"Libretto": The very form and provenance of the word— the diminutive of "libro," or "book," from the Italian vernacular—bespeaks the slightness of the thing it names. Whereas "opera"—technically the plural of "opus," or "work," thus a learned term from the Latin—bespeaks a majesty, a gravitas.
Professional or amateur, lifelong fanatic or casual attendee, anyone who wants to sound smart about an opera takes a crack at the librettist. True, in tandem with specific composers, three librettists are always treated as sacrosanct: Lorenzo Da Ponte with Mozart, Arrigo Boito with the aged Verdi, Hugo von Hofmannsthal with Richard Strauss. A fourth, Richard Wagner, epitomizing the hyphenated case of the librettist-composer, hardly preempts criticism but effectively quashes it. Those four aside, a librettist in the spotlight is a librettist under fire. Antonio Ghislanzoni's scenario for
Aida? Hackneyed. Emanuel Schikaneder's for Die Zauberflöte ? A muddle. And for the record, even the great Da Ponte lived to see himself publicly reviled; in a vicious satire the fictionalized figures of Mozart and Antonio Salieri bore witness to his "tasteless, clumsy, and incoherent texts." This was in 1791, around the time of Da Ponte's dismissal as poet of the court theater of Vienna, consequent upon the death of his patron, Emperor Joseph II. Count on the wags to kick you when you're down.
For a composer embarking on an opera, nothing matters more than procuring the right libretto, and what makes it right comes down to a single imponderable attribute: its power to kindle the composer's creative flame. Without music, a libretto is merely a matrix of possibilities. From the page or a synopsis, a reader may form a poor opinion of its language, characters, or plot, but composers have been known to nullify such doubts, just as they have transmuted apparent gold into dross. Set to music, a libretto no longer exists but as the grain of sand within the pearl, as mulberry leaves metabolized into silk, as the bed through which the river runs. There is no such thing as a great opera with a weak libretto or a mediocre opera with a great one.
The libretti of accepted masterpieces take countless forms. The kaleidoscopic, Shakespearean dynamism of Monteverdi's libretti for Il Ritorno di Ulisse in Patria and L'Incoronazione di Poppea ( Orfeo being an entirely different affair) have only the Italian language in common with the studied, formulaic architecture of the libretti set by Handel. None of these has anything whatsoever to do with libretti like those of Pelléas et Mélisande or Wozzeck, one an eccentric, the other a fragmentary straight play, both set essentially verbatim. As a rule, language combines with music best when it is simple, syntactically as well as lexically, and brevity is a virtue. Hofmannsthal's ostentatiously literary libretti fly in the face of such truisms. So do the libretti of Puccini's operas, many of them hammered into shape by multiple scribes working together or at cross purposes under the fiercely critical direction of the composer.
Film buffs will remember how theoreticians of the 1950s spoke of the director as an auteur, ultimately responsible for every detail within every frame. By the same token, the composer of an opera must own every word, every inflection of the text. And in that sense, the composer of an opera is the true author of the libretto, regardless of credit and other contractual niceties. The buck stops in the score.
So have we argued the librettist out of existence? Not quite. While the properties of a libretto—its adherence to or purposeful departures from time-tested convention—never actually dictate how an opera will turn out, they shape it in virtually every particular; the librettist lays the track that a composer consents to travel. In the pages that follow, I will look at librettists old and modern (but mostly modern), hoping to show how the maps they draw affect the journeys that composers take us on. Be advised that the topics range widely, and that the sections are largely self-contained. God or the devil will be, as always, in the details.
Fortune's Wheel: The Librettist's Ups and Downs
Early in the history of opera, there was a giant: the great Pietro Metastasio, who was born in Rome in 1698 and died in Vienna in 1782, between those dates writing some two dozen three-act libretti on classical subjects. According to historians and musicologists, his libretti were set over eight hundred times (if often with extensive unauthorized adjustments) by composers as far afield as St. Petersburg, London, and even the New World, his vogue finally expiring a half century after his death. Though his dramaturgy, moral stance, and poetic technique—often reminiscent of his model Racine—are unmistakable, to contemporary sensibilities Metastasio may seem grandiloquent, humorless, and stiff. In his arias, almost invariably in ABA format, high-born dramatis personae are forever spinning similes to capture their excruciating conflicted emotions. Metastasio's example notwithstanding, it's hard to think of writing libretti as anything but a handmaidenly calling. Apart from Da Ponte, Boito, and Hoffmansthal, not even the librettists of the international core repertory are much remembered by name. And apart from their mothers on opening night, does anyone attend an opera for the libretto?
The history of opera is filled with amateurs, if only in the sense that many librettists whose work survives tossed off libretti more or less with their left hand. Some were very occasional littérateurs, others full-time littérateurs who also turned their pens to other forms. For example, the Parisian Eugène Scribe— nomen est omen—was a professional writer with over a hundred fifty titles to his credit, in genres including (besides opera) straight drama, ballet, and the entertainments the French called vaudevilles. The Neapolitan Salvadore Cammarano, who wrote about three dozen libretti but is remembered almost exclusively for his hallucinatory, easily ridiculed
Il Trovatore, was likewise a thorough professional. These cases are not unique. Still, for countless practitioners—lawyers, courtiers, a composer's sister here, a struggling divorcée there—the librettist's art has always been inherently improvisational, untaught in academies, acquired on the job.
The Perils of Self-Sufficiency: A Case Study
Like Wagner, the long-forgotten early-twentieth-century composer Franz Schreker wrote his own libretti. It has taken nearly a hundred years for any of his operas to cross the Atlantic. The first to do so, Der Ferne Klang ( The Sound from Afar), received a single concert performance in New York in 2007 before its scandalously belated stage premiere in July 2010. The second, Die Gezeichneten ( Those Who Bear the Mark, had its first performance in the Western hemisphere at the Los Angeles Opera in April 2010. The prime movers were James Conlon, music director of the Los Angeles company, and Leon Botstein, who as music director of the American Symphony Orchestra and co-artistic director of SummerScape (an annual festival at Bard College) officiated over both mountings of Der Ferne Klang.
