Wednesday 1 May 2013

What makes a good opera libretto (2): Q&A with Kasper Holten

Guildhall ResearchWorks
Librettists are fundamental to the creation of new 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, contemporary 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. (My report on the morning session is already on the blog). The afternoon session opened with a presentation by Kasper Holten, the Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, who gave an amazingly fluent and highly inspiring talk, raising all sorts of questions about writing new opera.

Commissioning, producing, directing: Kasper Holten

Holten started by saying that opera houses should not be islands, that growing opera for the future is not something that can be done alone. The libretto is important but often overlooked. Holten has commissioned 25 operas over the years, and directed 10 new operas. He has even written an opera libretto, but was very dismissive of his own efforts, saying that writing a libretto does not seem like rocket science but it was difficult finding the right vocabulary. Librettists can get thrown in the deep end too quickly; he has seen many pieces fail because of the libretto, though we are not good at acknowledging its importance. And there so many operas being written, why are they not being sung?

So many arguments not to do opera

There are so many arguments not to do opera. It is a really crap business model, it can be boring and can be unintentionally funny. You take a bigger risk in opera, so why sing at all?

The argument against opera is only of value if you expect naturalism. Here Holten echoed Lavinia Greenlaw from the morning session and talked about opera being a translation of reality, how it gives us a language to talk about things where words and logic are not enough. Communication in the opera house is not just verbal and intellectual, but words provide a background. They enable you both fast forward and to stop at crucial emotional moments (a view of operatic time which echoed Edward Kemp from  the morning session ). Holten admitted that this was a rather traditional view, but was important as a starting point.

These are the questions

He then went on to pose a series of questions, in the context of a growing passion and curiosity about new operatic work.

Story - Does the story need to be simple? Not necessarily, but there should be a theatrical fluidity to it so that you don't need explanations. And it needs to challenge us.

Words - There are so many pieces where you can't hear the words. So is the composer going to allow space or will this mean that the music will be boring.

Identity - Unless you have the perfect match between composer and librettist, whose personality will shine through. As a librettist, how do you trust a person you know will take your words and do strange things to them.

Collaboration - Is collaboration a good thing or not, or should each person (librettist, composer, director) do their own thing.

Failure - We  want new operas to be successful, but if you don't commission pieces and allow for failures then you won't get better.  If an opera house does not fail at least once per year, is it trying hard enough. This is difficult in the current economic climate. After all, how many attempts did it take the great composers before they became great.

Commissioning - We should commission new opera because we have a passion for it, not because we have to.
Role of the opera house - Should they get involved and use a dramaturg. Holten said that he was afraid that the moment he gets involved he will recycle what went well last year. That interventions can defocus the writers from what they want to do. Would we have wanted a dramaturg to work with Wagner on his operas?

Partnership - But it is tricky work, starting writing opera and opera houses need to think whether they should leave well alone or get involved. The trick is to consider how best to support each individual partnership.

Matchmaking - Matchmaking composer and librettist is one of the trickiest and most fantastic things. How to put it in a systematic approach? Do we use speed-dating, or what?

Librettists - How can we train librettists and should we do that.

These are the questions, the starting point for debate.

Questions from the floor

How to be commissioned - Send KH something so astonishing that he wants to commission it. Or simply do it yourself, write something small and do it and learn from it. Getting experience is what counts. The Royal Opera House is now doing R&D pieces which will never get public performances.

Producing libretti on the Hollywood script model - It is easy to dismiss the Hollywood model and we should sometimes look at it, but how do you know what is best. If you are in doubt then perform scenes and try it out; it is really hard to tell about work until you produce it. Though it is good to listen to Hollywood sometimes, as they are good at telling stories, Holten wants to feel that someone has something to tell him. If too many people are involved it can remove a sense of personality from a piece

Measuring success - Opera has always been subsidised. This means that with new opera there is a lack of commercial verification. You have to fall back on other things, there is no real criterion for success. You can look at reviews and box office, but this is not enough. The only real measure of success as an artistic director is to trust yourself. But you should evaluate afterwards, talk to the composer and librettist about what went wrong and what worked. Orlando Gough commented that you should never ignore your bad reviews, because they always contain an element of truth.

There was quite a lively discussion about the role of critics and whether they should be able to get into dress rehearsals in advance of a world premiere, and how helpful this would be.

In conclusion
In his final points Holten commented that the machine of opera is so complex and expensive that, if you don't want to use it then don't. He is looking for a sense of personality in a new opera. He does not want to be bored, but often he is.

My reports on the morning session and the second afternoon presentation with three different composer/librettist partnerships.are already on the blog,

Elsewhere on this blog:

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