As an opera librettist you will labor blissfully at the tip of an inverted pyramid. One that grows to its awesome height, width, depth and weight only well after you – and your composer – have finished working. The singable poetic plays that you contribute to this most collaborative of the lively arts will be as central, and remain as half-buried, as any building’s foundation. If all goes well, your share of the work will attract little attention. But if flaws should appear in the more exposed layers of the structure, then a thorough hunt will begin. Professional and amateur critics alike will dig down below set, lighting and costume design; below singing, acting, stage direction, music-playing, conducting and the score itself. At that point your libretto will get plenty of scrutiny. To be an opera librettist you will have to accept, even thrive on, this strange combination of stealth and accountability.
Let’s say that mix attracts you. What specific skills and personal attributes will you need to acquire and develop? Of course there’s no prescribed list. The field is so off-to-the-side and its practitioners so idiosyncratic that it’s not likely any two librettists go about their craft in the same way. But judging by my own experience working with seven different composers to date, here’s what seems to me to be the right stuff.
In the making of an opera, the words come first, not the music. But before you put word one to paper or screen, you and the composer need to agree on a subject. That choice having been made, you are responsible for coming up with a concept for the work, developing a dramatic premise, then writing – in poetic form – a curious sort of play. One that not only allows but requires a musical setting if it is to be fully realized. What’s wanted is a sturdy lyrical scenario that leaves as much room as possible for the composer, instrumentalists, singers and design team to bring the nascent story to vivid life.
As a case study here, I propose to analyze the development of The Mark of Cain, a chamber opera that received its world premiere at New York City’s Chelsea Opera this past November. The libretto is mine, the music that of composer Matthew Harris.
Matthew and I consulted from the very beginning on the choice of subject. The possibility of a commission was our impetus. A six-member singing group called Western Wind, when seeking a foundation grant in the winter of 2010, invited Matthew to join their application as composer. He in turn asked Jim Schaeffer, director of the Center for Contemporary Opera, to recommend a librettist, which is when I joined the project.
In our first exploratory meeting, before we’d even determined whether or not we were compatible partners, Matthew asked me if I would consider a Biblical subject. By astonishing coincidence, I’d read the fourth chapter of Genesis the night before and so said, “How about Cain and Abel?” He loved the idea. Within a matter of minutes, we’d come very close to agreeing on our subject. (A set of significant refinements would later result in Abel’s being eliminated as a character in the opera.) But a subject is far indeed from a full-blown operatic concept.
Now it was time for me to do a considerable amount of work on my own. It’s generally agreed that novels and plays cannot be written by committee; neither can librettos. I regard my first solo task as the development of a dramatic concept, following an extensive period of research. In this instance I read the relevant sections of the Old Testament and the Koran, many exegetical articles written by theologians and commentators of the Islamic, Jewish and Christian faiths, and numerous works of fiction and poetry. (Lord Byron’s verse drama, Victor Hugo’s poem and Jose Saramago’s novel, all titled Cain, were particularly useful.)
In the process, I had the luck to be referred by a friend to a Hebraic scholar in Woodstock, New York, who led me to a trove of arcane sources. Thanks to her, I learned that in the Jewish Midrash and Mishnah traditions, Cain and Abel were each believed to have had a female twin, by whom the race was to be propagated. And that, by God’s directive, each was to wed not his own but his brother’s twin. The texts claim that Cain disobeyed, choosing to mate with his own twin sister, owing to her superior beauty.
If you are adapting another work of art – as librettist Lorenzo da Ponte did, for example, when he patterned the libretto for Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro on Pierre Beaumarchais’ La Folle Journée ou Le Mariage de Figaro – your research needn’t extend very far beyond the source play. But if your libretto is to be completely or virtually original, then wider research will be called for.
In The Mark of Cain, the account of the burial of Abel’s corpse was inspired by two little-known verses in the Koran. In that account, Allah sends two birds from the skies, within the sight of the man who has just killed his brother. (The text of Chapter 5, Verses 31-32 makes no mention of the names Cain and Abel.) One bird slays the other then scratches out a grave in the earth. And so in my libretto, Cain says to his sister as the Serpent mimes his account:
CAIN: It was the Serpent ... It was the Serpent ...
Moreover, the Jewish Midrash account of Cain, Abel and their twin sisters, referred to earlier, inspired the opera’s concept as much as Genesis did. I would define that concept this way:
The Mark of Cain combines, reshapes and extends several ancient creation myths to show how sexual jealousy and resentment might have caused the world’s first murder to lead to a second such act. Long after Abel has been slain, his twin sister, Zellah, at last tracks Cain to the Land of Nod and wreaks her revenge.