Already an impassioned Schreker champion before taking on Die Gezeichneten, Conlon ascribes some of the composer's posthumous obscurity to his failure to engage a professional librettist. I wonder. A quintessential modernist, Schreker was keen to experiment, to chart a sick world's fever. In both operas that have made their way to America, the quality of the dialogue is high, and the storylines, though often diffuse and bizarre, are original. What Schreker may really have needed is an editor.
Consider Die Gezeichneten, unveiled in 1918, thirteen years after Salome, with which it shares a fascination with abnormal psychology and deviant sex. Schreker originally wrote the libretto for Alexander Zemlinksy, who had requested a tragedy about a man disgusted by his own appearance. Narcissism or self-laceration? The misfortune was Zemlinksy's own. But is ugliness per se the stuff of tragedy? The protagonist is the hideous Alviano, a man of great riches, culture, and sensitivity. The only woman who sees past the façade into his soul is Carlotta, a painter whose health (don't ask) is such that sex would kill her. She asks him to sit for her, then leads him on, only to rebuff him in the clinch. Come the next and final act, Carlotta turns up in flagrante with a rake (or need I say roué?) where but in Alviano's pleasure garden. The music Schreker eventually poured on his overheated scenario was if anything more overheated. In her monologue over the severed head of John the Baptist, the dancing Salome weighs the twin mysteries of love and death and declares love to be the greater. In Die Gezeichneten, Schreker never gets down to brass tacks. Everyone talks too much, but what on earth do they really want? Decadence envelops them like a noxious gas. At some level, of course, Die Gezeichneten is an allegory of the fate of The Artist. (It has been suggested that Schreker identified with Carlotta.) So, more obviously, is the earlier and more rewarding Der Ferne Klang. The libretti of the two operas have many flaws in common, prolixity and obscurity heading the list. But in Der Ferne Klang, music opens doors a reader could scarcely imagine. The most intoxicating passage, hands down, comes at the top of the second act, with song and dance tunes wafting in from a half dozen or more chambers of a Venetian bordello as well as from the lagoon beyond. Commentators have called the effect cinematic, though the movies had yet to invent such effects.
Sviatoslav Richter, titan among pianists, fell hard for Der Ferne Klang at age fifteen, when his father (a close friend of the composer's from their student days in Vienna) gave him a copy of the orchestral score. Six decades later, Richter said that the music had accompanied him his whole life. "I know each note by heart," he continued, "and it has turned me into a different man from the one I should otherwise have been. I dream of it incessantly." Perhaps Schreker's sun is finally rising. With familiarity, his strange, apparently dated libretti may acquire the agelessness of archetype.
An Accidental Triptych, with Digressions
Three twenty-first-century operas that recently came my way offered plentiful food for thought about the ways a librettist can help or hinder a composer. Two derive from ambitious American novels: Sophie's Choice (2002), by the late British composer-librettist Nicholas Maw, and Moby-Dick (2010), by the American composer Jake Heggie, to a libretto by his compatriot Gene Scheer. (Prose fiction seems of late to have displaced plays and epic as the source of choice for opera.) Unlike the many new operas that strut and fret their hour—if that—upon the stage and then are heard no more, these two have enjoyed or will enjoy multiple exposure: From its premiere at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in London, Sophie's Choice went on to a second production shared by the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, the Vienna Volksoper, and the Washington National Opera, in Washington, D.C., while Moby-Dick, first seen in Dallas, will go on, in evolving versions of the original staging, to companies in San Francisco, San Diego, Calgary, and Adelaide, Australia, co-commissioners of the project.
The third novelty was Amelia (2010), a three-way, all-American collaboration by the composer Daron Aric Hagen, the poet and first-time librettist Gardner McFall, and the director Stephen Wadsworth; credited to Wadsworth, the (original) story tracks McFall's autobiographical poetry collection The Pilot's Daughter. In addition to commissioning the work from scratch, the Seattle Opera put financing in place to support revivals of the production by other American companies. Impresarios around the country took note and attended. As we go to press, the outcome of the bidding war, if one ensued, has yet to be announced.
In construction, the libretti of Sophie's Choice, Moby-Dick, and Amelia follow no common formula, yet in fundamental respects the lessons to be drawn from them—whether by example or per negativum— are remarkably similar. What is more, they point to a deep grammar of the libretto that has historically manifested itself in constantly changing ways yet seems never to change in essence.
Double, Double, Toil and Trouble
"I first reduced the novel—which is on a grand scale—to a dramatic scenario," Nicholas Maw told an interviewer shortly before the premiere of Sophie's Choice. According to Maw, William Styron took a look and thought the outline a true reflection of the novel, but declined to become creatively involved in material he had left behind some twenty years before. "I therefore decided to write the libretto myself because I wanted to extract the text largely from the novel," Maw continued. He had had to reorganize, of course. "But basically," Maw concluded, "it is Styron's text."
Commonsensical as Maw's approach may seem, there is nothing either foreordained or bulletproof about it. The dialogue appropriated from the novel ranges from the serviceable to the unsingable, reaching a nadir in the racist rants of a charismatic schizophrenic. But Maw's greater blunder in the name of fidelity to his source was structural.
Like countless novelists, Styron works with a narrator who is also a player in the story, in this case the aspiring young Southern writer Stingo, who strikes out to seek his literary fortune in Brooklyn. There he meets his destiny in the persons of Sophie, a Polish- Catholic survivor of the German concentration camps, and her pathologically jealous lover Nathan, that charismatic schizophrenic. Maw explodes a sturdy isosceles triangle into a ramshackle four-corner trapezoid. Look down the cast list of Sophie's Choice, the opera, and you find both Stingo, the eager young pup, sung by a tenor, and his sadder-but-wiser avatar, sung by a baritone under the unprepossessing handle "Narrator." Narrator's reflective passages are often affecting, but they bring the action to a dead halt. His pages in the opera of Sophie's Choice are concert pieces in disguise.
