Opera Scotland

Riders to the Sea

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Ralph Vaughan Williams (born Down Ampney, 12 October 1872; died London, 26 August 1958)


John Millington Synge (1871-1909)


Play (1902) by J M Synge.



First Performance: London (Parry Opera Theatre, Royal College of Music), 1 December 1937.

First performance in Scotland: Glasgow (Athenaeum Theatre), 27 June 1966 (perhaps earlier).

Scottish Opera première: N/A.



This taut little masterpiece lasting 40 minutes or so is arguably the greatest opera by a British composer in the 20th century prior to Peter Grimes. When so many musically excellent works are torpedoed by hopeless texts, it helps that Vaughan Williams chose an excellent, but brief, play by Synge, and set it almost in its entirety. The location is the Aran Isles off the coast of Ireland, but could be imagined as belonging to any fishing community where life was traditionally very difficult, and often short, and those who survived develop a stoical attitude towards those hardships.



Maurya. a widow (mezzo-soprano)

Cathleen (soprano)

Nora (soprano)

Bartley (baritone)


Plot Summary

In a remote fishing community, Maurya has already lost her husband and four sons to the sea. Michael is missing and only Bartley and her two daughters, Cathleen and Nora, remain. The sisters have a bundle of clothes requiring identification. Removed from a corpse found in the sea, it is thought they may be Michael's. As Maurya returns, they hide the bundle from her. Bartley is due to take horses to Galway Fair, which requires a ride over the sea crossing at low tide. He comes to take away a rope and explains he will ride the red mare - a grey pony will be on a lead behind. The sisters send their mother after him with food, and to give him her mother's blessing for the journey. During her second absence they are able to identify the clothing as Michael's, so when she returns, distressed because she saw Michael riding the pony behind Bartley, they can tell her that they know Michael to be dead. Maurya accepts that Bartley, too, will now die, and she waits patiently until his corpse is carried in. This is almost a relief, because the sea has now done its worst and can hurt her no more.

The Cast

 Maurya's son
 Nora's sister
Dancer 1
Dancer 2
 a widow
 Maurya's daughter

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