Once you choose a subject, complete your research and develop a basic concept for the opera, you need to formulate what Lajos Egri called, in his seminal book The Art of Dramatic Writing, a premise. This is an armature for your narrative structure, a kind of conceptual through-line that will guide your story arc, inform every scene of the action, and in some way imply the nature of your ending.
In Le Nozze di Figaro the premise might be defined in this way: The sincerity and perseverance of true lovers will vanquish the deceit of a powerful oppressor. (This proves so not just for Figaro and Suzanna in their dealings with Count Almaviva, but for the Countess as well.) And in Don Giovanni, the premise “The heedless pursuit of bodily pleasure will lead to death” unifies the entire opera, from the attempted rape of Donna Anna and the slaying of her father in scene one to the don’s eventual demise in the course of his Act Two encounter with the Commendatore’s ghost.
The premise of The Mark of Cain can be stated simply: “Murder breeds murder.” It’s the premise of the Electra tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides, as well as of the opera of the same name by Richard Strauss. And just as Egisthus and Clytemnestra’s butchering of Agamemnon led to their own death at the hands of Orestes, so Cain’s slaughtering of his innocent brother will fester as an unhealed wound until he is in turn is killed by his own sister.
That premise is clearly embedded in Zellah’s words at the very start of the opera:
ZELLAH: This day, I vow, a lawless man shall die!
And at the end, as Zellah cradles Cain’s corpse, she is confronted by God, who has sworn to punish whoever murders Cain: “Daughter,” He sings, “what have you done?” She answers: “Vengeance am I promised, sevenfold, for daring to defy the Mark of Cain. Yet would I not commit this sin again? What I came to do I have done.” A workable scheme, then, is to announce the premise early, in dramatic and lyrical fashion, to support it throughout your libretto by way of a series of increasingly momentous climaxes, and to justify it above all at the conclusion.
Da Ponte and Mozart did not end their masterpiece with Don Giovanni valiantly refusing to ditch his ‘principles,’ instead accepting a descent into the fires of hell. They ended it with the ensemble of six victim/survivors, Leporello included, encapsulating the work’s premise in a gleefully sung taunt:
ALL: May this scoundrel dwell forever in the depths
That stanza serves nicely as an ironic crystallization of the opera’s premise.
Once you have come up with a subject that you believe will intrigue an
audience, a concept that promises lively narrative momentum, and a premise
that will bind your characters’ actions into an integral and cohesive
whole, you can follow one of two courses: outline your plot arc in whole
or in part, then begin drafting; or simply start writing the story itself
at whatever point attracts you, and let the conflicts, reversals, epiphanies
and crises reveal themselves organically. My own method is always to avoid
a strict outline and instead begin creating singable dialogue as soon
as I have (a) settled upon a specific place and general time frame for
the action, and (b) heard in my mind’s ear what each of the opera’s
main characters most yearns to express.
CHORUS: Cain! Noble Cain! Child of Adam!
In her fury, Zellah declares her intentions. She will force Cain to “unearth a buried sin” and reveal where her brother’s bones lie, then face the justice she feels he has so far escaped. In the process, however, less elevated motivations will surface and complicate her mission.
The central mechanism in the action’s development is Zellah’s ability to shock and cajole her brother into a series of guilt-driven hallucinations. Cain thought he’d put his murderous past far behind him. Yet when this seeming stranger from the West confronts him with the walking staff she carries, he sees that it is the very blood-stained crook he used to murder Abel. Now Zellah’s physical appearance – breasts tightly bound, hair tied back, body draped in shepherd’s garb – stuns Cain out of his decades-long complacency:
CAIN: Abel! ... Years older but surely Abel ...
All librettists, in giving poetic voice to their characters, need to decide whether and where to use meter, rhyme and stanza structure. (This is of course a particular concern in the case of crucial speeches that the composer may choose to set as arias.) Other key matters include: how to pace the drama by way of short versus longer dialogue exchanges ... when to lighten the tone with humor or low-style speech, or heighten it with language rendered in the loftiest registers ... when to indicate the need for critical lighting effects, gestures and movements, in the form of bracketed stage directions. Cain, for example, must lunge at Zellah in rage. Zellah must deal him a body blow with the crook. Several lighting changes must signal a psychic shift for Cain whenever Zellah compels him to travel back in time to revisit the murder and burial of their brother, and again face God and the Serpent.
In drafting my libretto, I chose to create two ‘peasant’ characters not only to advance the action (Zellah, the stranger from afar needs to be escorted to the mighty Cain by two of his subjects), but also to elaborate the exposition and allow for an animating mix of tones, diction levels and poetic styles. The speech of this pair, a farmer and a townsman, is unrhymed, unmetered, comedic in tone and set in a low-style register:
MORADESH: Caleb, which of us shall tell Cain of the stranger in the square?
When Cain later addresses Moradesh, his rhymed iambic pentameters contrast conspicuously, at once dramatizing the difference in the two men’s social rank:
CAIN: What have you come to ask of me? Don’t tarry!
