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drawing of bridge

Ernest Hemingway's
For Whom the Bell Tolls

A New Opera in Two Acts
Fighting Fascism and Sacrificing for Love

Music by Brian Wilbur Grundstrom
Libretto by David Dorsen
Jeffrey Sean Dokken, Music Director
Robert Barnett, Dramaturg

Hem­ing­way was a larger-than-life personality. In his popular novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, there is a bit of the author in the character of Robert Jordan, an idealistic young American in 1930's fascist Spain, who accepts a doomed mission to blow up a bridge. 

Through his lyrical melody-driven music, Brian Wil­bur Grund­strom brings out the emotional depths of the characters and new insight to this Hem­ing­way classic. Using the full versatility of opera, David Dorsen's libretto and Grund­strom's music explore Hem­ing­way's themes of trust, loyalty, honor, love, betrayal, fear, pain, loss, and sacrifice, while adding modern insight, as his notions of honor clash with the reality of the situation.

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

from the performance



Download Opera Summary Flyer

Librettist David Dorsen

Video: About the Opera (4:23)

Development Workshop Performance

Libretto Reading

Piano Vocal Reading

Video: Libretto Reading Highlights (10:11)

Video: Entire Libretto Reading (1:05:59)

Video: Development Workshop Performance Highlights (12:02)

Video: Development Workshop Performance Aria "Will He Love Me" (6:27)

Video: Development Workshop Performance Aria "And This Misery" (4:43)

Video: Development Workshop Performance Aria "Seventy Years in Seventy Hours" (3:44)

London Symphony Orchestra records Overture (5:00)

Video: National Symphony of Brazil records Robert Jordan Doesn't Teach English (9:35)

Video: Maria Meets Robert Jordan (7:56)

Video: Orchestral/Vocal Recording Act 1 Scene 4 (23:49)

Midi Rendition Full Opera

Video: Interview with Christina Scheppelmann (11:25)

Video: The Making of For Whom the Bell Tolls, An Opera in Progress (9:08)

Development Workshop Concert Performance

November 20, 2022 at 3pm

Church of the Epiphany, 1317 G Street NW, Washington DC 20005

Jeffrey Sean Dokken, Music Director
Alan Naylor as Robert Jordan
Eliza Bonet as Pilar
Kelly Curtin as Maria
Sean Pflueger as Pablo

Danielle Bendjy as Rosa,  Suzanne S. Chadwick as Isabella, Cosmo Clemens as Rafael, Aurelio Dominguez as Joaquin, Santiago Alfonzo Meza as Primitivo,  Derrick Miller as Fernando, Jose Sacín as Sordo/Agustin,  Lori Şen as Amalia, Daniel Sherwood as Lorenzo,  Antony Zwerdling as Anselmo

For Whom the Bell Tolls Opera Performance Workshop Flyer
Download Development Workshop Concert Performance Flyer

DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities
This project has been supported by the Sister Cities Grant program of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities

If you would like to stay informed about For Whom the Bell Tolls Opera and future performances, please email [email protected]­wilbur.com.

Make a donation to support opera development

Will He Love Me
And This Misery
Seventy Years in Seventy Hours
The London Symphony Orchestra
records the Overture for
For Whom the Bell Tolls
Album cover Sparks Eye of London with London Symphony Orchestra
For Whom the Bell Tolls Summary
download the summary flyer

Robert Jordan Doesn't Teach English
Scene from For Whom the Bell Tolls

This project was supported by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, Sister Cities Grant Program.

