The Dream Sweeper: a libretto

The following is a mini opera libretto that I’ve written for the English National Opera’s Mini Operas Competition. As the winning operas are to be filmed, I’ve handled the transitions differently than I would if this were to be staged. — David Scott Marley

The Dream Sweeper

a mini opera libretto
in three very short scenes
by David Scott Marley


(A bright, tidy bedroom in a middle-class home. The bed is crisply made, the curtains are open, and the room is filled with sunlight. SARAH and JOHN are quarreling. Both are in their late thirties. SARAH is a lively, pretty woman; JOHN is a handsome man, but with a brooding look. The opera begins abruptly in the middle of their argument)

Let me go, Sarah! Let me go!
Haven’t you made me suffer enough?
Open the goddam door and let me go!

No, John! No!
Why did you try to leave me?
Why can’t we stay the way we were before?

Unlock the door, Sarah!

No! Never again!
I’ll never let you leave me ever again!

(They are suddenly interrupted by a sharp knock at the door, and they stop arguing)

(quietly pleading)
Answer it.

No. No.

(Between the first and second times that SARAH says “no”, the scene abruptly changes. When she says “no” for the second time, we are looking at her face close up, and she is lying in bed, talking in her sleep. There is another knock, and SARAH wakes up, startled and frightened by the sound. We see the whole room now, and it is the same bedroom, but the situation is different. The room is now dim and untidy, the curtains are drawn shut, and the bed doesn’t look like it’s been made in months. On the bedside table are a bottle of sleeping pills and a bottle of liquor, two-thirds empty. SARAH is groggy, her eyes are red, and her face is haggard. BECCA, an eleven-year-old girl, enters)

Mommy! There’s a man at the door!
A funny-looking man in a big black coat.
He smiled at me through the window.
If you give me the key,
Can I go and let him in?

No, Becca! He’s a very bad man.
Do you know why you don’t have dreams any more?
That man steals people’s dreams
And he never gives them back.

Daddy used to tell me a story.
The Dream Sweeper comes
To sweep away your old dreams
But then he gives you new ones.
Maybe if we let him in,
He would bring me more.

The door stays locked.
Go and play in your room.
Mommy is trying to sleep.

OK, Mommy.

(BECCA leaves. SARAH takes a drink from the bottle and falls asleep again. Suddenly we are back in the room as it was before, bright and clean, as it is in SARAH’s dream. SARAH is lively and pretty again. She is alone, and she looks around)

John! Where are you?
Talk to me a while.

(The DREAM SWEEPER — a funny-looking man in a big black coat — appears)

You! Get out of my dream!

As you won’t answer the door,
How else can I reach you?
The dream you borrowed expired last May
And the overdue fine is mounting.
If you don’t return that dream very soon
And take a new one instead,
The fine may be more
Than you want to pay.

I don’t want to see you!
(to herself)
Wake up, Sarah, wake up!
Wake up!

(SARAH succeeds in waking herself up, and we are back for a moment in the dark, untidy room)

Oh my God.


(Then we cut to a room in the front of the house, where BECCA is playing. She sees the DREAM SWEEPER approach the front door, and she goes to the front window and calls through the glass)

I don’t have the key
And my Mommy’s asleep.

But you do have the key,
You just don’t know you have it.
Make a wish that I’d pay you a call
And clap your hands.

(BECCA claps her hands. The door opens and the DREAM SWEEPER enters)

Daddy always brings me a present.

I passed by the lake
And I saw this pebble
Shining in the water.
(he hands it to BECCA, who delightedly takes it)
Not quite purple.
Not exactly gold.
How old are you, child?


What fun it must be
To live by the lake
And play by it every day.
It’s such an unusual color.
Not quite green.
Not exactly gray.
You could look at it forever,
Always seeing a little further out
But never all the way to the bottom.
Anything might be down there.
Anything at all.

