How a Charming & Deadly Con Man Inspired an Opera and Concerto: A Real-Life Story

Mar 20, 2017

Alexander Keith, Jr. (1827-1875) was also known as the "Dynamite Fiend."

The true story of a 19th-century swindler in New York City inspired not only an opera, but also a concerto. WRTI’s Susan Lewis has more on Bramwell Tovey’s Songs of the Paradise Saloon for trumpet and orchestra.

Radio Script:

Susan Lewis: Commissioned by the Calgary Opera, Bramwell Tovey became intrigued by the life of a notorious man named Alexander Keith. Both charming and deadly, Keith swindled many, and eventually planted explosives in an ocean liner, killing 80 people.  

Bramwell Tovey: He was a combination of a terrible terrorist and a Bernie Madoff. Absolutely ideal for opera.

"All great con men are loved and trusted by everybody...the fact that they turned out to be shams and void and empty made what they did even worse..." - Bramwell Tovey

SL: In the opera, Keith’s creditors catch up with him at a famous bar called the Paradise Saloon. Tovey’s trumpet concerto explores some of the backstory, with the soloist representing  the con man Alexander Keith.

BT: I wanted to create the night before the actual scene in the opera, when things were going sunnily well for Alexander Keith and he was the master of all he surveyed at this famous bar in the middle of Manhattan, that dated back to the time of the American Civil War.

SL: The soloist plays trumpet, flugelhorn, cornet, and piccolo trumpet as Keith makes his way around the pub. 

Bramwell Tovey

BT: The tune at the beginning that’s played in the strings...it's smashed and fragmented...and then the variations are built of fragments, reassembled in the middle, and then at the end...but that’s what I call throughout the opera: the aspiration motif...every time a character has a dream or an ambition or a hope or a wish, this little solo comes out of the texture. It’s like Sandy Keith is going around the whole bar, and people are telling him their wishes...and he’s manipulating people...

BT: All great con men are loved and trusted by everybody...the fact that they turned out to be shams and void and empty made what they did even worse...

Alison Balsom

SL: The opera, The Inventor, premiered in 2011. Songs of the Paradise Saloon, premiered by the Toronto Symphony in 2010, was performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra in December, 2014.

Listen on Sunday, March 26th at 1 pm as Grammy-winning conductor and composer Bramwell Tovey leads The Philadelphia Orchestra in a performance from 2015 of Songs of the Paradise Saloon, with soloist Alison Balsom. Also on the program are Britten's Passacaglia, Gershwin's Catfish Row suite from Porgy and Bess, and Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.