New Opera - a Writer's Perspective

Following up on Chip's post about this Anthony Tommasini article, I would like to weigh in on the text of a new opera. As an art form opera has achieved a mythic reputation, shrouded in the aura of the 'Great Repertoire' and fraught with pitfalls for the daring new writer. Writing for the operatic stage today is similar to the pursuit of the 'Great American Novel', a literate version of tilting at windmills.

In my approach to writing It Must Be Fate I am endeavoring to remember Me Tommasini's admonition:

Could it not be argued that the epic comes out of the personal?
So I am concentrating on the individuals and what exactly makes their story worth the telling. If each character's storyline is compelling, demanding the audience's attention and empathy, then the music will have space for the epic expression that is so much a part of opera.

But more than simple plot, or character arc, I am concerned with why these characters must sing. If what they express could be complete as spoken text, then why not write a play or screenplay? The emotions of my characters must demand the music, must need the notes as we need air. I have known people who move through life as if they have an inaudible soundtrack propelling them; they move gracefully, they speak musically. It is this nature that I hope to imbue my characters with.

To rhyme or not to rhyme? Everyone has an opinion on this, and for many people it is a iron-clad clause - opera librettos must rhyme. Period. End of discussion. I don't necessarily think so. Rhyme has a place - it can contribute to understanding, create a framework, and highlight dramatic or comedic thrust. Rhyme can also sound stilted, old fashioned and inflexible. Worse, it can become an exercise in wittiness that does not serve the story. I think rhyme is a tool to be used in a libretto for emphasis, comedy, pathos or clarity, but there is no reason that the entire libretto must be in rhyme.

I am working on providing my characters with natural speech rhythms and dialogue exchanges. It is important that the characters come off as being real, and modern, and vital. I am lucky that my composer lives in the same house as myself and is open to ideas. This gives us the opportunity to write up a scene in more than one way - to try different musical and linguistic approaches and to settle upon the words and sounds that seem most natural to our characters.

As the work goes on we learn more of each others style and the invention process and it becomes easier to let our characters 'speak'. The end goal is an opera where the words and music combine into a seamless tapestry and the emotions of the story come to the fore with power and transcendence!


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