Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Hand of Bridge

It's always hard to explain bridge to those who don't play the game. I need to do that now in my role as Composer-in-Residence at Hartford Opera Theater. HOT is producing three operas on June 4 and 5, one of which is Samuel Barber's 10-minute opera entitled A Hand of Bridge. Neither the director nor any of the singers plays bridge, so it's up to me to explain what is going on in the opera. I thought my readers might be interested in this memo I recently sent to the director. The misuse of the word "etiquette" in place of "ethics" was intentional. I thought the concept of ethics in a game would be foreign. Etiquette is easier to understand.


I just got my score to Hand of Bridge today, and I was looking it over.  There are a couple of things—for whatever they’re worth—that escaped my attention when I listened to it. Notice I’m not cc’ing any of the singers. I’ll leave it up to you whether to pass these observations along or not. 

Note that the bids at the beginning (a “bid” is a number plus a suit) do not come at a consistent tempo. “One heart,” “two clubs,” and “two hearts” are roughly evenly spaced. But there is a noticeable pause before David’s “Pass.” (“Pass” is declining to make a bid.) Bill then bids “four hearts,” and Geraldine’s “Five clubs” comes out almost immediately – considerably quicker than any of the previous bids.

There is a subtext to the tempo of this bidding that I’m sure was intentional. First of all, I have to explain a little of the etiquette of the game.  By the rules of the game, you may communicate to your partner (David and Geraldine are partners; Sally and Bill are partners) only by the bids you make. You may not communicate through body language or through the tone of your voice. Nor are you allowed to communicate through the tempo of your bids (by bidding quickly or by taking a long time to decide what to bid).  If your partner inadvertently communicates with you by one of these methods, you are honor-bound to ignore the message his improper communication conveyed. 

What has happened here is that David has communicated improperly to Geraldine, and she has improperly taken advantage of that fact. His taking a long time before passing (declining to bid) carried the information that he might have bid but, reluctantly, chose not to. Geraldine's“five club” bid is illogical on its face (I won’t go into why). So it indicates she is making improper use of the  information David conveyed to her. And the fact that she bids quickly is intended as a rebuke to David. (“If you’re too timid to bid your hand, I guess I’ll just have to bid it for you.”)  I’m sure all of this would be in their tone of voice as well. David’s “Pass” is undoubtedly hesitant. Geraldine's“five clubs” is undoubtedly defiant.

Antics like this would not be tolerated in a serious game. In a social game like this one, they happen all the time, even though everyone knows they’re improper. This is roughly the equivalent of, say, playing miniature golf and surreptitiously kicking your ball a little closer to the hole when you think no one is looking. 

Phillip Martin
Hartford Opera Theater, Inc.

If you're in the Hartford vicinity on June 4 or 5, I encourage you to come to the performance. Tickets are only $10. How often do you get to hear an opera about bridge? On the same program, we are also performing Gian Menotti's Telephone and Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti.

1 comment:

  1. Hi there,

    I'm a conductor researching A Hand of Bridge for a future performance, and I have some questions about the actual hand of bridge played in the opera. Would you be willing to answer a couple of questions about it?