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drawing of bridge
For Whom the Bell Tolls
A New Opera in Two Acts

Music by Brian Wilbur Grundstrom

Libretto by David Dorsen

Book by Ernest Hemingway

The opera takes place in the mountains of northern Spain in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. The opera is in two acts.


Video: About the Opera (5:54)
Librettist David Dorsen
Video: Orchestral/Vocal Recording Act 1 Scene 3 (23:49)
Piano Vocal Reading
Video: The Making of For Whom the Bell Tolls, An Opera in Progress (9:08)
Libretto Reading
Video: Libretto Reading Highlights (10:11)
Video: Entire Libretto Reading (1:05:59)

About the Opera

David M. Dorsen
David M. Dorsen

D avid Dorsen is an attorney and author. He is an opera lover and created the concept for the opera based on the novel by Ernest Hemingway. He is the author of the prize-winning biography, "Judge Henry Friendly, Greatest Judge of His Era," published by Harvard University Press, and "The Unexpected Scalia: A Conservative Justice's Liberal Opinions," published by Cambridge University Press. Dorsen served as Assistant Chief Counsel of the Senate Watergate Committee. He is currently working on a novel, entitled “Moses v. Trump”, a nonfiction book, and a play based on the Watergate Scandal. Dorsen has taught at Duke, Georgetown, and George Washington Universities.

Recording of Act 1, Scene 3

Piano Vocal Reading
Ruth Bader Ginsberg attends Performance of For Whom the Bell Tolls reading

Photo above - At piano/vocal reading of For Whom the Bell Tolls, an opera in progress:
From left: Maestro Erik Ochsner, Tenor Jesús Daniel Hernández, Soprano Kelly Curtin, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Composer Brian Wilbur Grundstrom, Librettist David Dorsen, Mezzo Suzanne S. Chadwick, Baritone Jose Sacín. Photo by LeClair image.

The Making of

Libretto Reading

The National Opera Center
Robert Barnett, Director and Dramaturg

Bob Barnett at Libretto Reading for For Whom the Bell Tolls Opera

Director and Dramaturg Robert Barnet, with actors, from left: Mateo Gómez, Eliseo Roman, Grant Tambellini, Alma Cuervo, Ricardo Birnbaum, Antonio Rubio (not pictured Alexis Ortiz, Ionesco Cabrera) photo by Andrew E. Wagner

Libretto Reading Highlights

Entire Libretto Reading

Brian Wilbur Grundstrom is writing an opera to Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.  The libretto by David Dorsen is finished, and contains six scenes in two acts.  Act I scene 3 has been professionally recorded.  (above)

Hemingway (1899-1961) has earned a place in American culture, and his For Whom the Bell Tolls remains current today.  As per the Hemingway estate, there has never been an opera based on a novel by Hemingway.  Set in the important historic period of the Spanish civil war during the late 1930’s, the novel explores the first direct confrontation between the two main negative forces in the 20th century -- communism and fascism.  The story lends itself well to an opera, providing many opportunities for great music, with passion, betrayal, reconciliation, sacrifice, humor, and more.  The leading characters are powerful: Robert Jordan (tenor) is the American directed by the Russians to enlist a local band of guerillas to blow up a bridge; Pablo (baritone) is the former leader of the band who betrays the others by throwing away the detonators for the dynamite; the domineering Pilar (dramatic mezzo) is Pablo’s wife and has taken control of the band; and Maria (lyric soprano), who has been rescued by the band and represents lost innocence, falls in love with Jordan.  The powerful anti-war message resonates with today’s audience, and is worthy of exploration.

Designed to be performed on a relatively modest budget, there is no chorus, elaborate scenery or costumes.  In addition to the four leads, there are only four singing men in Pablo's band.  The orchestration has been kept small for affordability, and includes 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 trumpets, 2 horns, 2 trombones, timpani, percussion, harp and strings  (4,4,4,3,2).

The recording took place at Omega Studios near DC.  Their large studio was sufficient to hold the 35 members of the orchestra.  The vocalists were in an isolation booth for more control.  The studio has recorded operas before and is known as one of the best in the Washington DC area.

Ernest Hemingway in Milan 1918

Ernest Hemingway, Milan, 1918


For Whom the Bell Tolls is set in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, a struggle between those in legitimately in power (the Republicans or Loyalists) and those trying to depose the legitimate government, who were fascists. The former are supported by the Soviet Union, the latter by Hitler’s Nazi Germany, which was winning the war. It is an era where there was considerable support for the Soviet experiment. Thousands of idealistic Americans went to Spain and fought with the Republicans.

Robert Jordan, an American fighting on the side of the Republicans, has been assigned to blow up a bridge in the mountains in the north of Spain to cut off Fascist reinforcements when the Republicans launch a much-awaited offensive. Under the guidance of Anselmo, Jordan connects with a band of guerillas that he has been told will help him in his mission. Instead he discovers that they are lead by the drunken Pablo who opposes Jordan’s mission for fear the Fascists who know where they are and hunt them down, forcing the guerillas to abandon the safety of their cave.

Supporting Robert is Pilar who asserts her leadership of the restless guerillas who support her over Pablo’s shiftless refusal to take action. Robert tries to avoid becoming enmeshed in their internal struggles, aware he has become disillusioned in the potential for success in their cause – and in his mission. Still he is almost immediately taken by the engaging, though guileless Maria, who for all of her traumatized past, finds herself equally drawn to him, recognizing they are both looking for something or someone to believe in and live for.

The logistics for blowing up the bridge start falling into place when El Sordo, leader of a nearby band of guerillas, agrees to join and steal the horses they need to make their escape afterwards. Nevertheless Jordan learns that word has gotten out about the planned Republican offensive, compromising their success.

At the start of Act Two though, matters take a turn for the worse when Fascist militia follow El Sordo’s tracks in the newly fallen snow back to his hiding place and wipe out his band of guerrillas. That night, Pablo out of self-preservation steals the detonators Jordan needs for his explosives, and disappears. Jordan realizes that although he can use grenades to trigger the dynamite for blowing up the bridge later that morning, it has become a suicide mission without sufficient men to attack the heavily guarded bridge and still escape safely. His greatest regret is that Maria, who he has fallen in love with, may lose her life in the fighting.

Still with the first light as they prepare to leave, Jordan, Pilar and the rest of the band are joined by the mercurial Pablo who has not only recruited more men but secured the needed horses. He confesses in a moment of cowardice he threw the detonators away but has also realized that the job can be done with grenades, though it makes the job more risky.

As everyone waits for the bombardment to begin signaling the start of the Republican offensive, Jordan reassures a worried Maria that they will be together in America before too long. As she leaves to help guard the horses, Jordan and Anselmo prepare their assault on the bridge as Pablo and Pilar lead separate groups of men in attacking the guardhouses positioned at each end of the bridge.

The mission is a success but not without losses including Anselmo who is killed. As they all gather once more after the bridge has been blown up, Pablo turns his submachine gun on the men he has recruited, so his people will have enough horses for their escape.

As they make their dash to safety in a hale of enemy gunfire, Jordan is wounded. He realizes he cannot go on without threatening everyone else’s ability to get away. He takes Maria aside and assures her that he will be with her always and that wherever she goes, he will be with her. Once the rest have left, Jordan takes up his position with their machine gun to fight off the Fascists to the very last while the others – including Maria – escape capture.