Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Looking for Libretti

There is much chatter about libretti these days and, in particular, the lengths to which composer-folk are going to mine other media for workable opera scenaria & libretti. One fashion these days is to mine novels of the nineteenth and early 20th century, another fashion is to mine films, still another is the documentary opera, with legitimate pedigree in operas based on historical rather than mythical events as well as in the oratorio, but now charged with all the possibilities of non-fiction, liberating the composer from such conventions as character & narrative.

An observable rule of thumb has long been that superb material in a given medium rarely becomes a superb opera, but interesting-but-not-quite-superb material in another medium can sometimes excel as opera. On the other hand, superb opera libretti rarely stand alone -- stripped of musical context -- as readable literature, although one can certainly make a case for anything by Da Ponte*, Verdi's Otello, some of von Hofmannstahl, or, more recently, Alice Goodman's Nixon in China.


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. And, to be honest, and honestly unfashionably, the two of us shared the goal of writing a libretto that "women would like". 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 satire The Island in the Moon, or -- following a suggestion in one of the Stravinsky-Craft conversation books -- Maximillian & Carlota, or Paul Auster's Mr Vertigo, with a perhaps too-obvious part for a yankee-English 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 exclusively 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.
* Here's a question: Has anyone ever made an opera based on the life of Da Ponte?

[Parts of this post were mined and revised from an early post with the same title. If you can't steal from yourself, from whom can you steal?]

1 comment:

Kraig Grady said...

I really think the world needs more comic operas. So i will promote that idea.
I like 'The Nose" which a more mature Dmitri might have pulled off better , since it kinda blows it wad early.
I would also like to see the 'Island of the Moon' done to music. Possibly a melodrama like Stravinsky might work better than an opera though. That itself is an interesting form that should be developed more.