In the Penal Colony is based on Franz Kafka’s short story by the same name. Libretist Rudy Wurlitzer adapted the piece for opera, and ACT Theatre in Seattle commissioned the work, which premiered in 2000. Kafka’s short story has been adapted in numerous ways, including plays and short films.
A high-ranking visitor arrives in the penal colony. He was invited there to witness the public execution of a prisoner by a strange machine invented by the former commandant of the colony. The machine slowly carves a description of the condemned man’s crimes into his flesh and after hours of excruciating torture, kills him. The device is operated by The Officer in charge of the prison who is utterly devoted to the machine and to the memory of the deceased commandant who invented it. The Officer is disturbed by the machine’s state of disrepair and the growing criticism of its use, including criticism from the island’s current commandant. He hopes that The Visitor will be impressed by the machine and will speak in favor of its “redemptive powers” to the commandant. When The Officer realizes that The Visitor will not actively support him, he frees the condemned prisoner from the machine and climbs onto it himself, seeking the redemption of a slow and painful death. The machine, however, goes haywire and instead of killing him slowly, kills him almost instantly by piercing his skull. It then self-destructs. The Visitor boards a boat and leaves the island.
Courtesy of Long Beach Opera