Broken English

In 1992, the Dutch composer Harke Jan van der Meulen asked me if I would be interested in writing the libretto for an opera based on the book A Word Child by Iris Murdoch. I had never read Iris Murdoch, but thought the project was fascinating and agreed. So I read A Word Child and hated it — an incredibly melodramatic novel with a detestable main character — but loved the theme of the book: how a man's love of language proved to be his salvation and his downfall. When we started out, Harke Jan wrote the music first and I wrote the words to fit the rhythm and the melody. There is apparently a term for writing librettos this way: contra factum, against the facts. Harke Jan eventually found it a bit contrary, too, so halfway through we switched: I wrote the words first and then he wrote the music to go with them.

My inexperience as a librettist led me to write the lyrics as dramatic monologues. There was very little story-telling and no dramatic action. That left little scope for staging what I had written. But it never got that far. Our requests for grants were all denied, so instead of a full-blown opera we produced a dramatic song cycle called Broken English. Broken English has so far been performed twice, in 1996 and 1999, both times in Amsterdam. You can hear some of the songs here.


October 3, 1999
Live performance at Cristofori, Amsterdam
Conductor: Marko Kassenaar
Soprano: Alfrun Schmidt
Tenor: Erik Nelissen
Baritone: Michel Poels
Bass: Onno Pels
Flute: Karin Langendonk
Clarinet and bass clarinet: Vicky Wright
Violins: Jeanine Caland, Manuel Visser
Cello: Aniek Senten
Piano: Louise van de Sande-Backhuysen

November 6, 1996
Live performance at the Posthoornkerk, Amsterdam

Baritone: Michel Poels
Soprano: Mariette Oelderik
Piano: David Menesse

Original recordings, 1992—1995
Baritone: Michel Poels
Keyboards and piano: Harke Jan van der Meulen

So what’s with the fish: click to find out
©1986-2017 James Geary

“Sometimes, two goldfish in a bowl are enough”

The Rain Has No Father

The rain has no father, the wind it has no name
The rain has no father, the wind it has no name
Actions speak, hearts will beat, louder than words

Broken English
Broken English

The limits of my words are the limits of my world
Scatter your words, leaves in the wind
A place to end and to begin

The rain is an orphan, it knows not from whence it came
Who, who can give the wind a name
The rain has no father, the wind has no name

Like a river flows to sea
To drown in words

Word child, child of the word
Feel the rain on our bodies, pounding like iron
Wind in our faces, sharper than knives

Word child, child of the word
Is it you who can father the rain
Is it you who can give the wind a name

All of the Books

All of the books here are useless
All of the books in the world can't explain
Why there's not nothing, why there's not nothing
All the books in the world can never spell your name

How can I find words to tell you
Everything flies before the wonder of our eyes
If I try to explain, words fail me

Truth is beauty, beauty truth
So the poet tells us
This is all we know on earth
And this is all we need to know
All that we know, only until death us do part

These are the words that we've spoken
These are the vows that we made never to be broken
This is all we know on earth
And this is all that we need to know

Love, the world is such a big place
Arms open wide to embrace it
Say the word and we will fly

Far from these old shelves
Into our new selves
Out of the humdrum
Into the black sun

Now or never
Gone forever
Amo Amas Amat
Amo Amas Amat


Beginning Once Upon A Time

Beginning, once upon a time
Abiding, no reason or rhyme
Who can say why
We live, we die

A little girl lays on the ground
Fists full of dirt
Bites in the earth
Bites so deep in the earth

Fists full of dirt
Earth in my mouth
As if the world had just begun
There on the tip of my tongue

See the handmaid of the Word

Feed me with wine and song
Can't live by words alone
And if you love me, show me you love me
Soon we'll be gone

All love's old stories, that sound and fury
Signifies nothing, nothing
Pipes and lutes, mad pursuits
Babbling brooks, all those books

Behold the handmaid of the Word

Ash to ash
Tra la la
Dust to dust
Blah blah blah


Heartbreaker, nay-sayer
wheels within wheels within wheels
So you are the ghost from Gunnar's past
The wheel has come full circle

Heartbreaker, nay-sayer
How long have you been the man who loved his wife?
I am the ghost from Gunnar's past
I am the man who loved his wife
The man who killed his wife

How long have you been dying
While time has flowed on by
In my mind the rain is still falling
While time has flowed on by

He still talks about you
He still can't forget
That you were his best friend
He wants so much to tell Heartbreaker, nay-sayer
In my mind I hear him
Calling out her name

Forgive and forget
Forget all about her
Let her go
And learn to love again I can't forgive
I can't forget what I have done
I can never learn to love again
One man's joy, another's pain

Heartbreaker, nay-sayer
Lover spurned, fingers burned
Heartbreaker, nay-sayer
Twain shall never meet

The heart is like a piece of chewing gum
It bends and it breaks but it won't come undone
My heart has come undone

Look at Us Now

Look at us now
How far we have fallen
Look at us now
At all that's been broken

After the funeral I went through her things
Strange and suddenly so unfamiliar
Apart from some letters, some photos
It could have been anyone
It did not mean a thing

After such passion, is this all there is
Just dust and ashes, is this all there is

After a while I just stopped trying
Strange how the heart keeps on beating
Alien, seeking oblivion
Despite everything
It could have been me
After such passion, is this all there is
Just dust and ashes, is this all there is

Who are we now
Two planets locked into orbit
Drawn together forever, kept forever apart

Who are we now
Two coiled serpents
Each eating the other's heart