In 1900, a relief ship arrived at a lighthouse in Northern Scotland's Orkney Islands, and discovered the three lightkeepers had gone missing without a trace. Peter Maxwell Davies' opera The Lighthouse takes this moment of history and explores the possibilities of what may have happened. It is a stormy ride of shifting identities, guilt and fear. Put all these elements in isolation, surrounded by black seas, and there's no knowing what will crawl out of the dark.

The cast of The Lighthouse: Christopher Burchett (Officer 2/Blazes), David Cushing (Officer 3/Arthur © Erik Jacobs for Boston Lyric Opera 2012
The cast of The Lighthouse: Christopher Burchett (Officer 2/Blazes), David Cushing (Officer 3/Arthur
© Erik Jacobs for Boston Lyric Opera 2012

In the prologue to The Lighthouse, the text is taken verbatim from the court of inquiry. The three officers explain what they found when they reached the lighthouse. They describe the storm that surrounded it and all agree that a swarm of black rats startled them when they entered – but then their stories have persistent discrepancies. The answers only serve to breed more questions.

At the end of the prologue, the officers climb into the lighthouse and become their Doppelgängers, the lighthouse keepers. The keepers have been alone in the lighthouse for longer than usual because of the storm, which hasn't allowed the relief ship to come. Tensions are starting to rise, and although they still have food, they have no idea when relief will arrive.

The three men are very different. Arthur (David Cushing) is a religious zealot. Blazes (Christopher Burchett) is scrappy and streetwise. Sandy (John Bellemer) acts as the peacekeeper. To break the tension, they each sing a song which sheds light on each personality, as well as illuminating their personal demons. Before long, the sound of the foghorn and the ghosts in the mist push them to face their specters, bringing the storm inside the lighthouse.

I saw Boston Lyric Opera's production of The Lighthouse in the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts. Behind the main part of the set was a wall of windows overlooking the harbor and the Boston skyline. At first I was afraid I'd be tempted to sit and admire the view instead of watching the opera, but once the singers appeared, all the intrigue was inside the room. The story is drama-driven rather than music-driven. It doesn't have melodies that haunt you, but it does have a story that engages and doesn't let go.

The set wrapped through and around the audience. A jetty, made of discarded oil skins, snaked down what would be the center aisle. The top of the lighthouse – a skeletal structure – was on the stage (or where the stage would have been, had this been a traditional theater space). Three buoys surrounded the audience. As the sailors arrived, each climbed up into a buoy, which, taken together, became the ship. The music included the sound of a creak of a sailing ship.

The Lighthouse explores what happens when three very different personalities are locked up together for longer than intended. They all have their own golden idols to pay psychological penance for. Stage direction for this production was by Tim Albery. David Angus is the Music Director and conductor. Thomas C. Hase's lighting design can largely be credited for turning what was likely a conference room into an atmospheric theater space. At two points during the opera, the JFK Library became a second lighthouse in Boston Harbor. The set and costumes are by installation artist Camellia Koo.

After the storm's climax, the lightkeepers transform back into the officers and then become the next round of lightkeepers. The story repeats itself, perhaps ad infinitum. What really happened? No one knows. But what happens inside is as intrinsic to the lighthouse as the light itself.