Brief Encounter

An Opera in Two Acts

Based on the play Still Life and the screenplay to the 1945 film Brief Encounter, both by Noël Coward

Music by André Previn. Libretto by John Caird.


World Premiere Production
Sung in English with supertitles
May 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9, 2009

The piano/vocal score of the opera is published by Schirmer’s in New York. Click here to download a brochure about this publication.

A double CD of the original live performance from HGO is available from Deutsche Grammophon.



The Composer

Conductor, composer and pianist André Previn is one of the most distinguished musicians of our time. His first opera, A Streetcar Named Desire, premiered at San Francisco Opera in 1998, with Renée Fleming as Blance Dubois and the composer at the podium. The opera was subsequently telecast on PBS and released on CD by Deutsche Grammophon (Grammy and Grand Prix du Disques awards), and it has been performed internationally.

Mr. Previn’s many honors include Germany’s Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit, a Kennedy Center Honor for Lifetime Achievement, ten Grammy Awards and the Glenn Gould Foundation’s Glenn Gould Prize. Musical America has also named him Musician of the Year (1999), and in 1996, he was awarded the KBE by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

He regularly appears with such orchestras as the Vienna Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Pittsburgh Symphony and San Francisco Symphony orchestras. He has held the chief artistic posts with such esteemed orchestras as the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1985–89); Pittsburgh Symphony (1976–84); Royal Philharmonic (music director: 1985–88; principal conductor: 1988–91); London Symphony (music director: 1969–79; conductor laureate: since 1993); and Houston Symphony (1967–70), and has toured with all of them worldwide. In 2006, Mr. Previn completed a four-year term as music director of the Oslo Philharmonic.



The Librettist

The versatile Canadian-born, UK-based writer and director John Caird is honorary associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he was associate director from 1977 to 1990. Recent productions with the RSC include*The Beggar’s Opera*, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Antony and Cleopatra and Richard Nelson ’s Columbus and the Discovery of Japan. In collaboration with Trevor Nunn, he directed Charles Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby at the Aldwych Theatre in June 1980 as well as the first English-language production of Les Misérables in 1985, both of which later went to Broadway and garnered numerous honors, including Tony Awards for the directors. Mr. Caird also directed and wrote the book for Paul Gordon’s Jane Eyre for Broadway, earning a Tony nomination for best book. He wrote and directed The Siegfried and Roy Spectacular for Las Vegas, and co-wrote and directed the musical Children of Eden with Stephen Schwartz at Prince Edward Theatre. His writing for the stage also includes The Kingdom of the Spirit and The Beggar’s Opera (based on the Brecht play), and for television an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV for the BBC. In opera, he has directed Mozart’s Zaide at Batignano, Italy, and Verdi’s Don Carlos for Welsh National Opera.



The Story

Milford and Ketchworth England and environs during the mid-1930s

Act One

Laura Jesson and Alec Harvey sit in the waiting room bar of the railway station with her chatty acquaintance Dolly, who has invited herself to the table. Laura and Alec sit politely while Dolly prattles on until Alec’s train arrives and he leaves them. The express train passes through the station and Laura disappears momentarily, looking ill when she returns.

During the train ride home, Laura protests that she is not feeling well and Dolly gives her some peace. Laura imagines a time when the agony she is feeling will pass.

Back home, Laura’s two children have gone to bed and her husband Fred greets her when she arrives. Listless, she joins Fred in the sitting room. As he does his crossword puzzle, she retreats into recent memory:

From separate tables in the railway station waiting room, Laura Jesson and Alec Harvey are both waiting for their trains unaware of one another. When Laura steps onto the platform to wait for her train, the passing express sends a speck of grit into her eye. She returns to the waiting room where Alec Harvey, a doctor, offers to remove it for her. She accepts.

On a Milford street, Laura contemplates her weekly routine of shopping on Thursdays. In a brief encounter Alec passes her on the street and they recognize each other. He asks after her eye and they exchange pleasantries before he returns to the hospital for his weekly shift.

It is another Thursday at the Kardomah café, which is bustling at lunch hour. Laura sits by herself. Alec walks in and, seeing no vacant tables, asks to sit with her. They get to know each other over lunch.

