The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets is a lesser-known project of William S. Burroughs (who wrote the opera’s book) and a somewhat better-known work of Tom Waits (who composed the majority of the music and lyrics). The pair collaborated on the piece at the behest of theatrical visionary Robert Wilson, who staged and directed the avant-garde production which premiered in a German-language version at Hamburg’s Thalia Theatre on March 31, 1990.
The Black Rider is based on a gruesome German folktale with supernatural themes called Der Freischütz, which had previously been made into an opera by the Romantic school composer Carl Maria von Weber. Historically, it is considered to be one of the very first “nationalist” German operas. Wilson’s innovate lighting and staging took its cue from German Expressionist cinema of the silent era.
The story is simple: A mild-mannered clerk falls in love with a hunter’s daughter and seeks his approval in order to marry. He is offered magic bullets in a Faustian bargain. On the day of their wedding, the final bullet kills his love. He loses his mind and joins other of the devil’s victims in a hellish carnival.
Worth noting that while The Black Rider is based on German folklore, the book has a bit of unavoidable thematic overlap with William Burroughs’ own life, the sordid “William Tell” incident that ended in the shooting death of his common-law wife Joan Vollmer in Mexico in 1951.
In the late 90s, English language versions of the opera started to occur. In 2004, Robert Wilson and Tom Waits teamed up again for an English language version of The Black Rider that would tour the world. Cast members included performers such as Marianne Faithfull (who essayed the devil character), eccentric Canadian chanteuse Mary Margaret O’Hara and Richard Strange from The Doctors of Madness. The opera has been staged several times since then by various companies, mostly in Europe. (“It’s like Cats over there,” said Waits.)
Waits’ own version of his songs from The Black Rider came out in 1993 and featured William Burroughs’ distinctive vocalizing on “‘T’Ain’t No Sin.” This almost Beefheart-esque number is a creepy cover of “T’Ain’t No Sin (to Dance around in Your Bones)” a song written by Walter Donaldson and Edgar Leslie that was recorded by jazz vocalist Lee Morse and her Bluegrass Boys in 1930. It’s actually about getting naked ala Josephine Baker and nothing to do with dancing skeletons or Ed Gein, although it’s difficult to believe that listening to this version!
”(Magic Bullet) Just The Right Bullets”
A 1990 TV documentary about the original production of ‘The Black Rider’