Children's and Liturgical Opera Company, LLC

Opera: Eli W


An "Interchangeable Parts" Opera
In Two Acts Based on the Life of Eli Whitney
Inventor of the Cotton Gin and the Interchangeable Parts Musket

By Susan Hulsman Bingham

Poster by Susan Smith of GRANDESIGN



2 sopranos, 1 mezzo soprano, 3 tenors (one could be high baritone), one boy and one girl (treble range) soloists; several bit parts for men who may double as members of the men's chorus, some children's non-singing parts



Eli Whitney (high baritone or tenor), Phineas Miller (tenor). Catherine Greene (soprano), Henrietta Whitney (mezzo soprano), Father of Eli Whitney (bari/tenor), Eli Whitney as a boy (age 9-12), Eli's sister Lizzie (age 9-12), Oliver Wolcott/Thomas Jefferson (bari-tenor), Men's chorus serving as Sailors, Thieving Farmers, and Congressmen.



piano, synthesizer, percussion; has been orchestrated for 13-piece orchestra, standard instruments.



men's chorus (acting)



a couple of numbers with simple choreography



Correspondence of Eli Whitney and Catherine Greene from Yale University archives; biographical material on Whitney





tonal, melodic, accessible, mildly experimental in places.



Act I: ten scenes; Act II: Six scenes


Click here to hear three short clips: an aria sung by David Finley, tenor, playing Phineas Miller; the men's chorus, and an aria sung by Judith Caldwell, soprano, playing Catherine Greene.

Click here to hear an aria with Judith Caldwell, soprano, and Kyle Pruett, tenor, as Eli Whitney



two hours



Shubert Center for the Performing Arts, May 18 and 19, 1984, with Trina Mace Josephson, Producer, Jeanne Bartlett Kerr, Director, and Norman Nilsen, Production Designer.


Review: Bingham (has) created a genuinely naïf biographical-historical portrait of early America and one its enigmatic heroes . . . . she was strongest in the poignant expressions relegated to Mrs. (Catherine) Greene, particularly in the lovely farewell aria at the end of Act I, and to the brief aria for Eli's wife, Henrietta Edwards, in the concluding scene. Aliki Andris-Michalaros for OPERA NEWS




Act I, Scene 1. Eli Whitney, a recent Yale graduate, is sailing to Savannah to a job tutoring children on a plantation. On shipboard, he meets widow Catherine Greene and her plantation manager, Phineas Miller. The combination of the pitch and roll of the ship and the baudy singing of sailors (men of the "Interchangeable Parts " Chorus), gives Eli a bellyache, and these remind him of his childhood, when his mother died and felt similarly sick and alone. Catherine Greene, ever observant and nurturing, comes to his aid. When the ship docks, Eli is handed a letter telling him that his tutoring position has been cancelled. Rather than allowing him to return home, Catherine Greene invites him to her plantation.

Scene 2: Savannah, two weeks later. Eli, feeling guilty being a useless guest, sits whittling. He has another memory of childhood that is interrupted by Mrs. Greene. He sheepishly reveals his feelings to her, and she promises to find him a project.

Scene 3: Savannah, two weeks later still. Catherine is working on her embroidery in the garden. Eli, shy and awkward, tries to make conversation with her. She accidentally breaks her embroidery hoop, and Eli says he can fix it. When he goes to the barn to work on it, the "Interchangeable Parts Chorus" appears again, this time as a band of farmers complaining about how difficult it is to de-seed upland green-seed cotton. As they finish their harangue, Catherine pays Eli a visit and discovers that her embroidery hoop is repaired.

Scene 4: Later that afternoon. Jessie, a young slave woman, enters the barn where Eli is trying to make out the small print on a bottle of medicine. Discussion leads to Jessie's difficulties in preparing cotton, and Eli makes a stab at de-seeding a boll. He has made a mess of things then Catherine enters, and together they come up with the idea that Eli
should build a machine that can do the job.

