Reflections on writing a libretto

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For IAWM Journal

Ellen Frankel, March 19, 2013

How many opera librettists can you name?

Before I became one myself, I could not name a single one. Seven years and several completed librettos later, I can still name only a few. In the classical repertoire, two names stand out: Arrigo Boito (1842–1918), who wrote the text for Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff, and Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749-1848), the pen behind three of Mozart’s most celebrated operas, Cosi fan tutte, Don Giovanni, and The Marriage of Figaro. Of course, many composers wrote the words for their own music, including Richard Wagner, Gian Carlo Menotti, Hector Berlioz, Scott Joplin, Vaughan Williams, to name only a few. And although many famous writers tried their hand at libretto-writing, eg. Gertrude Stein (Four Saints in Three Acts, for composer Virgil Thomson), E. M. Forster (Billy Budd, written with Eric Crozier, for Benjamin Britten), and Doris Lessing (The Making of the Representative for Planet Eight, for Philip Glass), either adapting their own works or starting from scratch, we don’t generally associate them with opera.

Indeed, despite the occasional celebrity of contemporary librettists, the truth is that the composer still takes center stage. Recently, I went to see the HD Simulcast production of William Ades’s The Tempest, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in October 2012. As I entered the theater, I was handed a one-page synopsis of the show, which listed, along with the composer, the names of the costume designer, make-up designer, and stage manager—but not the librettist. I was shocked. Imagine presenting a production of The Tempest with no words! And in the case of this opera, the librettist Meredith Oakes has done a masterful job of adapting Shakespeare’s play for opera, compressing five acts of spoken Shakespearean English into an accessible contemporary version. Doesn’t she deserve some credit? But the membership department at the Met was not sympathetic to my complaint. I can’t say that I was surprised. As a librettist, I have become accustomed to playing second fiddle.

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The art of libretto-writing has received little attention in the field of writing. In 1914 the German musicologist and composer Edgar Istel wrote a little book called The Art of Writing Opera Librettos, which was translated into English in 1922 and reprinted in 2012. Despite its subtitle, “Practical Suggestions,” the book is academic and narrowly focused. And although there have been articles, encyclopedia entries and web posts published on the topic, there is as yet no modern book-length work on the subject aimed at practitioners. Anyone writing a new libretto for opera still has to pretty much make it up as she goes along. This may explain why so many new operas fail. Unlike musicals, which are typically developed through a long process of workshopping and previews, including liberal input from audiences, producers, directors, investors, and collaborators, opera remains a largely hermetic practice, primarily restricted to a private collaboration between librettist and composer, and usually limited to a few public performances before it dies on the vine.

What I’d like to attempt in this brief essay is to shine a light on this secret world and expose the arcane alchemy of writing the text for an opera. My purpose is not only to share my knowledge but to stimulate a more open dialogue among all those who practice this art and to raise the profile of and respect for librettists in the opera industry.

So, how does one write an opera libretto?

Many people, especially those new to opera, don’t realize that operas begin with words, not music. As an opera aficionado friend once told me when I was feeling somewhat marginalized in my new profession as a libretto writer: “First comes the libretto!” His enthusiastic words often lift me when I’m feeling down.

The truth is that even if the initial idea for a new opera originates with a composer or the artistic director of an opera company, the work begins with words on a page before any musical notes are written. It is up to the librettist (or the composer-cum-librettist) to come up with the initial shape of the story, its beginning, middle and end, and to sketch out the characters who will act out that story on stage. If the writer is beginning with a previous version of the story—a film, a novel, a play, a news story—she needs to decide which piece of that earlier work to use as the raw material for the opera. In almost all cases, the opera story will only be a limb of the original tree. For one of the essential features of opera is its compressed form. Opera libretti are remarkably short. Stripped of stage directions and frontmatter, they typically run only 10-12 printed pages. It’s hard to tell a story in so few words, especially if you want to present rounded characters, big themes, and plot twists and turns. But since it takes three times longer to sing words than to speak them, the librettist must economize and make every word count. Thus, much of the work of writing a libretto involves cutting out words. (A thin-skinned writer would make a terrible librettist.)