Splitting a character need not, in itself, be a mistake. When a character is to be shown both in childhood and as an adult, or in youth and in extreme old age, it may make perfect sense. John Olon- Scrymgeour's libretto for Dominick Argento's opera Miss Havisham's Fire (after Great Expectations) proceeded in that fashion. Adapting Crime and Punishment as Raskolnikoff, the Swiss composer Heinrich Sutermeister gave the tormented tenor hero a demonic baritone alter ego. (The librettist was Peter Sutermeister, Heinrich's brother.) From its premiere in Stockholm in 1948, Raskolnikoff went on to further European productions, and was still kicking around in the 1960s. I saw it as a child in Zurich and can still hear in my mind's ear the menace of the doppelgänger's staccato incitements to murder. Another case in point, whether or not one considers it an opera: the Brecht-Weill collaboration Die Sieben Todsünden der Kleinbürger ( The Seven Deadly Sins of the Petty Bourgeoisie, best known simply as The Seven Deadly Sins). The heroine, a hard-working vaudeville dancer, is cleft like an apple into her vulnerable dancing self (Anna II, curiously enough, who is virtually mute) and her voluble, calculating superego (Anna I). Call them Siamese twins. On occasion, they have been portrayed by a single performer.
Unlike these various other doubles, Maw's Narrator serves a purely literary function—and a counterproductively preservationist one at that. Adapters must be as ruthless as they are shameless, stealing without compunction, slashing and burning at will, all in the name of creating anew. Qua narrator, a narrator in prose fiction seldom survives the transition to the stage or screen, for this very simple reason: Fiction is largely narrated in the past tense, whereas drama exists solely in the present. In a novel, characters (including the narrator) may disappear behind the stories they tell. But in the drama of a master, so long as the telling of a story lasts, that telling is the drama. Exposition as such is never the point, though a faceless actor may deliver no more.
For an illustration, think of the passage in Act 1 of Wagner's Parsifal when Gurnemanz, stalwart knight of the Grail, shares the backstory with four clueless squires. That information is critical to our understanding of the work, but his state of mind and role as teacher are equally so. As performed these days by the peerless German bass René Pape, Gurnemanz is nothing like the glorified spear carrier he often seems, but as true a stakeholder in the drama of mystic redemption as the driven souls he speaks of. In the end, their fate is his, and his is ours. (Drama is the most egalitarian form of storytelling, and the most inclusive.)
As for Maw, he reaps his reward for splitting Stingo in two late in the evening, when tenor and baritone raise their voices in a duet, the perfect pendant to the same misplaced concert suite implicit in Narrator's monologues. But could Maw have killed his Narrator yet kept the introspective, retrospective dimension? Of course. Numerous precedents show how it might have been done. Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd (libretto by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier) is structured as one great flashback bracketed between monologues of the aged Captain Vere, reflecting years later on events in his life that haunt him still. (It is worth pointing out that Vere is not the narrator of the novella.) Thornton Wilder's play Our Town offers a different solution. The Stage Manager, whose chief function is to walk the audience through the everyday joys and sorrows of the Webbs and the Gibbses of Grover's Corners, also steps into a scene now and then, in different guises. The strategy is integral to Wilder's vision, and the recent operatic version of the play, by Ned Rorem to a libretto by J.D. McClatchy, preserves it, even as McClatchy sprinkles a sugar coating of rhyme over Wilder's purposely plain English.
Likewise of interest in this context is Peter Shaffer's hit play Amadeus, which cries out for operatic treatment. Salieri, under suspicion of having poisoned Mozart, addresses posterity from his deathbed, orchestrating a dazzling sequence of flashbacks that revolve around his rakish youthful self and his irrepressible rival.
Ah, but that duet for Stingo and Narrator! It crosses my mind that Maw may have known Nine, the astonishing Broadway adaptation of Federico Fellini's 8½, in which a movie director in a state of meltdown sings a comic duet with himself, to bravura effect. Under arrangements like Britten's, Wilder's, and Shaffer's, Stingo would have been denied that opportunity. How ironic to think that in the end, Maw's agenda—to reduce Styron's novel to a dramatic scenario and to preserve his text—set up the framework for an out-of-time encounter that is not in the book (not in this literal-minded form, anyway) and operatic only in that it involves human actors singing.
Honoring the Spirit
Before writing his libretto for Moby-Dick, Gene Scheer reread the novel repeatedly, developing a special liking for the digressions on cetology (which furnished little fodder for his purposes). Then he laid his Melville aside, picking up the story not on land but much later, at sea, which hardly counts as a liberty at all. More important for a literate audience's sense of fidelity to the novel, the players speak in voices that ring true to Melville's. By Scheer's guess, about half the language of the libretto is Melville verbatim, right down to the use of "thee" and "thou." But where Melville navigates his subject like a captain on uncharted waters, Scheer flies at it like a harpoon. On one point, Scheer has opened himself to what may be endless back talk. Melville's narrator, who in the novel's much-quoted first sentence bids us call him Ishmael, sets sail here under the nom de guerre ( nom de mer?) Greenhorn. A good deal of thought went into the decision, as both Scheer and Heggie have labored to explain. Proceeding from the observation that Melville tells us nothing of Ishmael's physical appearance or personal history, they have chosen to imagine him discovering his vocation as a writer through his adventures aboard the Pequod. Put another way, the opera ends just as Ishmael is born into consciousness as a man with a yarn to spin. "Who are you, lad?," Captain Gardiner asks, scooping the lone survivor from the sea."Call me Ishmael," he replies as the curtain falls, ready to take up his pen.
The echo from the novel has its undeniable elegance, but is this really the moment for literary games? Few audience members today will have pursued their Bible studies in sufficient depth to shudder at the speaker's identification with a pariah. (T. Walter Herbert, president of the Melville Society, suggests we imagine a contemporary American novel opening with the words, "Call me Saddam.") And does the hatching of a writer—even this lone survivor, spared to tell us the fate of Promethean Man's shipwreck on the cliffs of a Manichaean cosmos—really strike the chord our spirits yearn for in the final cadence of this story? Consider, too, the absurdity, outside the pages of The Pilgrim's Progress, of a character whose name and condition in life are identical: a Christian named Christian, a worldly wiseman named Worldly Wiseman, a butler named Butler. To my ear, the name Greenhorn, used for a greenhorn, strikes a tinny, naively symbolic note, especially since the word sounds so unlike a real name. (Searching the phone books of a half dozen major American cities, I found a total of three listings for "Greenhorn," at two addresses in Moreno Valley, California, a bedroom community in the so-called Inland Empire east of Los Angeles.)