Even when Cain’s speech dispenses with the strictures of prosody, it remains on an elevated level, taking on the lyricism and rhythmic pulse of free verse – as here, where he protests to God:
CAIN: I too have made an offering, oh Lord.
Zellah, too, speaks in the high style, though her singing lines are longer and more sinuous than Cain’s. Also, as can be seen here, she is as likely to deal in spondees and loping dactyls as in iambs:
ZELLAH: You killed an innocent that you might bed his promised wife,
There is a gradation, then, among the speech patterns of the four human characters. Yet God’s pronouncements are pitched at the very highest level of solemnity:
GOD: Let no one fail to fear the Mark of Cain!
And the Serpent’s pleas and exhortations, though similarly exalted, have a distinctly rhetorical feel:
THE SERPENT: Cain, you’ve not the meek soul of your brother,
In addition to varying your individual speech modes, it is important to contrast the swiftly-paced, colloquial diction of a segment like this ...
CAIN: I’ll hide the corpse! Hide it! Hide it!
... with the deliberate, sustained feel of a solo outpouring of emotion:
ZELLAH: Ah Cain, my life was cursed an age ago –
As a librettist, you will be counted on to help singers give fullest and purest expression to their skills. This you do through euphony and the management of elegant rhythms that are seldom used anywhere but in the areas of poetry and song. And at the syllable level, you will work in league with the composer to provide soloists and chorus members alike with singing lines that feature vowels. Especially vowels unchoked by consonant barriers. (To illustrate, the phrase “What Librettists Do” would fail miserably as a song lyric, thanks to the “s-t-s-d” roadblock at its center. A combination permissible in prose, anathema in song.)
It would be foolish to ignore the expressive power of the well-placed consonant: the energy of plosives, dentals and fricatives (“Blood of my blood, yet twice a traitor to me!” ... “Tell me, Lord, tell me!” ... “Avenger, come from afar”); the soothing quality of liquids and sibilants (“ Yes, my long-lost brother.” ... “Like Eve – do as you must! Like Eve – do as you will!” ... “Yet I see the selfsame glimmer in the eye, the slender nose, that smoothness of the cheek.”). But many consonants are unvoiced and designed to stop vocal sound for semantic, non-lyrical purposes. Vowels, on the other hand, are the key conveyors of sound and, especially in the realm of song, offer a far more effective way to express emotion, the essence of opera. They are the great friends of singers and composers and work best when they are set free at the end of sung lines: (“shall die” “could see” “what is true” “from me” “in the dew” ).
Meter, rhyme, euphony, pacing, the management of contrasting dialogue styles – all important technical considerations. And at the more abstract end of the spectrum, the determination of subject, concept and premise, as earlier discussed, are fundamental tasks any librettist must take on. However, the soul of your poetic drama will not reside in the surface qualities of the language you create, nor in overarching elements of structure and plot. It will reside in the strength of your characters. The nature of their goals and desires ... the credibility of their dialogue and behaviors – and, by implication, their thoughts and attitudes ...the way they succeed or fail at displaying their essence when drawn into conflict. To quote theorist Lajos Egri once more, “Character is action.”
Each of your principal characters should be a power keg of desire, a
potentially destructive emotional force, either already in a state of
turmoil at the start of the story or at least capable of combusting under
the right dramatic pressures. The audience must see clearly what it is
that each character wants. Or not just wants but has to have if he or
she is to be happy, to be fulfilled in life, or in extremis, to survive.
If passionate desires in a conflictual context are not there, along with the characters’ strength of will to pursue those desires to the end, then your libretto will fail. And no flights of linguistic lyricism, no profusion of beautiful arias, no wonders of vocal artistry, acting or stagecraft are likely to save you. Nor the composer. Nor the cast, the designers, the entire theatrical enterprise.
To avoid contributing to this sorry fate, you, as a librettist, have due diligence issues to attend to. You must go to as many operas, both old and new, as possible. You must take a serious attitude toward learning the craft from mentors, teachers, books, scores and the published librettos of your predecessors and contemporaries. You must seek out commissions, grants, conferences, workshops, contests and residencies. You must woo composers, stage directors, producers who might take on or advance your projects. You must be humble enough to make well-considered changes that composers or singers require, plus proud and self-confident enough to stand behind those textual choices that you know are right.
Above all, you must live. Mozart’s da Ponte is again the model here. He was a Jew and a fervent Christian, a seminarian and a serial seducer, a hard worker and a spendthrift, a New York City shop owner, a literature professor at Columbia University, a scoundrel more than once wanted for fraud. Naturally he could write the librettos for Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro, Cosi Fan Tutte and so many other operas. He knew sanctuaries, bedrooms, royal courts, classrooms, the road. He lived.