National Theatre Symphony Orchestra
Brasilia, Brazil
Orquestra Sinfônica do Teatro Nacional Claudio Santoro


Press Release

with interview hosted by
Christina Scheppelmann
Christina Scheppelmann

General Director, Seattle Opera

TIVA-DC Silver Peer Award in Editing Visual Effects for Robert Jordan Doesn't Teach English TIVA-DC Bronze Peer Award in Music Original Song for Robert Jordan Doesn't Teach English
Since 1997, the TIVA-DC Peer Awards celebrate excellence in the Washington DC metropolitan area and offer one of the most sought-after awards in the media community. The awards are merit-based, and judged solely on the individual merits of the entry by industry professionals in the region. This recognition of excellence is a great endorsement for all the artists involved in the short film "Robert Jordan Doesn't Teach English", a scene from a new opera for Ernest Hemingway's novel "For Whom the Bell Tolls". Funded by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities Sister Cities Program, the film is a collaboration between artists in the DC and Brasilia metropolitan areas. Composer Brian Wilbur Grundstrom, Librettist David M. Dorsen, Music Director Jeffrey Sean Dokken and professional opera singers from DC were joined virtually in Brasilia by the Orquestra Sinfônica do Teatro Nacional Claudio Santoro and Maestro Claudio Cohen, creating an amazing collaboration of talent. This endorsement is a wonderful stamp of approval for all the artists involved, and creates high expectations for the opera's world premiere in Washington planned for September 2022, and hopefully also soon in Brasilia.

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. His recent novel, entitled “Moses v. Trump”, a nonfiction book, is based on the Watergate Scandal. Dorsen has taught at Duke, Georgetown, and George Washington Universities.

Maria Meets Robert Jordan
Scene from For Whom the Bell Tolls
Immediately follows Robert Jordan Doesn't Teach English

Recording of Act 1, Scene 4

Piano Vocal Reading
Act 1, Scene 3
July 22, 2015
Composer’s residence, Washington DC

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, New York City
March 15, 2018
Robert Barnett, Director and Dramaturg

Actors were hired for a reading of the libretto, which included a post-performance discussion with opera professionals in attendance. The reading gave the creative team an opportunity to test out the theatrical viability of the story as live drama, and make adjustments in the storytelling to strengthen the core conflict between Robert Jordan and Pablo and take a closer look at the romantic relationship between Robert Jordan and Maria.

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


F or Whom the Bell Tolls is set in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, a struggle between those in power (the Republicans or Loyalists) and those trying to depose the government, the 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 guerrillas 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 will hunt them down, forcing the small band to abandon the safety of their cave.

Supporting Robert is Pilar who asserts her leadership of the restless guerrillas 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 guerrillas, agrees to 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, 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 that he threw the detonators away but has also realized that the job can be done with grenades, though it makes the job riskier.

As everyone waits for the bombardment to begin signaling the start of the Republican offensive, Jordan assures 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.

Ernest Hemingway in Milan 1918

Ernest Hemingway, Milan, 1918


Robert Jordan (Tenor), American, early 30’s Former Spanish instructor at a college in the mid-west, Robert came to Spain to support the Republicans and fight the Fascists. A skilled dynamiter, he has become disillusioned with the war, seeking meaning in performing his responsibilities to the best of his ability. To the world, he is handsome, virile, and in command, with a seemingly impenetrable stoical exterior. But they mask an untapped emotional depth consumed with self-doubt and a roiling loss of purpose, aware he is going through the motions without conviction. He realizes that he could die on this mission, but is unsure how he feels about that. Robert finds himself drawn to Maria both physically and emotionally. He feels protective of her but also aware that he cares for her in ways he has never cared for anyone before, and starts to imagine sharing a life with her, which gives him someone to live – and die – for. Tall, sinewy muscles, light complexion and hair.

Maria, 18 (Soprano) Traumatized first by witnessing her parents being executed, then gang-raped by the Fascists, she was saved by the guerrillas led by Pablo, when they blew up the train taking her south to a prison camp. Not part of the guerrilla band herself, she has found a place among them cooking under Pilar›s watchful eye which has given her a sense of belonging and helped heal her shattered sense of self. She is trusting by nature but still feels displaced and lost due to the emotional upheavals she has experienced. She is in search of something or someone to believe in and live for, even if she is not aware of it herself. Senses that beneath his resolute exterior Robert is a kindred – and equally lost – spirit. This awakens her dormant heart and prompts her to want to be with him and to have a relationship that is both emotionally rewarding and lasting and opens her up to imagining a better life with him elsewhere. Dark hair, attractive features, melancholy air beneath a very natural warmth.

