Upon studying the story of Washington Irving's, plus gathering history from Sleepy Hollow historians, Robert Milne created a storyline that stays true to the original book. It was necessary, however, to create more characters and scenes to fill out the "townspeople" for interaction to take place. Since the story took place late in the year, "when the leaves were turning red," Mr. Milne included a depiction of a traditional event, the "feast of the harvest moon." (This feast would later be named "Thanksgiving.") Also invented for the storyline were a few characters who would normally be found in a small village of that era. "Vandersteen" (the town blacksmith), Joeri (a villager), and Marja and Stefana (two ladies close to Katrina).
A highly interesting character mentioned in Irving's book is "old Brouwer." Brouwer is an older man who, like Baltus, is a respected elder. As a young man, Brouwer was a severe skeptic of the stories of the headless horseman. However, that changed one day when he was swept up by the feared horseman while walking through the woods, placed on the back of its horse, and thundered through the woods to a bridge he was not supposed to have crossed. There the horseman flung him down on the ground. Brouwer looked up to see the horse rear on its back legs, the horseman raise a warning fist, then explode into lightning. Brouwer becomes a central character in Mr. Milne's portrayal, giving warnings to Ichabod Crane about its existence, and turning over a picnic table in rage when Joeri, Vandersteen and the boys are singing a song mocking the horseman. At the end of the opera, all are looking to Brouwer for answers to what may have happened here in the woods where they're finding unsettling hints about the demise of Crane.
Mr. Milne also paid close attention to the fact that the 18th century villagers believed their ancestral spirits lived in the woods nearby. In scenes III and VII, the finale, the spirits appear as dimly lit figures in the woods, even singing their own chorus:
Once we danced upon the ground you stand, now we watch while others twirl,
While you wonder if our souls are live, strange, your questions of our world:
Parted we by sheets of timelessness your minds will never understand,
See ye not my dancing presence? Feel ye not I touch your hand?
Through the characters on the stage, Mr. Milne describes the spirit world as being "timeless," or "living in a dream world." At one point Katrina actually sings of seeing her deceased mother this way:
My dreams are very strange, I do not understand,
My mother comes from somewhere and takes me by the hand...
All this is leading, of course, to Ichabod's strong rejection of anything spiritual to be nothing but fanciful flights of imagination among the "rubes" he has come to teach. Ichabod, in Mr. Milne's portrayal, is a supercilious fop, always condescending to the locals. He often blurts out a phrase in French, then follows by translating it for the uneducated. Attempting to foist his learnedness on Katrina doesn't work well, though. When he sings,
Katrina, you are young, and perhaps don't understand,
That a pretty girl like you should have a learned man...
She counters with,
Books are for those who need be told what to think.
He tries to liken their belief in spirits to what he considers nonsense from the ancient Greeks:
Vous, mesdames, me faites rire!
You've been reading too much of Pliny the Younger,
His stories of ghosts, I presume?
You do read history here, do you not?
Like Athenodorus, and the ghost of the rattling chains? ... Whaha!
And they found him in the graveyard, enwrapped in durance vile!
And then there was Homer, and the Odyssey,
And the ghost of Anticlea, Mother of Odysseus who
Was sired by Sisyphus...
Mr. Milne steers us through the folly of Crane, including a highly contrapuntal singing lesson to the entire community where they try to subtly guide him in the right direction by singing "an old Dutch song, m'neer Crane: it's called The Rotterdam Minstrel..."
As he conducts a song he's never heard before, and as he yells instructions over their singing to Vandersteen and others to "stand straight," or, "sing in center pitch," he fails to hear the message of their foreboding song about a minstrel who continually goes after the wrong woman:
He was never seen again, never seen again,
And nobody knows where he's gone,
But since the windmill churned and the great wheel turned,
No one's heard the minstrel's song...
The culmination to the folly comes at the dance at Baltus Van Tassle's estate, where Crane monopolizes Katrina by continuously dancing with her. Finally, Brom Bones goes into a rage and is being held on the sidelines by three strong men while he screams across the beautiful singing and music at Crane:
May a curse be upon you, and the curse will be me!
How do you say "pulverize" in French, Crane?!!
Crane departs the party to blank stares and grim faces, but still in typical style:
So I now say to you, adieu, adieu, or -
How do you say it in Dutch?
The ride through the woods following the dance is the famous story that created the legend in 1790. Crane experienced something, for sure. What he encountered out there was never definitely established in Irving's story. However, Mr. Milne's portrayal through music and words is chilling.
The final scene deals with the townspeople following Brouwer into the woods to find out what really happened:
Are they real, m'neer Brouwer, are they real?
We have always wished that they were real.
Brouwer answers through stirring words and song:
Are they real, you ask me once again,
Is the nightingale still calling through the glen...?
And as they gradually turn around to see the spirits singing from the woods around them, the final chorus and action bring a spectacular conclusion to this opera.