When a librettist sits down to write a new opera, there are first a few general questions she must ask herself: What story am I telling? Why should this story be sung, instead of spoken or read? How can this story best be told, given the special constraints and conventions of opera? And then there are the real-life concerns: How can I keep expenses down (by restricting the number of singers, limiting the cost of stage sets, using works out of copyright and in the public domain)? Other questions will emerge once the composer joins in the process, but this first draft is a solo act, the only time, in fact, that the librettist has the opera to herself. Once the composer reads the text, it is henceforth perpetually in negotiation, a process that grows ever more complex as more ears, eyes, minds and hearts weigh in. Which is both exhilarating—and challenging for the librettist.

The first question—what story am I telling?—is much trickier than it first appears. Whether the librettist is working from a story previously crafted by another writer, say, a novel or a screenplay, or a true story, the challenge is to figure out what part or aspect of the story the librettist wants to focus on. Because the story will necessarily have to be compressed, there may be no room for a backstory to the plot and characters. To tell only part of the story may require the librettist to give a different spin to the original story to make it more intelligible to the audience. The librettist also needs to decide whether to adopt the same sympathies as the original author, or to transfer those sympathies to a different character, or perhaps to sharpen the character dynamics of the original to make the hero grander and the villain darker. If the original story took place over a long time or on a large landscape, the opera version needs to narrow the lens, sometimes to a single day or place, without doing violence to the story arc. In filtering these questions through the sieves of artistic constraint and adaptation, the librettist begins to find the new story she can and wants to tell in the idiom of opera.

Part of the process of crafting the core story of the opera involves a kind of translation. The librettist must translate from one genre into another, substituting one set of narrative conventions for another. Even if the writer chooses to violate the conventions of classical opera, she does so “against the grain” of these conventions, playing on the audience’s expectations in order achieve certain effects. Thus, the librettist functions as a cultural interpreter, always both an insider and outsider between artistic forms and idioms.

When the writer has decided upon her story (which will inevitably undergo many changes from the first to the last draft), she needs to ask herself a further question: Why is this particular story the stuff of opera? Could it just as well be a play? Or a piece of performance art? Or a film? Why does it need to be sung?

In the nineteenth century, Richard Wagner characterized his ideal for opera as a Gesamtkunstwerk, literally, a “total work of art,” an integrated dramatic work expressing a universal story, preferably one emerging from folk origins. He designed his own operas to meet this ideal, combining music, theater, narrative, dance, set design, costumes, and other artistic elements into a unified whole. Other classical operas likewise aspired for such multi-media effect. In our own time, operas have added video and electronic elements to the mix. But more than any of these elements, opera in its essence is about the trained classical voice. So the basic question remains: Why does any particular story demand to be sung?

I would like to suggest two reasons. First, a sung story offers a kind of lyric intensity that is absent in other kinds of storytelling. Because the singing voice holds a word, sustaining it in the air, three times longer than the speaking voice (and even longer than the reading mind), words’ meanings resonate more richly in our imagination, just as the plucked string of a violin lingers in the ear. The word, “lyric,” which means “relating to the emotions,” derives from lyre, whose vibrating strings imbued the words of Greek poets with just such resonance. When opera singers express thoughts and feelings, even information, through their finely tuned voices, the audience is transported into a different mind-space than that they inhabit when reading a book, watching a movie, or attending a play. Time slows; action hesitates. Plot possibilities vacillate. Dramatic ironies sharpen their sting. This dreamier pacing suits certain stories better than others. That is why the librettist needs to think carefully about pacing when choosing and plotting an opera story.

A second reason to sing a story is to provide an aesthetic experience that can only be realized through this medium. Just as the novel is unique in featuring inner psychological speech, and film offers unique narrative perspectives through techniques like cross-cutting and depth of field, so opera has its own unique artistic methods, most notably the trained human voice. Opera singers often refer to their voices as their “instruments.” Indeed, the human voice is a tool that can be used many different ways. The words of Othello sound very different when sung by Placido Domingo as opposed to being declaimed by James Earl Jones. Furthermore, operas allow multiple voices to speak at once—in duets, trios, quartets, and choruses--producing an aesthetic effect unique to this genre.

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Finally, the librettist must ask herself: Now that I have my story, how can I best tell it?