Such fuss over such minutiae; so shoot me. Still nagged by this detail, I put my objection to Scheer directly. He acknowledged that the symbolic aspect (his word was "power") of the name Greenhorn had not been lost on him. But what had triggered its use, he insisted, was "the fact that in whaling ships in the mid nineteenth century, rookies were called 'Greenhorns' and were most often referred to as 'Greenies.'" But surely that is the stuff of footnotes. (For the record, the word "greenhorn" appears twice in the novel as a common noun, applied to a sailor swept overboard from the schooner that carries Ishmael and Queequeg from New Bedford to Nantucket.)
It would have been child's play for a dramatist of Scheer's skill to weave the antique idiom casually into the dialogue. As it is, the name may jar on ears other than mine as the opera makes the rounds on its way (if Fortune smiles) into the contemporary canon. As well it may, for on its maiden voyage in Dallas, commandingly staged and cast to perfection, Moby-Dick shone with the promise of equal seaworthiness in the hands of artists of quite different stripe. What lingers in memory is most of all Heggie's unending sweep of water music: long-spun swells that ebb and flow like the heartbeat of some vast living creature, spells of deathly calm, outbursts of unfettered fury. The shanties add a homespun vigor, just as one would want them to. For the principals, Heggie found voices that make them real: Ahab's oratory, so tense and wild; Queequeg's chant, scarcely articulate; Starbuck's straight-arrow plainspokenness. The only female voice—a lucky inspiration—belongs to Pip, the cabin boy; it is lyrical, unearthly, unmoored. Ishmael (let's call him that) and Queequeg have two striking duets. The first opens the opera on a clashing, comic note, as Queequeg's chthonic prayers interfere with Ishmael's attempt to get a good night's sleep. The second—chaste, dreamy, and romantic—is heard in the second act, when the odd couple thrown together by Fortune shares a watch in the starry night. Of the many deft strokes of musical stagecraft that punctuate the action, I will mention only the very first: the irregular thump of Ahab's peg leg, announcing his presence overhead long before he shows himself to the crew .
Intermezzo: The Composer-Auteur
As the examples of Sophie's Choice and Moby-Dick suggest, the virtues and defects of a libretto lie principally in structure, secondarily in tone, and not at all in literary merit. Ingmar Bergman made virtually the same point with respect to screenplays. "I have often wished for a kind of notation which would enable me to put on paper all the shades and tones of my vision," he writes in the introduction to Four Screenplays of Ingmar Bergman (1960), sounding for all the world like a composer in some parallel universe where operas are performed without the aid of written scores. He goes on to describe how hard it is, in the confusion of a shoot, to rekindle one's original vision for a given scene. "Thus the script is a very imperfect technical basis for a film," Bergman writes. "And there is another important point in this connection which I should like to mention." The passage begs to be quoted at length, the analogy to opera being just about perfect:
Film has nothing to do with literature; the character and substance of the two art forms are usually in conflict. This probably has something to do with the receptive process of the mind. The written word is read and assimilated by a conscious act of the will in alliance with the intellect; little by little it affects the imagination and the emotions. The process is different with a motion picture. When we experience a film, we consciously prime ourselves for illusion. Putting aside will and intellect, we make way for it in our imagination. The sequence of pictures plays directly on our feelings. Music works in the same fashion; I would say that there is no art form that has so much in common with film as music. Both affect our emotions directly, not via the intellect. And film is mainly rhythm; it is inhalation and exhalation in continuous sequence. Ever since childhood, music has been my great source of recreation and stimulation, and I often experience a film or play musically.
Given the segue from film to music, one wishes Bergman had broadened the scope of his discussion to draw distinctions between straight plays (arguably closer to literature, at least at certain periods, than to film) and musical theater in its various historical forms. As it is, he has defined with exhilarating precision the action of opera on the imagination of a receptive audience.
And thus, by extension, we may intuit the job of the composer- auteur. In opera (as in film), music (like the flow of images) may accomplish effects far beyond the power of words alone. Two examples from the third act of Der Rosenkavalier come to mind. First, consider the overlapping interior monologues of the Marschallin, that aristocratic rose in full bloom, her adolescent lover Octavian (sung by a mezzo-soprano), and Sophie, a rosebud fresh from the convent to whom the boy has suddenly lost his heart. Of all the things on the minds of these three in their momentary discomfiture, not much but the principal clause of the Marschallin's first sentence, which unfurls like a silken ribbon, is intelligible. "Hab mirs gelobt ihn lieb zu haben in der richtigen Weis," she begins: "I made myself a promise to love him as is right" (by which she means without hoping to own him). The words are set to a waltz melody we have heard before, though not at the stately tempo that lends it its present majesty. But what else does she have to say? And what are the thoughts of the young lovers?
No one who loves the opera can fail to have read, if not to have memorized, the text that follows; even as babble, the swell of emotion borne on the music is overwhelming, bypassing the intellect entirely. My second example is the concluding pantomime for the pageboy Mohammed, who returns to the empty stage with a lantern to retrieve the new bride's lost handkerchief. Hofmannsthal saw no need for this bit, but Strauss knew what he was up to. In ways that logic cannot fully explain, the coda sets the world to rights. Without it, the dramatic configuration of the final act would look unbalanced in the extreme. The first order of business—the humiliation of a skirt-chasing boor—is low comedy. Then, unaccountably, we lift off for the religious experience of that trio, which actually concludes with the Marschallin's amen, "In Gottes Namen." (Since the entrance of the second voice, these are the first words we hear without the overlay of other voices singing other words, and thus the first we understand.) Left to themselves at last, the young lovers enter their private blown-glass heaven, glimmering in the stardust of harps and a celesta. Light, bright, and sparkling, Mohammed scatters embers of their magic across the footlights, even as he chases us from our dream state into the practicalities of the workaday world, where a good wife looks well to her linens.
Earthbound, with Feathers
And so to Amelia, a work as contrived in construction as it is off in tone. Like Maw, Stephen Wadsworth and Gardner McFall have seen fit to split a key figure in two. The child is father to the man, as Wordsworth observed; McFall's concern is with the mother of the woman. Amelia, the thirtysomething mezzo-soprano daughter of an American fighter pilot lost in action during the Vietnam War, shares the stage with Young Amelia, an adult soprano who opens the opera in the guise of a nine-year-old, singing, as McFall's stage directions have it, "an apostrophe to the stars."
Far in advance of the premiere, the Seattle Opera and the University of Washington Press joined forces to publish the text, which, as any reader instantly sees—even from the stage directions— aspires to the condition of poesy. In a foreword, Speight Jenkins, general director of the Seattle Opera and godfather of this, the company's first world premiere in more than a quarter century, tempered a godfather's justifiable pride with a caveat that masquerades as augury: "I think the libretto makes for great reading," Jenkins wrote, "but to understand fully the depth of Gardner's words and even more important her thoughts and feelings, one must hear Daron Hagen's music." Jenkins goes on to compare Gardner—surprise!—to Da Ponte, Hofmannsthal, Boito, and Wagner, and to foretell that "when Amelia receives its premiere at Seattle Opera, the full meaning of Gardner's extraordinary words will become clear." But one look at Young Amelia's very first effusions put me on my guard:
Wow—the sky is navy blue…
…And the stars!
Oh stars, flung wide across the dome,
Heaven is a gown I'd love to wear.
Bathed in your light I'm never alone.
With Ursa Major, Pollux, and Castor—
Hercules stands on the dragon's head,
According to what my father says.
Oh stars, look after my father who flies;
His name is Dodge.
Please be his safety net and guide.
Is there a syllable here that rings true? Between what is flat ("…And the stars!") and what is affected ("flung wide across the dome"), what is prosy ("According to what my father says") and what is gush ("Oh stars, look after my father who flies"), how much is left? Even the color of the sky— navy blue—sounds wrong. My guess is that McFall burst her buttons over the line "Heaven is a gown I'd love to wear," so striking as imagery, so deliberately artless in diction, so fancified and fake as a thought. As for that drunken litany of constellations... has the furor poeticus ever taken a more hackneyed form?
In print, the dramaturgy of Amelia looked as suspect to me as the verbiage. Decades after her father's disappearance, still prey to feelings of abandonment, Amelia is expecting her first child. A visit to the village where her father was last seen has brought no—the word grates like nails on a blackboard—"closure." Her husband's classified work in the aerospace industry fuels her anxiety and paranoia. Haunting her dreams are the figures of Daedalus and Icarus, assembling wings for their escape. Inhabiting a separate plane of reality, a plucky, incongruously chipper character identified simply as The Flier relives the fate of our Amelia's namesake, Amelia Earhart, another pilot who disappeared. In the second act, Amelia, approaching term, falls into a coma, which affords her some longed-for quality time with her father's ghost. The mythological father and son likewise show up in the hospital, as real-life contemporaries, the boy near death after a fall from a high place. The Flier wafts by, congratulating herself on a life in which she was "never bored." And the baby is born, not by Caesarean, as doctors had recommended, but from below, and for a moment all's right with the world.
The tolerance for such jumbled realities is, admittedly, a matter of taste and temperament. To my mind, the obvious autobiographical component reads as hysterical and self-indulgent, while the theatrical cross-references smack less of drama (a form born of conflict) than of navel-gazing installation art, exemplified in singularly linear and Mickey Mouse form. All the same, it would have been as naïve as philistine to prejudge Amelia on the basis of the libretto.
Composers overturn such impressions all the time, and Hagen did just that in isolated moments. I think that his heroine defeated him, as did the self-satisfied Flier, but in his score the overlay from Greek mythology at least acquired an Attic grace.
Just Add Music (The Transcendence Game)
According to George Eliot, of all forms of error, prophecy is the most gratuitous. The principal Jenkins articulates—that without music, the words of an opera are only part of the story—is unassailable. In fact, he might have gone further: The storyline, too, is only part of the story until music gives it life. Still, he was wide of the mark in predicting that the premiere of Amelia would make clear "the full meaning" of the poet's "extraordinary words." Hagen's music shed little if any significant light on the words. But should it have been expected to do so? In operas that have endured, music seldom if ever merely explicates the text. Rather, the words release truths or ambiguities that take wing in music. With his own operas in mind,
Wagner wrote of "deeds of music made visible," attempting to pin down a quality that he was certainly not the first to aspire to. Fidelio comes to mind, raising as it does a living monument to heroic love triumphant over tyranny and oppression. The program is of course explicit in the synopsis, but the music enacts the drama on terms that leave words behind. Beethoven was hardly alone in taking up the subgenre known as "rescue opera." Luigi Cherubini, for one, preceded him with Lodoïska in 1791 and with Les deux journées in 1800. As for Fidelio, that opera derived from Pierre Gaveaux's now forgotten Léonore, ou L'amour conjugal, which was introduced in Paris in 1798 and also inspired virtually simultaneous adaptations by Ferdinand Paër and Simone Mayr, as obscure to posterity as Gaveaux's original.
So how critical to the lasting impact of Fidelio are the minute Particulars of the libretto? Hardly at all. Beethoven reworked the opera twice, each time with the assistance of a different librettist. The source was a libretto by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, who is said to have witnessed the events it is based on. The first version Beethoven put his hand to, in 1805, was by Joseph von Sonnleithner. Stephan von Breuning did some touchup the following year, Georg Friedrich Treitschke some more in 1814. Having studied the differences between the versions at one time, I can report that they're scarcely worth cataloguing. Fiddle as the librettists might, the structure remained a shambles, part operetta, part thriller. Yet Fidelio conveys its message with majestic force and would do so had Beethoven called it quits after the first version.
Così fan tutte likewise affirms the overriding powers of music in opera, though in quite another way. Da Ponte's libretto—apparently one of the few (if not the only one) he made up from whole cloth—tells a cynical tale of love and loyalty and their discontents. Nothing in Mozart's score overtly contradicts the words, yet the elusive game of truth or consequences acquires a finesse and even a dimension of tragedy that Da Ponte can never have imagined.
Intermezzo: Close Reading
In calling McFall's words for Amelia "extraordinary," Jenkins points to a topic larger than he probably intended. The very fact that a self-professed poet was tapped to supply the language may explain what is meant here by "extraordinary": to wit, fine words, choice words, words to pluck from the thesaurus and savor. As perhaps already suggested, words of that description are neither here nor there in opera; some durable libretti have them, while equally durable libretti do without.
Yet words as such do matter, profoundly. In preparing an English- Language opera of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears did what came naturally, merrily cutting and pasting from Shakespeare (not always grammatically). That was surely the thing to do, just as tossing Shakespeare aside in favor of original doggerel, after the fashion of Meredith Oakes in her libretto for the Tempest of Thomas Adès, was not the thing to do. The original is simply too well known. Working in another language, or with less iconic material, Oakes might have done her worst with impunity, or at any rate as she pleased.
Verdi, who knew all there is to know about the power of language in the opera house, spoke of the parola scenica. The phrase is nothing if not elastic. Writing for Grove Music Online, Roger Parker translates it as "scenic utterance," proceeding to elaborate that it typically consists of "a few short words […] declaimed immediately before a lyrical set piece, making verbally manifest the key issues of a dramatic situation." In Verdi's words, it "sculpts and renders clear and evident the situation."
The parola scenica is by no means restricted to Verdi. "Farewell, Rights o' Man!"—Billy Budd's parting cry to his old ship at the beginning of his story—is a powerful example, the more so because the revolutionary overtones are strictly in the mind of anxious agents of the ruling class. (That Britten's librettists are quoting Melville merely proves how perfectly they understand their craft.) A bit of Russian suffices to pick out the line "Ya tsar yevcho" ("I'm still the czar") from the final agonies of Boris Godunov. You won't find much to put beside these instances in W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman's libretto for Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, a tone-deaf eighteenth-century pastiche that many have praised absurdly beyond its merits. (Well, maybe the spoken interjections that conclude two of the antihero's arias: "I wish I had money," and "I wish I were happy.")
Preferring to draw his textbook example from the man who coined the phrase, Parker comes up with a good one: Amonasro's disparaging cry in Act 3 of Aida, "Dei Faraoni tu sei la schiava!" ("You're nothing but the slave of the pharaohs!"), which "signal[s] with a violent injection of musical prose that a new stage of the dramatic conflict, and a new lyrical stage of the set piece, is to ensue." "Although the technique clearly owes something to the already wellestablished aesthetics of melodrama," Parker continues, "it also makes manifest the way in which Verdi's operatic aesthetic was becoming more dependent on isolated verbal effects to articulate an increasingly 'prosaic' musical drama." But if such "musical prose" serves chiefly to articulate—that is, to punctuate—the flow of lyrical set pieces, how is the arc of the whole more "prosaic"? Is punctuation not as integral to poetry as to prose?
One other thing. Stray sparks may start blazes as devastating as any set by lightning. Though Parker associates la parola scenica with suddenness and violence, equally powerful instances are cumulative and subtle, even in Verdi. Consider the use of the word " nome" ("name") in Rigoletto. The deformed court jester has transferred his only child, Gilda, from the convent to the seclusion of a cloistered house in town. The girl knows neither his name nor his line of work, but on the night we meet her, she asks. Rigoletto, the jester, refuses to answer, on the grounds that men fear, envy, and curse him. From this, Gilda concludes that he has neither country nor kin nor friends. But here he contradicts her: To him, she herself is all those things. So when Rigoletto's employer, the skirt-chasing Duke of Mantua, comes calling moments later in the lowly disguise he knows will appeal to her, and Gilda asks him his name, and he gives her one (a false one, but never mind), that "dear name," Gualtier Maldè, becomes the gospel of her new faith, which is no longer a girl's dutiful love for her father but romantic love for the lothario she has just met. In the final act, when the hit man Sparafucile asks Rigoletto the name of his mark, Rigoletto gives his own as well: "Egli è 'Delitto,' 'Punizion' son io" ("He is 'Crime,' 'Punishment' am I"). Thus, in ways a spectator may never consciously notice, Verdi and his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, string the loom of the drama.
The crux of the matter, really, is that the parola scenica accomplishes what dialogue and fancy writing cannot. Unlike so much text set to music, which passes in a blur, the parola scenica hits home. A hard taskmaster to his librettists, Verdi was thoroughly capable of drafting an entire aria possessed—word for word and line by line— of just such power. Consider Lady Macbeth's "La luce langue" ("Light thickens," as Shakespeare had it), written for the Paris revival of the Scottish opera in 1864. Here—unlike in Amelia—is a woman who looks at the night sky and really sees things. As published, the text reads:
La luce langue, il faro spegnesi
Ch'eterno corre per gli ampi cieli!
Notte desiata provvida veli
La man colpevole che ferirà.
Nuovo delitto! È necessario!
Compiersi debbe l'opra fatale.
Ai trapassati regnar non cale;
A loro un requiem, l'eternità,
O voluttà del soglio!
O scettro, alfin sei mio!
Ogni mortal desio
Tace e s'acqueta in te.
Cadrà fra poco esamine
Chi fu predetto re.
Light thickens, the beacon sputters
That glides eternal through the vast heavens.
Night I have longed for, draw thy providential veil
O'er the guilty hand as it strikes.
A new crime! It is necessary!
The fatal work must be completed.
The dead care not to rule;
Leave them their requiem and the world to come.
Ah, the joys of a throne!
Ah, scepter, mine at last!
Every human desire
Falls dumb and finds peace in thee.
Soon the man will fall bloodless
Who was predicted to be king.
Eloquent? Punctiliously literal? The impromptu translation given here is neither. All it aims to convey is one thing: the gripping succession of sharply articulated thoughts, which dictate the unpredictable yet inexorable shifts in the music. The few bars of orchestral preamble well up with baleful solemnity, then accompaniment figures start swirling like Stygian undercurrents to the smooth yet haunted, strangely airless panorama of images in the soprano's first four lines. Two exclamations follow in the space of a single line, each new and perfectly distinct, both repeated. "Nuovo delitto!": a wary weighing of unholy action to come."È necessario!": the assertion of naked will, in the guise of submission to a higher law, sweeping scruples aside.
The rhetorical flourishes that follow are as hollow as they are violent, for the necessity the lady invokes exists solely in the sphere of her self-interest. Her meditation on the dead is patent cant, license to exult in the anticipation of the guilty fulfillment of her inmost, forbidden desires. Her word for that fulfillment is " voluttà": the true, stand-alone noun rather than our clumsy English "voluptuousness," a back-formation from the cognate Latin adjective. Within it teems the frenzied erotic energy that pervades the six lines of the aria's final section. Though composed of many parts, "La luce langue" adds up to a composite instance of the parola scenica in an extended yet thoroughly authentic sense: not a word but, as Parker called it, an utterance. One utterance, glittering like a gemstone from its many facets.
Where the Amateur Prevails: Contemporary Case Histories
Pushing the auteur theory to its logical conclusion, we might ask whether poor librettists are merely those unfortunate in their composer. Yet the jungle that is opera occasionally produces a beast we might as well call the trophy librettist: a wow in the press release, a dud on the job. One such is the Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, who stepped up for Richard Danielpour's Margaret Garner, an opera based on the very events Morrison spirited into fiction in Beloved, one of her finest novels.
In its time, the story made headlines. The historical Margaret was a runaway slave from Kentucky who cut her daughter's throat rather than see her hauled back to the plantation. Garner's trial—reportedly the longest fugitive-slave trial of the mid nineteenth century— hinged on a technicality that may strike the contemporary public as too outlandish even for fiction. Should the defendant—the "modern Medea"—be judged as a human being, capable of knowing right from wrong? Or should she be treated as property, a thing? Originally produced by a three-company consortium in 2005, the opera received its New York premiere two years later, at which time I spoke at length with Danielpour and corresponded briefly with Morrison on the nature of their collaboration.
"First of all," Danielpour said, "the working relationship between a composer and a librettist—not just in history but in fact—has to be the type of relationship in which the music is driving the drama. The composer has to be as much a dramatist as the librettist. It's a misconception that the librettist is dramatist. That's the furthest thing from the truth! In the best teamwork, both are dramatists." To get the ball rolling, he sent Morrison a treatment of eight scenes. "Her books have layering like a painting," Danielpour continued. "A libretto is like a skeleton on which music can form itself. I wanted a librettist who would write neither prose nor poetry but something right in the middle. If the language was too poetic it would be formal and stiff. If it were too prosaic, it would seem silly. Her novels read almost like quasi poetry, not poetry but a hybrid. Having said that, I knew she would the provide type of language and inherent dramatic arc and have the ingenuity to provide twists in story that would be needed in an opera."
Morrison had her own tale to tell. "After months and months of talk, I received a kind of enhanced 'treatment' via Danielpour," she wrote. "In reading it, I found it 'wrong' in enough places—i.e., 'off,' misleading—to want to correct it." She became obsessed, she said, with finding language that would be "lyrical, fully felt and imagined." At the same time, the task liberated her from having to provide "the 'music'—color, sound and rhythm" she goes to such lengths to build into her novels. "I could create language," she said, "and the composer would provide all the rest."
Reading the libretto, perusing the score, and watching the original production on video, I couldn't help noticing two huge holes in the tapestry. Early in the story, Margaret is torn from her husband, another slave, to live in the house of the master, a widower. At the end of the first act, he drags her forcibly away. We understand that she becomes his comfort woman, yet the moment that seals their union, indeed any scene that would shed light on their relationship, goes undramatized, as if such things did not matter. And although there was a courtroom scene at the end, none of it was given over to the actual conduct of Margaret's trial.
Were these choices the subject of much discussion? "That's really a question for Toni Morrison," Danielpour said. So much for music driving the action. "Many times we were trying to do something that you'd call an accurate description. Sometimes, dealing with accurate description was creating boring theater. Sometimes accuracy- slash-history and art connect. It doesn't always work out that way. The courtroom scene was all Toni's invention. I liked it because what it addressed was a burning question at the time: Are these people— the slaves—human human beings or not?"
So this was what it meant for Morrison to "create language," while the composer provided "all the rest."
Either tradition or bold experiment might have provided a viewer with ways into the material. But to my mind, Margaret Garner fell between two stools, offering neither the conventional satisfactions of Masterpiece Theater nor any real shock of the new. Conceivably, music might have swept such complaints aside, but Danielpour's was not that music. Scenes that called for currents and countercurrents of feeling (the slave auction, a ball) took on no extra dimension; moments of melodrama lacked the razor's edge; not even what ought to have been the heroine's moment of lyric transcendence in the shadow of the gallows truly took flight. Disdaining convention yet failing to rise above it, Margaret Garner fell far short of its aspirations, not to say its pretensions. It lacked craft.
Working in a comparably novelistic vein, the previously mentioned J. D. McClatchy transformed Emmeline, Judith Rossner's Gothic tale of the seduction of an innocent in nineteenth-century New England and its aftermath of mother-son incest, into a shapely script for Tobias Picker, who found an apt, specific musical pulse for each scene. Some were bucolic, some had the hum and drive of the new technology of the dawning Industrial Age, and everything fit together.
