Tuesday 30 April 2013

What makes a good opera libretto? (1)

Writing Opera: exploring the role of the writer in the development of contemporary opera

Guildhall ResearchWorks
Librettists are fundamental to the creation of opera, yet the role is often unsung and can be under acknowledged. It doesn't help that the craft of writing a successful libretto can seem something of a black art, in fact agreeing on what constitutes a successful libretto is difficult enough. On 29 April 2013 a group of writers, composers, opera creators and producers gathered together at the Barbican's Pit for a one day conference, organised by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama's ResearchWorks in collaboration with the Royal Opera House. During the day we heard from a variety of librettists and composers, and tried to get to grips on the creation of a good libretto and how this might be facilitated in budding librettists. Participants included Julian Philips and Edward Kemp, Lavinia Greenlaw, Orlando Gough and Stephen Plaice, Julian Anderson, Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton, and Kasper Holten.

At the morning session we heard from three different librettists, Edward Kemp, Lavinia Greenlaw and Stephen Plaice, about how they worked and what their relationship with the composer was like. Though their writing techniques varied, there seemed general agreement that writing a libretto was a difficult craft and that the only way to learn was to keep on writing.

Introduction: Some questions
Proceedings were opened by Julian Philips, the Head of Composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the composer of seven operas. Philips posed a series of questions about opera and librettos.

  • Whose opera is it and who starts
  • From a blank page or pre-existing 
  • What's the difference between these two processes.
  • All writers are different
  • All composers are different
  • All collaborative partnerships are different
  • How much nurturing does a partnership need.
Should the writer be muse, provocateur, composer manque, kindred spirit, source of creative tension, voice of the theatre, word smith, or dead?

  • The writer's contexts - poetry, novel/story, theatre, TV, film, video, direction
  • Is any of these to be preferred? 
  • What is the role of those works which defy context
The libretto
  • What is a libretto: recipe, puzzle, set of structures, suggestions, possibilties
  • Is opera music and text? 
  • How much text?
  • How much space should music allow the text?
  • How much is left for the producer/director to solve?
  • How important is it to understand all the text?
  • The composer often rejects or cuts the text, can the writer reject or cut the music?
  • Is opera too obsessed with music?
The job
  • Do opera houses support writers?
  • Are writers recognised properly?
  • Why do composers get paid more?

The Voice of the Writer: Edward Kemp
After this thought provoking list of possibilities, Edward Kemp (Artistic Director, Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) who has written a number of librettos including collaborations with Julian Philips, talked about his role as librettist.

Kemp has a musical background and described himself as a composer manque. His introduction to libretto writing came via a Royal Opera House community project in schools. Finding himself at a bit of a dead end with his own writing, through working with music and composers he found that doors opened into other ways of making and shaping things. For Kemp, if words and music work together then they are probably doing something slightly different. If words and music do the same thing, then you can cut one of them. Working with musicians allowed him to be a different kind of writer.

Collaboration is a conversation, like a relationship

From these early experiences he learned that composers who wanted to be involved in opera often did not go to the opera or the theatre, did not have knowledge of opera as an historical form; that it takes three times longer to sing something than say it; that it was important to talk about a piece with the composer before starting to make it. Collaboration is a conversation, like a relationship: this analogy to relationships came back repeatedly during the day, and it was interesting to watch the composer/librettist pairs talking together, clearly in a strong relationship.

A writer poses problems, the composer then solves them

A writer poses problems, the composer then solves them and poses more problems which the director then solves. Kemp found that the form offered fascinating possibilities, extra layers are possible in opera and music enabled you to work dramatically in other kinds of ways. He is fascinated by what music does to language and what music does to time (the ability to freeze a moment and the ability to compress time).

He gave us an example of one of his early, short operas, Hunger with the composer Alwynne Pritchard. He talked about how a librettist writes one third of the piece and that the composer does two thirds, but that at the start of the process neither knows which part they are writing. Every collaboration is different and part of the trick is to learn which part of the opera you are writing.

Kemp, coming from a strong theatrical background, had interesting ideas about the sort of forms that opera could take on. He felt that there was a mismatch between what the theatrical form was able to do, and what those who clung to old operatic forms would accept.

The Disney Method

When it came to the actual writing process, he articulated it as the Disney Method (so called because this is how Walt Disney encouraged his animators to work). First the Dream Zone where you can write anything at all. Second the Synthesis/Connecting Zone where you make connections between the material that you have already written. Third the Editing Zone where you cut and edit the material.

Finally he gave us an example from Peter Eotvos's Love and Other Demons, where the original libretto by the Hungarian poet Kornel Hamvai was beautifully written but highly structured and not what Eotvos needed. Kemp was brought in to re-make something looser.

The Voice of the Writer: Lavinia Greenlaw
Lavinia Greenlaw is Professor of Poetry at the University of East Anglia. She talked about her first libretto, written 13 years ago. Neither she nor the composer had ever written an opera before. They talked a lot before hand, then she went away and wrote the libretto, which he then set without any comment. For Greenlaw singing is not a casual act and opera is not a natural medium, so opera at its best when being extraordinary, when dealing with violent emotions. When writing for opera, Greenlaw has a sense in her head of how the opera should go, but often the actual music didn't do what she had imagined. There was a conversation between the music and words which did something else entirely.

Though her libretti have been different in style, each has been highly stylised. She is currently working on Peter Pan with composer Richard Ayres.

