milestone marking five years on a long journey.

For this is not the end of two neighbors’ journey from a garage, just the beginning. After December’s concert performance and further revisions, the two will seek funding for a full-scale performance by a regional opera company, reminded constantly that it takes a village to make, let alone stage and perform an opera.

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