Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Paucity of Words

Recently I had a chance to review the libretto for the Opera Dr. Atomic. I can't say I am impressed. In fact, most of the lyrics sound like pish….

This one for example –

[Voice 1] Well how do you feel?
[Voice 2] Well, pretty excited.

Did the composer just need one more syllable? Even stilted use of a word would be better. (Now? Pretty excited. or I'm pretty excited. or even a verbalization would have sounded more natural - hmm... pretty excited.)

But things get WORSE with this one…

... only my fingers in your hair, only, my eyes splitting the skull to tickle your brain with love ...

You have got to be kidding me! How could you sing a line like this with a straight face? How could you listen to it and not want to burst out laughing?

Or this sparkling example of hackneyed romance:

If you could know all that I see!
all that I feel!
all that I hear in your hair!

Does the character have synesthesia?

These lyrics sound like they were written for a Saturday Night Live sketch that is a parody of Opera. I can just see Will Farrell emoting the hell out of them.

Asking several people why they don't like opera, one of the primary reasons I hear again and again it that it is so fake. Dr Atomic certainly won't reassure the punters on that account. Opera is the whole package - words and music - and a slavish devotion to the music, that raises it above the words in value just leads to this sort of ridiculous clap-trap being pawned off as high art.

I like the music of Dr. Atomic - I just wish I could listen to it without those irritating words. I will never be able to watch a live performance of it, I will end up screaming at the stage - "How could you ever be smart enough to develop the A Bomb.. you can barely string a sentence together!" Librettists have an obligation to do better.

If your character is smart, give them smart words to say.
If your character is witty then write witty lyrics.
If your character is awkward and geeky in love and says he wants to split her skull and tickle her brain - then she'd better damned well giggle at him - she would in real life!

I realize that historically very few librettos are literary works of art, it is not really the nature of the beast. But modern taste has diverged and things now veer towards two ends of the spectrum - gritty realism or high camp. Dr Atomic has a serious subject, and the music certainly fits in the gritty realism category - so why did the libretto go for high camp?

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