1985 – Bel and the Dragon – ABOUT

Bel and the Dragon

Commissioned by W11 Opera in 1973 and revived in 1985. Also performed by other opera companies; please see its entry on the Revivals page.

Synopsis: The story is adapted from Bel and the Dragon in the Apocrypha. The scene is set in Babylon where Cyrus, King of Persia, is entertaining Daniel at his Winter Residence. Seven days elapse between the destruction of Bel and the appearance of the Dragon. Daniel is in his den for seven days.

Composer John Gardner
Librettist Timothy Kraemer
Music Director Nicholas Kraemer
Soloists Cyrus, Daniel, Chief Priest, Habaccuc, Cook, Camel, Angels (2)
Groups Reporters, Priests, Guards, Citizens, Priests’ Families, Dragon
Orchestra 2 Violins, Viola, Cello, Double Bass, Piano Duet, Organ, 3 Percussion

Notes on Production: The life and times of the Old Testament figure Daniel told in an uncompromisingly Judaic theological version. Bel and the Dragon was W11 Opera’s first full commission, before the focus on through-sung pieces emerged, and contains a lot of spoken dialogue.

The music includes harmonies, simple idioms and choruses ending with a “hymn” in praise of God.

Running time under 1 hour.

Score is published and subject to performing rights.


The story of Bel and the Dragon falls into two parts. It begins with the arrival in Babylon of King Cyrus. His new friend Daniel is with him. The king is keen that Daniel should worship a local pagan god called Be!, whose statue has just been completed. Daniel believes in the one true God and he refuses to worship Bel, a mere man-made idol. Cyrus tries to convince Daniel that Be! is alive by listing all the food and drink he consumes each night. Daniel suspects some sort of fraud and tells Cyrus that he will expose Be! as a sham. Cyrus is furious and threatens Daniel with death if he fails.

Bel’s priests, whom Daniel suspects of secretly eating Bel’s food, order wine and meat for Be! to be brought into the Temple. Then a guard is set, but Daniel spreads ashes on the floor without anyone seeing, before the Temple gates are locked. During the night the priests’ families secretly climb into the Temple and steal all Bel’s food. Next morning when the gates are unlocked the Temple is bare. The triumphant Chief Priest is about to go in, but Daniel holds him back and points to the foot prints in the ashes. The King realises what has been happening and condemns the priests to death. So strong is the influence of the Chief Priest, that he avoids this punishment himself, but Bel is destroyed and all sing a chorus of praise to Daniel and his God.

In Part 2 King Cyrus, unabashed by Bel’s fate, introduces Daniel to another local god: a Dragon. Again Daniel is commanded to worship an idol. Again he refuses. lie is so scornful of man-made idols that he tells the King that, if allowed, he will destroy the Dragon using no weapon. The King, sure that he will fail, agrees to let him try. A cook prepares a lethal mixture and feeds it to the Dragon which first swells and finally bursts. Daniel thus dismisses Cyrus’ idols. Cyrus is overcome with grief and despair, conscious as he is of the superiority of Daniel’s God.

But the Chief Priest, predictably furious at all that Daniel has done, whips up the people to avenge the destruction of their idols and Daniel is thrown into a den of lions. Far away, an angel instructs Habaccuc, a farm labourer, to take food to Daniel who has so far been spared by the lions. When Habaccuc arrives, Daniel is overjoyed that God has remembered him. Cyrus comes to visit the lions’ den expecting to find Daniel dead. But he is astonished to see Daniel alive and stroking the lions. When the Babylonians hear what has happened, they realise the omnipotence of Daniel’s God. The Chief Priest and his cronies are thrown to the lions and everyone else joins in a Chorus of Thanksgiving.