Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Looking for libretti

In the early 90s, a German composer friend & I would get together to talk shop every couple of months. The conversation would eventually turn to our parallel searches for opera libretti. My friend really needed to find a libretto, as he had not yet secured a professorship and an opera commission was a good way to guarantee paid work for two or three years. Under no illusions about my prospects for getting such a commission, I harbored the fantasy that I could nevertheless make something interesting for the stage. We ended up sharing a lot of interesting reading material, but neither of us ever found the perfect libretto. (My colleague finally got his professorship and I ended up doing a lot of childcare, so libretto hunts eventually disappeared from our conversations).

Since then, I've had more than a couple of ideas with potential -- The Winter's Tale, or Blake's The Island in the Moon, or -- following a suggestion in one of the Stravinsky-Craft conversation books -- Maximillian & Carlotta of Mexico, or Paul Auster's Mr Vertigo, with a perhaps too-obvious part for a swearing treble, or (my favorite) the story of Byron the lightbulb that never goes out from Gravity's Rainbow. Lots of very good, and simultaneously very bad ideas, if you know what I mean...

Part of the problem was (and is) that I suspect that I'm probably best suited to writing a comic opera. My literary tastes are comic. I like the fact that comic opera can enjoy all of the conventions of the form without embarrassment, and I like numbered arias and ensembles, and I do think that recitative can pace and give a motoric and melodic assist to dialogue. But face it, comic opera -- with a few, very special exceptions, and even they don't always work: Von Heute Auf Morgen, The Rake's Progress, Le Grande Macabre, Europeras I & II -- has not been the leading genre of the last century. In fact, sometime after Rossini, comic opera just gave up the ghost when it came to being, well, funny. Serious music became serious and "comic" was largely left to "entertainers".

In late 1999, I stumbled upon a webpage with excerpts from handpuppet plays by Edward Gorey. I had known his small books and drawings, the stage design and costumes for Dracula as well as a ballet, and the fine details of both image and text in that work had not prepared me for the radically reduced world of his puppets and their plays. His puppet plays were essentially dances for hands, accompanied by disturbing words. His puppets were basically rough lumps of paper mache, usually painted white, with a pair of holes for eyes, sometimes a nose, and female figures sometimes had a smaller lump -- a hair bun -- sitting on the back of the bigger lumps. These heads were simply placed on top of simple hand-sewn gloves, and would, with some frequency, fall off during performances (one evening of puppetry carried the title "Heads Will Roll"; when a puppet would lose its head, the other puppets on stage would give comfort to the stump). I immediately wrote to Gorey on Cape Cod, and a few weeks later received a libretto, an "opera seria" for handpuppets in 13 scenes of rhymed verse based on the "Lake of the Dismal Swamp". The opera -- despite Gorey's label, it was definitely a comic affair -- practically wrote itself, and I found myself writing tonal music and real songs for the first time since high school. The performances, in an old clapboard hall in Cotuit, Mass. were done by local players who had worked with Gorey for years, amateurs in the best sense of the word. It had a run of good ten performances, but the performances were also, sadly, a memorial to the librettist, who -- unusually but deservedly -- got top billing over the composer.

The White Canoe, my opera for handpuppets with Gorey, is a great little piece, but I've since been reluctant to allow another performance. It doesn't require a lot: four singers, three instruments, and four puppeteers, but it has to be done right, and I can wait. In the meantime, I'm still looking for another good libretto.


Adam Baratz said...

In a similar vein, I've wondered if the dialogue from one storyline of a comic strip could make an effective libretto. It would be pretty short, but you'd get a lot of room to be inventive with the music.

fredösphere said...

You might consider these possibilities, especially the musical on the life of Joseph Smith. Now that The Communicatrix and I have turned it down, there's nothing standing in your way of Unless of course you're not Mormon. Or brilliant.

Anonymous said...

I saw that opera! It was *great*! I thought there was a particularly good balance between the visual production values (er, low, though enchanting) and the aural content (a fulfilled piece yet somehow not out-of-keeping with the kerchief puppets?).

I confess I"ve been reading your blog for a while and never made the connection, but as you say the memorial aspect of that run drew focus a bit.