ZABETTE – A Georgia Opera

Music by Curtis Bryant, Libretto by Mary R. Bullard
Zabette – an opera by Curtis Bryant and Mary R. Bullard


Zabette DuetZABETTE is a three-act American opera with music by Curtis Bryant and libretto by Mary R. Bullard. ZABETTE premiered in April 1999 in Atlanta’s historic Rialto Theater. It was produced by Georgia State University School of Music under the artistic direction of W. Dwight Coleman. Additional support was provided by the Southeastern Archeological Center, National Park Service. (View the entire opera on YouTube)

ZABETTE is loosely based on a true story that took place during the mid-nineteenth century on Georgia’s Cumberland Island. Robert Stafford, a white cotton planter, fell in love with his neighbor’s ward and illegitimate granddaughter, a young woman of color named Zabette Bernardey, whom he employed as a plantation nurse. Though never married, they had six children. Stafford demonstrated unswerving affection for his little family in spite of the restrictive laws governing antebellum Georgia. Eventually, as the Civil War approached, he sent Zabette and the children to Connecticut for their safety and education, while he stayed behind to manage his plantation. Their prolonged absence moved him to take up with another “slave” woman, by whom he had two more children. At war’s end, Zabette returned home, fondly imagining she could reunite with her common-law husband. Upon discovering he had a second family, her heart was broken. But her friends and former patients helped her learn that with freedom come new choices and responsibilities.

Mr. LetterlawThere are five principal roles in ZABETTE for two sopranos, mezzo-soprano, baritone and bass. There are ten secondary roles and six minor parts involving solos, some of which may be derived from a chorus of slaves and freedmen. In addition there are unison parts for up to five children. ZABETTE is scored for medium orchestra (2222/2221/3 percussion and strings). Included in the percussion are an African djun-djun, cabasa and 2 guiros. A prominent feature in Act III is the sea island ring shout.


This unusual dance form, indigenous to coastal Georgia and South Carolina, is derived from the “zout,” a West African dance with Arabian roots. A major role in the opera is that of Mr. Letterlaw. Like the messenger of the classical gods, he appears on stage to announce the relevant Georgia laws regarding non-whites. Invisible to the other characters, Mr. Letterlaw represents the restrictive spirit of the interracial codes of the South.

Ring ShoutZABETTE was written and scored as a full-length dramatic opera. Total performance time is approximately two hours, fifteen minutes. Portions, however, are particularly suitable for recitals and concert performances, such as the “Portrait” aria (Act I, scene i), the duet “Color Not Loveproof” (Act I, scene iii), and the trio “Nothing Can Save Us But the Word,”(Act II), an ensemble of three generations of Bernardey women, different in color, but united by kinship and love. ZABETTE, as befits an American opera, calls for performers of different racial backgrounds.

ZABETTE is an opera for modern times based upon our difficult past. Its drama touches upon subjects still unresolved in our country. CDs, videotapes, and scores are available. We invite you to hear and see the world premiere performance and to consider featuring Zabette in a future production.

Curtis Bryant, composer
Mary R. Bullard, librettist