Pilar, late 40’s (mezzo) A born leader and a true believer in the Republic, placing all of her energies and passion in its service, even though she recognizes the ruthless brutality that exists on both sides. Never beautiful and insisting she is ugly, she still sparks with the fire – the Gypsy blood in her, she would say – that incited the passion of matadors when she was younger. Although she still describes herself as “Pablo’s woman” she is disgusted that he’s become a drunk shirking his responsibilities to the others. Protective of Maria, she sees Robert as a way to get Maria to safety and senses that Robert may need Maria as much as Maria needs Robert. Grit, authority, and keeps her own counsel but with a sense of humor.

Pablo, late 40’s (bass) Once a ruthless leader that both attracted and repelled Pilar, he is now tired of the conflict and has sought safety in hiding out in the mountains, drinking his nights away. He has alienated the other guerrillas who have already turned to Pilar for direction, even if he pretends not to know. He is invested in his own self-preservation at all costs, even if it means undermining RRobert’s mission. He can be crafty, selfish, duplicitous, and cowardly. But he is also smart and a survivor. Not to be trusted but the others do, even when they know better. Barrel-chested with shifting eyes that are always on guard.

Anselmo, 60’s (baritone) Dedicated, reliable, committed to the Republican cause, though his conscience is still troubled by the human cost and moral consequences, but can see clearly what he must do if their side is to defeat the Fascists.  Wears his age on his face, a man of few words, but uses them wisely.

Rafael, early 40’s (tenor) Easy-going, self-identified Gypsy, always happy to have another meal; wily, willing to take orders but not always perfect at execution, expects to survive the war regardless of who wins.

Agustín, 30’s (baritone) A hot-headed, foul-mouthed man who seems younger than his years for all of his hard-bitten commitment to the Republican cause.

Fernando, early 30s. (tenor) Engaged in the cause but on his own terms.  Will stick it out but will be glad when it’s over, so life can go back to what it was.  Can miss the forest for the trees. Personable.

Amalia, 30’s (alto) Sister of Fernando, plain and tom boyish.

Rosa, 30’s (soprano)

Isabella, 30’s (mezzo)

Lorenzo, 30’s (bass)

Primitivo, 20’s (bass) Youngest member of the band.

El Sordo, 40’s (baritone) An intuitive and fearless leader, if somewhat impulsive. Still can listen, evaluate, and understand orders are orders. Cares about his men and they care about him. Personable, engaging, gracious even in difficult circumstances, knows what to take seriously and what not.

Joaquin, 20’s (tenor) Member of El Sordo’s band

Midi Rendition

This video is a completed draft of both acts for an opera for Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. This is played through my sequencer, and does not resemble the completed score, so please understand that this is only for working purposes.

Parts that include live singers and orchestras:

London Symphony Orchestra
Miran Vaupotić (Maestro)

Act One Scene Two
Robert Jordan Doesn't Teach English
Jeffrey Sean Dokken (Maestro & Fernando)
Alan Naylor (Robert Jordan)
Eliza Bonet (Pilar)
Malte Roesner (Pablo)
Aurelio Dominguez (Rafael)
Lori Sen (Amalia)
Jose Sacin (Anselmo)
Antony Zwerdling (Agustin)
Gustavo Ahualli (Primitivo)

Act One Scene Two
Robert Jordan Meets Maria

Alan Naylor (Robert Jordan)
Kelly Curtin (Maria)
Jose Sacin (Agustin)
Aurelio Dominguez (Rafael)

Act One Scene Four
Erik Ochsner (Maestro)
Jesús Daniel Hernández (Robert Jordan)
Kelly Curtin (Maria)
Suzanne S. Chadwick (Pilar)
Jose Sacín (Pablo, Sordo)

This project was supported by the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities.