Friday 3 May 2013

What makes a good opera libretto (3): three librettist/composer marriages

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Continuing our investigations into the black-art of opera libretto writing. 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.

The final segment of the afternoon presented three very different composer/librettist marriages, with five of the six involved being present to talk about their relationship and how they worked on their operas.  First off we heard from composer Julian Anderson (in conversation with Guy Dammann), who is currently working on his first opera Thebans, based on the Oedipus trilogy, to a libretto by Frank McGuinness, to be premiered next season at English National Opera. Then we heard from composer Jonathan Dove and librettist Alasdair Middleton who have a long history of collaboration from Hackney Chronicles through Pinnochio to Mansfield Park.  Finally composer Orlando Gough and librettist Stephen Plaice who recently worked together on Glyndebourne Opera's community opera Imago.

Julian Anderson and Frank McGuinness

Thebans is Anderson's first opera, though he has been discussing writing opera for some time and has collaborated on a number of other works notably ballets. Anderson regards his job as a composer to go towards the plot. In fact, his first opera was intended to be The Tempest, which he started writing as an experiment but failed to tell anyone and, of course, Thomas Ades' opera came out; so The Tempest needs to wait. His other idea was Euripedes Theban Trilogy, ENO agreed and suggested Frank McGuinness, because of McGuinness's own versions of Euripedes plays.

Initially Anderson said no, wanting to  work with someone who had not worked on the Oedipus story before, but he was persuaded and the collaboration worked well. Anderson describes McGuinness as being with no vanity, simply interested in making the opera work. He gave an example of their way of working, with McGuinness cutting a huge speech down to just six lines, six very strong lines. Anderson said that he tried to learn from this and cut his own music where necessary.

The Oedipus plays are very long. Anderson had to cut and re-write the entire act one, but he said that it was sheer heaven to write an opera, to work at the actual project. With such a well known plot, he and McGuinness wanted to tell the story their own way. Anderson went into the project knowing what he did not want the opera to be like. It wasn't to be a ritual piece. And there was the problem that the audience knew the ending, how to kid the audience that there is a possibility Oedipus will not go blind. For Anderson originality did not come from strenuously trying to be original.

Frank McGuinness was clear about where his limits were. He lives in Dublin and Anderson lives in London, they would have meetings and took McGuinness's play as their starting point. McGuinness would slash through the play and produce a reduced version which would be typed up. After a few more changes, this was ready for Anderson. Further cutting was possible because of the music, and McGuinness has devolved much of the responsibility for this onto Anderson. The result is a text with very strong language.

Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton

Dove and Middleton have been collaborating for 17 years and have written ten operas together plus other works. They presented three snapshots of their work, three different collaborations each illustrated by either video or recording. It was clear from their behaviour both on and off stage that the two have a very long history.  Whilst their relationship is professional, such a long period meant that this fed into the way they interacted with each other. They projected a comfortable, casual interaction with much humour, completing each other's sentences and interrupting each other. Thus reinforcing the comments earlier in the day about composer-librettist interactions being like a relationship.

Their first collaboration was Hackney Chronicles which was written for children, combining four different true stories from different times in history, each story written in the idiom of that time. For both, the challenge was how to keep yourself whilst being true to the stylistic challenge of each idiom.

For The Enchanted Pig, Dove's brief to Middleton was that everything had to be a song, though ultimately this was not quite the case. But Middleton said that he regarded his job as to provoke some music, though he would not be quite sure where the music will come.

Pinnochio was written for Opera North and, alongside telling the story, the opera was for a family audience and they wanted to introduce the audience to each component of opera, so there was a coloratura soprano, a bass etc. The example they chose was a moment which showed what the chorus could do  In the libretto Middleton returned to using rhymes as he had done in The Enchanted Pig.

They followed the book quite closely, and Dove said that they talked extensively before agreeing on the scenes that they wanted to see. Both are fundamentally interested in drama, but Middleton interjected with a smile that the composer always wins. Dove said that Middleton's first draft is always close to the the final one. With Pinnochio they had to have a few cracks at the ending. Middleton said that when he heard Pinnochio it proved to be 90% of what he had imagined.

When they were commissioned for the work which became Swan Hunter, it was simply to be based on an old Northern story. Middleton said that he felt that the text should be monosyllabic and he produced a 12 page libretto for a 70 minute piece. Dove said that he was thrilled with this as it left him space to dwell and repeat.  After seeing video excerpt, Dove described it as a very compressed piece, saying that the largest part of the process was finding the story. What attracted them that particular one (the story of Leminkainen), was that in it a mother sings her song back to life. Dove did not change anything in the libretto and Middleton added that though they talked a lot before writing, they did not talk much during the creation process.

The final opera they discussed was Mansfied Park. Dove described it as a wonderful opera to do in a country house with a piano. After a sound clip, Dove said that they talked a lot about formality, finding the film adaptations have an unhistorical informality about them. There was a need to feel it was a world where there were things that you could not do. For Middleton, this is one of the reasons why it made a good opera. For him it is the only Jane Austen story that could make an opera, part of the reason being the huge interior life of the character Fanny, something that opera is good at, unlike film.

They said that they spend their lives interrogating stories to see if they would make an opera.

Orlando Gough and Stephen Plaice

Gough and Plaice's relationship was clearly more formal, and had covered just one collaboration, but there was clearly an easy interaction between them, two very contrasting characters. Imago came about as a result of a proposal which they submitted to Glyndebourne, it had to be digital in some way, and from the outset their proposal involved the director as well. The three sat down together with a clean slate.

The story started from the idea of a mother in a care home, having strong emotions about her carer. This wasn't digital, hence the introduction of the idea of the on-line alter ego/avatar. The result was a love story between the two avatars and the on-line universe meant that they could go anywhere, the music could shape-shift.

The three did lots of talking to resolve the plot. As it was a community opera, the chorus needed to have a crucial role, which made them think about how the plot developed, the implications of decisions. They worked from scenario to storyline to scene by scene, at each stage all three could convene to discuss things. There were two or three drafts, each of which was discussed.  Finally Gough took over the final, composing draft and then contacted Plaice when he needed changes.

We were shown a video sampler for Imago. Plaice commented that he had never seen an opera chorus work so hard, there was a flexibility in having performers who were so keen to be on the stage. Gough said that though they discussed ideas in detail, Plaice had to make decisions about the structure and texture of the piece. It was Plaice who influenced the quality of the structures for the music. What the librettist puts in influences the piece immensely, even though perhaps in the end you cannot hear the words. Gough said that for the naturalistic passages of dialogue he tried to make musical structures of them. The very quality of the words and how they flowed provided implicit structure for the music.

90% of the first draft was in the final piece, and the changes tended to be Gough asking for more words, often to further clarify relationships. Occasionally parts of the libretto were moved elsewhere and they talked about how they arrived at the ending. 

Three very different operas and three very different collaborations, three different solutions to the conundrum of how librettists and composer interact. 

The conference ended on a relatively positive note, there seem to be far more librettists around then there used to be, lots of new work being written. The trick will be how to best nurture this talent and help create these curious relationships between composer and librettist. And to remember that you only learn to write opera by failing, and writing another one.

The morning session and the Kasper Holten's presentation in the afternoon session are already on this blog.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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