News Flash: Opera Plots are Terrible

Or so says Ian McEwan. Well he is right. And wrong. Opera has a long tradition of pulling stories from literature, including folk tales and the oral tradition. This means the plots are varied and uneven with fantastical elements that can beggar belief. (Ever read the original story of Cinderella? Brutal!) Add to this the fact that the composer and librettist are often speaking two different languages and the recipe for plot disaster is created. The legendary exploits of composers slashing the libretto to fit the music are numerous, as are the battle of wills between the artist of the written word and the master of the musical notes.

Where I think the problem comes in is when one element or the other assumes superiority - when story and music are at war, one element will lose out and that is most often the story.

So how do Chip and I solve this power struggle to ensure that our collaborations produce end products that have both exquisite music and exciting and engrossing story? Rather the same way we approach our marriage - as a partnership - hard won by compromise, communication and collaboration!

Chip and I have the benefit of a shared musical knowledge - I am also a composer. We also share a love of words - I am a novelist, Chip is a poet. At the beginning of a new project, we bandy ideas about for a story, hashing out the main plot and themes. I will then write a one page 'treatment' similar to that used for a film pitch. Chip then uses this treatment to create musical themes and motives - which the two of us will then hash over keeping this, changing that, adding a bit until we both feel we have a musical landscape we can work in. From that point the real writing begins. Chip and I are both comfortable working with outlines, so firstly I will create the story arc and Chip will create a musical sketch to match. From there, we have the bones of our opera and we can begin to put flesh upon them.

Working this intensively close can lead to argument and passionate outbursts, but in the end we create a Yin/Yan kind of opera where the music serves the text, and the text serves the music. Many times we forget who had which idea, or who created what, but that really doesn't matter. What matters is the story - words spoken and thoughts intoned - what matters is the opera!


Chip said…
It feels a bit odd to be commenting on a blog I submit to, but this bit is worthy of a comment from the other half of the duo.

The opera "It Must Be Fate" has a number of elements where the marriage of music and text is closer than I think it would have been if one element reigned supreme. As we argued over which direction an element should take (whether it was text or music) there would be points of view that would become illuminated, ideas that would surface which one or the other (or both) had not thought of previously. It's this discovery process that can then be incorporated into both elements which make our work more cohesive and more rich in terms of depth of emotion.

Many of the people working on the project have commented how much they are enjoying discovering bits in the emotional journey of our opera that are not typical (particularly in a first work). While the performance next Wednesday is only a work-in-progress, I am excited to hear the audience's reaction to a first hearing.

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