Librettos as a form of translation

She talked about knowing when not to write too much, and known when not to use words at all. For Greenlaw, it is important that there is tension in the words, a tension that is adaptable and strong. She talked about writing a libretto as being like a form translation, you are constantly looking for a verbal equivalence that is receptive to music. She said that you should not be afraid of throwing language about, looking for the natural laws of the words. For her collaboration was a lesson in seeing her work doing things she never dreamed and never intended.

Greenlaw felt that most writers want to feel that the composer has listened to them. She often adds directions to her libretti and would like to develop and opera from the beginning with both a composer and director. The librettist can help to set the direction of the piece, responding to the way it might be performed. She pointed out that you had to remember that the work might be watched by people 40 rows back.

The Voice of the Writer: Stephen Plaice

Plaice has written many librettos and his most recent work was on Imago with Orlando Gough, a community opera which was performed at Glyndebourne last autumn

He opened by quoting Lorenzo Da Ponte's first experience of writing a libretto and handing it to Salieri. 'When the drama went on stage I doubt that there remained a 100 verses of my original'

The moment when you hand over the finished libretto

When writing Io Passion with Harrison Birtwistle, the shape of the work was already in Birtwistle's mind. So much so, that he chose the rough draft of one of Plaice's texts, in place of the finished one. Usually Plaice works separate from the composer, so there is a moment when he has to hand over the finished libretto to the composer. He tries to assure the composer that they are working on something temporary, they they can cut it, even though inside he feels that every word is precious. To work in opera is a different modus operandi, you cannot hold on to all of your ideas and you must be prepared for compromises.

Collaboration is like a marriage

Every collaboration is like a marriage, you have to get to know the composer and his oeuvre. He has worked with composers who have never written for the voice before and, with his 20 years experience, he can have an advisory capacity bringing a lot beyond words to the collaboration. He talked of a librettist familiarising themselves with voice types, and Plaice even writes dummy versions including stage directions which he sings to himself (something that was echoed by Greenlaw who had said that she sings the words to herself).

The trick is to grasp the essence without fleshing it out too much

Plaice compared the density of language needed in a libretto to a film script, you need a spareseness which comes of editing yourself right down. Plaice felt that highly wrought verse was difficult to realise in an operatic context. Operatic dramaturgy is different, if characters are too complete there is no space left for them to sing. Playwrights do ot ncecessarily have this skill in their armoury, the trick is to grasp the essence without fleshing it out too much.

Plaice started in television around the same time as he started writing opera libretti and finds parallels in the way scripts and libretti are developed. In film, as in opera,  there is no primacy of text (unlike in the spoken theatre).

Getting the shape right

It is important that early discussions find the conceptual shape, the librettist's dramatic shape must be matched by the composer's musical shape. discussing each stage in detail helps (initial premise, story-line, acts, scenes).

In a recent show Plaice had a dramaturg involved wtih what amounted to a script conference which he found very helpful (during the afternoon session Kasper Holten would prove less comfortable with this sort of process). But this does not happen often, and though a director might take this role they may not have been appointed at this stage in development.

You become dead the moment you hand over the final draft

The  librettist's role is not a primary one, there comes a time whenyour name sloides off and it ceases to be a joint creation. After the writing, there is the play through but here the focus is on the music. The director should have a read through of the libretto with the cast, but it is surprising how often this does not happen. You become dead the moment you hand over the final draft. So you go home and work on your novel, returning for the stage and orchestra rehearsals to discover that 50% of your words disapper under the orchestra. More comes across when there are surtitles (a subject that would be returned to later).

You will see things on stage that you don't like

Unlike a play, there s nothing you can do to change anything. There are moments when things don't work and you will see things on stage that you don't like.

Writing an opera ibretto is a separate skill. It is like archery, firing a long way ahead of a target. The only way to get better is to keep writing libretti.

What makes a good libretto
Fragments from a round table discussion with Edward Kemp (EK), Lavinia Greenlaw (LG),  Julian Philips (JP) and Stephen Plaice (SP)

On a good libretto
EK: Whatever provides a launch-pad for a great opera.
SP: A brilliant libretto might be handed to the wrong composer; you need collaboration and empathy.

On the composer/librettist relationship
LG: A lot takes place in what isn't said.
EK: Forthrightness, being really rigorous with each other.
JP: The libretto provoking a reaction in the composer to reflect on a set of possibilities.
EK: Leave the libretto in as unformed style as possible to allow for choices.

On the finished product
SP: Constantly being surprised when things come back so different in the finished work, but the core emotional integrity is still there. Though occasionally the composer does actually do what you expected.

As might be expected there was a lively discussion on surtitles, the view being generally positive though there was surprise that librettists were not involved in the creation of the surtitles.

Adapting v creating from scratch
LG: Done both, the dance is the same. You are looking for the fundamental imperatve, why the story had to be told.
EK: Wherever it comes from, you have to be able to get insidie it to make a living piece.
SP: Adapting takes away the anxiety of having to invent something together. But often the composer brings the idea and has a strong personal vision of how they see this happening.
JP: Adapting must be a recreative process, you should be quite cavalier.
EK: Remember, the original will still be there after you have finished doing the adaptation.

 This concluded the morning session and we broke up to have lunch and discuss the thought provoking issues already raised. The afternoon session is covered in a post on the presentation by Kasper Holten, director of opera at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and a presentation with three different composer/librettist partnerships.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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