Scene 5: Savannah, six weeks later. In the small hours of the morning while Eli is engrossed in putting the finishing touches on his new gin model, a man dressed as a woman enters the workshop and spies on his design. Phineas Miller, the plantation manager, and Catherine enter and are alarmed. "You need a partner -- like me," says Mr. Miller.

Scene 6: Philadelphia, September, 1793. Eli Whitney presents a model of his cotton gin to Thomas Jefferson.

Scene 7: New Haven and Savannah, 1795. In New Haven, Eli contemplates writing to Catherine, in Savannah, who is simultaneously writing to him. Phineas enters with a real letter from Eli, telling them that his gin factory, including twenty-one finished gins, has mysteriously burned to the ground.

Scene 8: New Haven and Savannah, one week later. In Savannah, Phineas woos Catherine, and Catherine worries about Eli. In New Haven, El opens and reads their letter telling him
of their marriage plans.

Scene 9: Savannah, three weeks later. A sick and enraged Eli arrives in Savannah. He is too shy and too decent to admit his anger at Catherine and Phineas's marriage, so he accuses Phineas of poor judgment and laziness in his business dealings. The "Interchangeable Parts Chorus" appears, now as rich, self-satisfied farmers who have pirated Eli's cotton gin and manufactured it illegally all over the South.

Scene 10: Savannah, twelve days later. Catherine tenderly cares for Eli, who is convalescing from malaria. When he feels well enough, he decides to return to New Haven. Too upset to speak, Catherine flees and sings a goodbye aria out of his hearing.

Act II Overture: May 4, 1798. A short correspondence between Eli Whitney and Oliver Wolcott, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, is read.

Act II, Scene 1. Washington, D.C., June 14, 1798. Terribly nervous, Eli hopes a congressional committee will approve his interchangeable parts musket. In a fantasy, he sees himself as a little boy standing before them, but when the committee actually convenes, Eli assembles five magnificent muskets in short order, astonishing all.

Act II, Scene 2. Savannah, 1814. Jessie, Catherine's maid, sings of how Catherine was forced to sell her plantation to pay debts incurred by Eli's ginworks. She tells us, too, that Phineas has died. Catherine is delirious with fever and grief, and in an aria, she constructs a scene of domestic order that never existed.

Act II, Scene 3. New Haven, one month later. Eli's work is interrupted by the delivery of a letter tellng of Catherine's death. Memory after memory of her wash over him. Eli declares, timidly at first, that he loves her. Her memory accompanies him in what is their only love duet.

Act II, Scene 4. New Haven, 1824. Henrietta Edwards, Eli's wife of six years, tells Eli that she knows he thinks about Catherine Greene.

Act II, Scene 5. Henrietta, anxious over Eli's failing health, remembers happier times. With her aria in the background, Eli speaks his last words to an angelic apparition of himself as the young Eli. He dies asking questions about how the boy's wings function. The child approaches the man, closes the man's eyes, sings him their familiar bedtime prayer, and reaches for Catherine's hands which are outstretched from the wings.


Judith Caldwell, soprano, as Catherine Greene in the premier performance of
ELI W at the Shubert Center for the Performing Arts
Phineas Miller, played by David Finley, tenor, and Eli Whitney, played by Kyle Pruett, baritone, in the premier of ELI W at the Shubert Center for the Performing Arts.
The Interchangeable Parts Chorus of Thieving Farmers

Piano/ vocal score of ELI W: $100. Price includes shipping and handling within the U.S. Price also includes performing rights and permission to make sufficient copies for cast and accompanists for one group or company for one season.

DVD available which includes libretto: $28. Price includes shipping and handling in the U.S.

Full orchestral score and parts $500. Price includes performance rights and the right to make as many copies as necessary for cast and orchestra for one season's performances.

Instrumentation: Fl, Ob, B-FLAT Clar, Tenor Sax, Hn in F, B-flat Tpt, Perc., Pno, Vilns I and II, Vla, VC, DB.

Note: if you are interested in ordering a downloadable PDF file of either the piano/coval score or the full orchestra score and parts, please contact the publisher at

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