Like the sonnet form in poetry, opera imposes considerable constraints upon the libretto writer. The primary constraint is length. For a two-hour opera, the average length of the text is 10,000-15,000 words. That’s the length of a short story. Many operas are much shorter. Every word must count. And words that don’t count must go. In my own experience, I have found that the final draft of my text is typically half as long as the first. As I revise, I cut with a scalpel, not a hatchet. Full sentences become fragments, phrases, interjections, single words. Dialogue between characters becomes a series of one-liners. Arias go from multiple stanzas to one or two stanzas with repeated lines. I repeat words or phrases from an early scene in a later one to function like musical leitmotifs. Language thus becomes denser, allusive, almost telegraphic in its sparseness.

Not only plot and dialogue but character development must also be compressed. An opera cannot accommodate the gradual unfolding of characters’ personalities over time. Instead most characters emerge almost full-blown from their first appearance. As a result, characters usually flatten in opera until they resemble archetypes. They become allegorical figures, symbols of character types: the damsel in distress, the trickster, the gallant, the rogue, the Don Juan, the seductress, the woman spurned. There are many examples of such character types in literary tradition: the Commedia dell’arte, Noh and Kabuki theater, 19th century melodrama, comic books, genre fiction. Contemporary opera has generally resisted such allegorizing of characters, not always successfully. We might learn some valuable lessons reviving this time-honored technique of character compression. It’s hard to present realistic, rounded characters in the compact crucible of opera.

There is one aspect of opera, however, that requires an expansion beyond other storytelling genres: the expression of emotion. In this dimension, opera exceeds the bounds of its competitors. The primary technique for such extension of feelings is the aria, defined as “an accompanied elaborate melody sung by a single voice” (Merriam Webster). Arias pull a character out of the narrative stream so that she or he can express a deeply felt emotion, often at great length. When effective, arias provide moments of intensity, focus, meditation, or tension that energize the audience like an electric shock, and punctuate the flow of the story like a good page-turner novel.

The gearbox of opera narrative basically shifts between two settings: recitative and aria. Recitative, like the dialogue of a play, advances the plot. Arias are rest stops along the way. After an aria, the gears shift a character back into the narrative flow to rejoin the ongoing action. Learning how to skillfully shift between these two gears, how to create a rhythm and balance between the two, is the true art of libretto-writing.

Unfortunately, there is no formula to tell the librettist when to insert an aria, but one learns to recognize when they are not appropriate. I learned this lesson from composer Michael Ching, with whom I wrote my first opera, Slaying the Dragon, which premiered in Philadelphia in June 2012. When he received the draft of my libretto, one of the first calls he made to me from his home in Iowa was to ask me for a few more lines of recitative before a character’s aria.

“He hasn’t yet earned this aria,” he told me.

“I don’t understand,” I replied.

“We don’t know why he should be expressing such remorse. We need to understand what he’s done and why he now regrets his actions. Give me a little more backstory.”

I’ve since come to understand what Michael meant when he said that a character has to “earn an aria.” For the audience to believe a character, to take his feelings seriously, they have to find these feelings credible, genuine, realistic. It is during arias that characters show their true colors. They address the audience directly and bare their hearts. A character must not lie during an aria, no matter how dark his soul. If we cannot trust a character’s sincerity during an aria, we will not suspend our disbelief and enter wholeheartedly into the world of the story. The opera will fail.

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Once the first draft of the libretto is done, the job of the librettist changes dramatically. The balance of power shifts to the composer, who begins to reshape the text to fit his musical vision. This can be a challenging time for the librettist, who has worked so hard to craft a story, populate it with characters, find a workable narrative rhythm, balance the flow of recitative and arias, and be mindful of market considerations. In a successful partnership, composer and librettist will negotiate respectfully over changes to the text, the librettist cutting, adding, reshaping, even reconceptualizing the story to meet the needs of the composer. In such productive collaborations, the experience can be thrilling, as the music fills the words like helium swells the skin of a balloon, lifting the writer’s vehicle heavenward to reveal a wider vista and new possibilities for her imagination. The work grows and deepens, becoming more integrated as its different aspects cohere with the connective tissue of the composer’s music. I have been very fortunate in working with composers who have afforded me this kind of satisfying creative experience. As a writer who is used to working in isolation, I’ve found the collaboration of opera-writing liberating. And I’ve learned so much from each composer.

May those of you who write librettos find the same joys and rewards as I have. And may you who compose music for these texts appreciate how much goes in to generating an opera story and celebrate the sower along with the harvest.

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