Wednesday, October 08, 2008


Reorganizing bookshelves has been an excellent opportunity to ponder the suitability of this volume or that for operatic treatment. Some books are obvious, no brainers even, as opera subjects... any one of the short novels of Ronald Firbank, for example, or one of those totally fake chapters from The Travels of Marco Polo, or Nicholson Baker's Vox, which has Menotti's The Telephone beat in every possible way (so to speak). But more interesting possibilities are definitely to be found in those books which are less obviously opera material: how about Henry Petroski's The Book on the Bookshelf, a history of, well, bookshelves, or a 1968 copy of the Wolf Cub Scout Handbook, or Nabokov's Pale Fire?

Which comes to


Name three books that would make very difficult subjects for an opera libretto which you'd nevertheless like to see and hear on stage:

(1) James D. McCawley's The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters. ("The purpose of this book is to enable non-Chinese who enjoy Chinese food to better exploit Chinese restaurants."*)

(2) The Earthly Delights chapter from Luis Buñuel's memoir, My Last Breath. No, strike that, this is better: Robert Bresson: Notes on the Cinematographer.

(3) Walter Abish's Alphabetical Africa. (A novel in 52 chapters, the first of which uses only words beginning with "a", with each following chapter adding words beginning with the next letters of the alphabet until the 26th chapter has words available beginning with all 26 letters, and then reversing the pattern over the remaining 26 chapters.)

Your turn, now.
*I had to include a food-related text, but Baker's The Gentleman's Companion, the obvious choice, is just not difficult enough; I also considered The Joys of Jello, an interesting feminist document, and the brutalist The Roadkill Cookbook, rejecting both for lack of opera-plot-level conflict.


Garth Trinkl said...

Daniel, I don't know whether this precisely answers your request, but I remember that when I started out as a librettist that a classical music and literature mentor thought that some of my ideas for libretti and operas were too "middle-brow". He suggested
Brian O'Nolan's "The Third Policeman" -- which I will guess that you have either read or are aware of.

Though I had read the work, I, as a 22-year old, didn't follow his advice, but instead wrote an approved libretto on Patrick White's "The Aunt's Story" -- still, in my view, fairly difficult, if not as post-modern as most of the answers that I will guess you will receive.

(The relationship of Thomas Bernhard's estate to treatment of his works is a separate, though equally interesting, subject; in my view.)

Justin Friello said...

1) House of Leaves - Mark Z. Danielewski

2) The Complete Works of E. E. Cummings

3) M - John Cage

Daniel Wolf said...

Garth —

I've thought a lot about The Third Policeman (I have a piece for orchestra with water called "DeSelby") but I always figured that bicycles on stage would be difficult. In any case, it's definitely a top candidate for a tragi-comic opera.

I don't know The Aunt's Story, it's now on my list.

As to Bernhard, isn't it another case of the heirs being cautiously — and correctly — unfaithful in executing the will? (Like Max Brod with Kafka or Dmitri Nabokov's recent decision to publish The Original of Laura).