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!