Alec accompanies Laura on her weekly stroll by the river. On the bridge at Eden Lock, they stand in the sun and discuss their spouses.

Before returning home, they have tea together at the railway station. Alec tells Laura why he became a doctor, and of his professional dreams.

Having spent the afternoon with Alec, Laura returns home to find that her son has been hit by a car and has been concussed. She is wracked with guilt and, as Fred does his usual crossword puzzle, tells her husband about meeting Alec. He responds wryly and absent-mindedly. She laughs, thinking she has been making too much of her meeting with Alec.

The following week Alec does not show up for their rendezvous. Laura worries—but decides that she must see him once more, if only to end their friendship.

Laura is about to board the train home when Alec catches up with her and explains that a hospital emergency kept him from meeting her. Impulsively, Laura agrees to meet him again next week.

Another week has gone by. Laura and Alec warm themselves by a boathouse as Alec dries off after a fall into the river. Alec quizzes Laura about her past and she tells him of her secret dreams as a young girl. Alec can no longer contain his feelings for her and Laura aggress that they have fallen in love but protests that their love is too dangerous to be expressed or indulged. They kiss for the first time.

Later that night in their bedroom, Laura lies to her husband for the first time—about what she has done that day. She is suddenly terrified by the double life she has begun to lead and contemplates the total breakdown of her marriage.

Act Two

Alec waits for Laura outside the hospital. He fears she will not come and counts the minutes before she arrives. He has something to tell her but can’t think of how to do it.

Two of Laura’s acquaintances spy her eating lunch with Alec at the Royal Hotel and they approach Laura and Alec on the way out of the hotel. Laura manages this awkward encounter but is deeply ashamed at having to lie to her friends.

The couple return to the bridge at Eden Lock. It is a wild and windy day and the river is in torrent. Laura’s feelings for Alec become so intense that she feels she is being dragged away from herself. She imagines her own death.

At the railway station, Alec tells Laura that he will not ride home that night. Instead he will sleep at his friend’s empty flat for the night—and he gives Laura the address. She begins to set off for home but decides to call Fred to tell him that she will be home late, conjuring up another lie before following Alex to the flat.

Fred puts down the phone from his conversation with Laura. He knows something is terribly wrong and fears he may be losing her. In spite of the distance that has grown between them, he resolves to keep his faith in her and in their love for one another.

Laura returns to the railway station waiting room in a state of distress and tries to write Alec a letter. While she and Alec were at the flat, Alec’s friend returned home unexpectedly and the humiliated Laura had to escape by the back stairs. Alec arrives and begs her forgiveness. She is inconsolable, unable to bear the lies and subterfuge any longer. Alec tells her he is moving his family to South Africa and convinces her to meet him one last time the following week at Eden Lock.

Back in their sitting room, Fred and Laura sit opposite each other in separate worlds: he contemplating the distance between them, she the loss of her lover.

The following Thursday at the station Laura and Alec sit at a table together before his train home. He will leave for South Africa early the following week. The story now returns to the beginning with Dolly depositing her shopping packages next to the table and overwhelming them with a barrage of details about her afternoon. Alec’s train pulls into the station and he and Laura exchange brief but weighted goodbyes.

As the express train passes, Laura walks out to the platform and almost manages to throw herself under the train, but cannot bring herself to do it.

In the sitting room, deeply concerned, Fred wakes Laura out of her trance. Still cherising her last memories of Alec, she and her husband sit in silent contemplation of the future.


Creative Team

Music by André Previn
Libretto by John Caird
Director John Caird
Conducted by Patrick Summers
Set and Costume Designer Bunny Christie
Lighting Designer Paul Pyant
Commissioned by Houston Grand Opera


Laura Jesson Elizabeth Futral
Alec Harvey Nathan Gunn
Fred Jesson Kim Josephson
Myrtle Bagot Meredith Arwady
Albert Godby Robert Orth
Dolly Messiter Rebekah Camm
Stanley Adam Cioffari
Beryl Alicia Gianni
Doctor Graves James J Kee
Mary Norton Jamie Barton
Mrs Rowlandson Faith Sherman