Mark Adamo's Little Women has a place in this discussion too. Louisa May Alcott's novel and its best-known adaptations are lifelike in that they are episodic, centrifugal, and thus undramatic: The four March girls, who vow as adolescents never to dissolve their sisterly bond, grow up and go their separate ways. Acting as his own librettist, Adamo gives Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy their distinct profiles, but he frames events as a flashback in the mind of Jo, the one most painfully attuned to the passage of time. Casting Jo as a junior Civil War Marschallin, Adamo has lent the narrative a psychological continuity Alcott never thought to provide, and music does the rest. Is Little Women therefore Der Rosenkavalier? Is it Lulu, for that matter? Of course not. The opera was written to order for the young-artists program of the Houston Grand Opera, for fledgling performers who needed a chance to spread their wings. Adamo's sensitive lyricism flattered their voices in ably constructed solos and ensembles that explore a broad spectrum of emotions within the compass of a person who still has much to learn of life. Call the score conventional, but since its premiere in 1998, the quotidian joys and sorrows of Alcott's characters, male and female, have delighted audiences in conservatory and professional productions as far afield as Bruges and Adelaide. The New York City Opera took its version on tour to Japan. After some seventy productions, Little Women shows no sign of going away.
But back to the Grand Poobahs. Short-listed for the Nobel, Robertson Davies is another writer who, like Morrison, perpetrated a libretto late in life, to dispiriting effect. The opera was The Golden Ass, by Randolph Peter, originally presented by the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto, in 1999. Like the bawdy Latin novel of Apuleius, the opera (as yet unrevived) follows the misadventures of the playboy Lucius, who dabbles in necromancy and is transformed into a donkey. Before regaining human form, he endures many trials, which open his eyes to the Way, that great cycle of life and death. An adept of Asian musics, Peters dispensed exotic delights with a lavish hand. Reminiscences of the voluptuary late Richard Strauss mingled with the archaizing of Stravinsky in The Rake's Progress and the nimble flair of Bernstein in Candide. But in the end, the composer's industry and invention were mostly wasted on what added up to an inept pageant. Introduced by a storyteller, the characters had little to do but identify themselves in lengthy arias devoid of plot function. The hero's shenanigans as a donkey, which ought to have been the principal business of the second act, were instead narrated in cursory fashion between a long allegorical ballet and a static apotheosis. Had Davies lived to see the premiere, and had the libretto been anyone else's, one prick of his quill would have sufficed to puncture the balloon.
Forging New Myths
The three major operas of John Adams— Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and Doctor Atomic—were designed to raise recent history to the power of myth. Adams's collaborators on the first two operas were the poet Alice Goodman as librettist and the director Peter Sellars, whose contribution to music-theater in our time has yet to be tallied. What the original audience seemed to expect of Nixon was an operatic answer to Saturday Night Live. Instead they got, and have since embraced, the adventures of an elated, then baffled, latter-day Columbus discovering his New World; here is opera in the classic sense. Klinghoffer, which dealt with the murder of a wheelchair-bound Jewish cruise-ship passenger by Palestinian hijackers, used the chorus in explicit imitation of the Passion oratorios of Bach, though the victim was no messiah; here is opera bordering on oratorio.
Having entered the Anglican priesthood, Goodman made a start on a Doctor Atomic libretto but withdrew, pleading the pressure of spiritual obligations to her flock. Sellars, who inherited the job, stitched his script together from documentary material on the Manhattan Project (all quoted verbatim) and poetry linked in various ways to the historical characters' inner lives. Does it work? Some discerning listeners have found the opera lacking in incident, and have complained that the players sound too much alike, in their words as well as their music.
As it happens, I first saw the Doctor Atomic script in annotated form, with a reference given for every line. In the reading, it seemed to me an ingenious, indeed dazzling montage, an impression that several performances of the opera have since confirmed. Reflection predominates, it is true, and conventional confrontations are few. The heart of the piece is a setting, for the visionary physicist and polymath J. Robert Oppenheimer, of John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV, "Batter my heart." Does it belong there? Absolutely.
Oppenheimer read deeply in the literature of many languages, And Donne is known to have been much on his mind when he was developing the bomb; his code name for the project, Trinity, was a direct allusion to the "three-person'd God" of Donne's poem. All this being so, Doctor Atomic will smack to some of arty radio documentary more than of grand opera. Intrinsically, it addresses the ear rather than the eye. The productions—the Peter Sellars original, first mounted in San Francisco, and the Metropolitan Opera version, by the filmmaker Penny Woolcock—reinforced that bias, concentrating on pictures rather than capitalizing on such opportunities as the material offered to dramatize.
Might an editor have helped? (The Schreker question!) Probably. Had anyone asked, I would have suggested shuffling a few episodes and eliminating one of the pair of splendid settings of poems by Muriel Rukeyser, composed for Kitty, Oppenheimer's wife, who emerges less as a character than a consciousness. But nips and tucks and transpositions would not touch the opera's substance in the least. Dense with historical research, awash in private association, Doctor Atomic has affinities with a new type of opera exemplified by the Philip Glass head trips Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha. Conceived as vast symphonies of theatrical imagery, they make minimal concessions to lifelike drama, whatever that term might mean. Such operas are invitations to speculation. Their appeal is to the philosophical mind.
The Libretto as Reading Material
There is no denying that my eventual assessment of Doctor Atomic was shaped in great part by my first impressions of the libretto. Short of studying a score in depth, as few but professional musicians are equipped to do, there is no better way to prepare for an evening at the opera house than reading the libretto, preferably several times. But other than that, what earthly reason is there to read libretti?
In general, none, unless you happen to be a composer in search of a subject. Yet there are exceptions. Der Rosenkavalier makes delightful reading—so much so that actors have recorded it without music. Wagner's Ring and Meistersinger, too, may be listened to as audio books, each read by a single voice; they serve to remind us that libretti can speak to the brain's left hemisphere, the seat of language. But in the end, opera belongs to the right hemisphere, where we decode music. What would the fascinations of the Doctor Atomic libretto amount to if it hadn't fired the composer's imagination? And this it did. The proof lies not only in the setting of the poetry of Donne and others but in the dismay of an ending that foregoes words in favor of storyboards. Rather than strive to mimic the explosion of the first nuclear device by musical means (and what a surefire anticlimax that would have been), Adams has composed a slow, volcanic countdown to Armageddon. As the lava flow of music congeals, the very spheres seem to be grinding off their cosmic axle. The end is silence. Maybe librettists can imagine such things, but only composers can make them real.