And the stones come in so many colors!
I used to have a whole shelf.
I tried to find a stone
In every color there was.
My feet got wet
But as many colors as I found,
There were always more.

Would you show me your collection?

I don’t have it now.
My Mommy says my Daddy had to go on a trip
And before he left,
He filled his pockets with my stones.
I want to get more
But I can’t leave the house.

But now the door is open.

That’s right!
I didn’t know how before.

And now you do.
Could you bring me a stone from the lake?

What color?

Any at all.

Then I’ll fill my pockets with all I can,
And as soon as there’s a color I have two of,
I’ll come and give one to you!

(BECCA runs out the door. The DREAM SWEEPER looks after her and smiles)


(We cut again, back to the bedroom, once again bright and tidy as it is in SARAH’s dreams. SARAH is alone)

John! Where are you?
Talk to me a while.

(JOHN appears)

I’m here, Sarah,
But only to say goodbye.
The Dream Sweeper’s come
To take me away.

I still have the key!
How did he get inside?

Goodbye, Sarah.
(he turns to leave)

Don’t leave me, John!
Don’t leave me all alone!

You’re not alone.
You still have Becca.
(he leaves)

John! Come back!

(SARAH begins to sob. BECCA appears in her dream. SARAH looks at her with terror)

Don’t cry, Mommy. You still have me.
I’m playing down by the lake,
Filling my pockets with stones.
But I’ll come and visit whenever you want!
Whenever you want!

Oh my God!

(laughing, as she points to her feet)
Mommy, I got my feet wet!
There’s always a stone with a brand-new color
Just a little further out.
(holding out a stone for SARAH to see)
Not quite red.
Not exactly silver.

No, Becca!

Mommy, I got my knees wet!
There’s always a stone with a brand-new color
Just a little further out.
There’s always a stone with a brand-new color —

(The opera ends abruptly in mid-phrase)

4 thoughts on “The Dream Sweeper: a libretto

  1. Terrific job, Scott. For me it harks back to those old short-shorts that held the sledgehammer back until near the very end, the better to shock. There are times when ‘economical’ produces excellent art.

    Now I’ll have to read Gaiman’s story, if only to see what you pared away.

    • Thanks! That was sort of what I was going for, given the limitations. I still think my longer version’s a bit better, as it gives people a little more time to expand on their feelings.

      The only thing at all that I took from Mr. Gaiman’s story — not even a story, really, just a short sketch or vignette — was the character the Sweeper of Dreams. The rest is my own invention, though I can see now where I made use of several themes from the E. T. A. Hoffmann story Councillor Krespel and the act of the opera The Tales of Hoffmann that is based on it.

  2. Dear D.,

    a truly well-made libretto! Heartfelt congrats!
    Still, allow me to ask you to re-consider the number of words you’re
    using in the dialogues (or lyrics), because it seems to me,
    that 500 plus words are too much for a 7 min. long opera.
    Please, remember, that music must have a word too. And time too.
    Wishing you all the best and success, yours, Yohanan

    • Thanks!

      I am quite sure that this libretto could be set and performed in under seven minutes, but it would take a “sung play” approach in the manner of Pelleas. I don’t see how this libretto could be significantly shorter than it is without sacrificing the story, which I didn’t want to do. Storytelling through singing is for me the essence of what opera is, and of what interests me about it; if you get rid of that, then all you have are songs, and they may be very nice songs but songs aren’t what I’m interested in writing.

      In any case, the deadline is over and this libretto was not chosen, so it’s moot anyway. It may very well be that it was eliminated because of its length. If so, well, so be it. In the time I had, I couldn’t find a way to shorten it further without spoiling it.

      If anybody ever wants to set it to music, I intend to go back to my previous version, which is actually not all that much longer in terms of word count; but the additional words are places where the story slows down for more of an aria or duet, so it would probably run ten to twelve minutes with music. But I think it’s much better than way. This version is certainly very compressed. But as I said, I don’t see how you can tell a real story through song in seven minutes without having it be very compressed.

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