How to become a librettist, by Stephen Plaice

The Guardian: Tuesday 24 February 2015 16.30 GMT Last modified on Tuesday 14 February 2017 18.45 GMT

What is the librettist’s role in opera? The job is much more than creating the words to go with the music. Usually, the librettist produces the substantive ideas that inspire the composition, including the dramatic structure, characters and scenario of the opera. This role was obscured at the end of the 19th century when, post-Wagner, opera houses and audiences began to see the musical drama as the sole product of the composer’s imagination.

The status of the librettist declined and the role was largely picked up by those who had little experience in the medium and scant knowledge of opera dramaturgy. Whereas until the end of the 19th century there were writers practiced in the art of libretto writing and thoroughly schooled in the repertoire, in the 20th century, it was left in the hands of dilettantes.

There were some notable exceptions: WH Auden, for example, who knew and loved opera and understood how distinct libretto was from poetry. Benjamin Britten – because he had such a great understanding of musical dramatic structure – was very discerning in his choice of librettists, even if he didn’t always remain loyal to them. Aspiring librettists should acquaint themselves with Britten’s work if they want to understand modern operatic storytelling.

In the 21st century there are signs that the status of the librettist is being revalued, and that a generation of writers is emerging with a renewed understanding of the dramatic requirements of the genre. But how does one become a librettist today?

Where to start

Opera is experiencing a fringe explosion, both in Europe and the US. Always a medium slow to embrace change, opera now has its own counterculture, 50 years after the advent of the fringe in straight theatre. In the past 10 years, new companies have sprung up like topsy.

Once you have found a like-minded composer and developed a treatment together, try to identify a company you might approach with the idea. This means going to see their work first. Don’t submit on spec.

Opera is very collegiate. Go to open-workshop performances, like those run by Mahogany Opera Group, and join in the post-show discussions. You need to make these connections. The Tête à Tête Festival, held annually in London, commissions and showcases new work, and genuinely fosters first-time writers and composers.

Don’t get too depressed in the first stage and orchestra rehearsal, when you hear your favourite line has disappeared

Enlightened opera house education departments and music academies occasionally offer short courses – such as the Jerwood opera-writing course run by Aldeburgh Music every four years – which pair up composers new to opera with writers keen to explore the genre. Now the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, in conjunction with the Royal Opera House, is offering a one-year intensive MA within which the students are similarly paired to create a chamber opera for public performance. The course follows, as closely as possible, a professional production process, from page to stage, and encounters all the difficulties inherent in the process.

Poetic, but not poetry

If you try to read librettos as poems or plays you will be disappointed. They will appear thin and often prosaic. They are not intended to stand alone as works or art; they have to be seen in the context they serve. A skilled librettist will know how to leave space for the music to flourish. To see how libretto works, you should see and hear as much repertoire as you can. Opera has traditions that must be understood before you can break the mould.

Brevity is to be cultivated wherever possible. “How wordy you are … use few words … few, few but significant,” Giuseppe Verdi wrote to his librettist Francesco Maria Piave. It is a plea almost every opera composer will recognise. Nothing will demotivate a composer more than a 100-page script dropping into his or her inbox. Successful librettists must learn to edit themselves ruthlessly and always serve the development of the character and the story. In short: deploy wit, not alliteration.

I’m often asked: should text always be comprehensible to the audience in opera? Some composers use text simply as the catalyst for composition, but most take care to make text comprehensible. Like so many other aspects of opera, text combined with music involves compromise. Don’t get too depressed in the first stage and orchestra rehearsal when you hear your favourite line has disappeared behind the blare of the brass section.

Use few words … few but significant - Giuseppe Verdi

Another frequently asked question is whether a librettist is involved in the production process itself. Opera houses encompass huge endeavour, so learn how the house works and what jobs people do in it. You may be one of the creatives, but to everyone else you are another cog in the machine. In early rehearsals, you need to be on hand to clarify the intention of your characters and plot – even mundane things like pronunciation. Singers and directors are very grateful for this.

Opera is a cruel medium for composers and writers because you have to get it right so far in advance. Once everything has been set and orchestrated, very little can be changed. Come dress rehearsal, dead librettists are vastly preferred to living ones who have just spotted a line they would like to change.

But when you and the production get it right – when your words are sung and your scenes and characters engage an audience and move them to tears and laughter – it’s the most exhilarating experience a dramatist can enjoy.

Stephen Plaice is writer-in-residence at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Join our community of arts, culture and creative professionals by signing up free to the Guardian Culture Pros Network.

Donec id justo non metus auctor commodo ut quis enim. Mauris fringilla dolor vel condimentum imperdiet.
— Hope K.

 

 

Another frequently asked question is whether a librettist is involved in the production process itself. Opera houses encompass huge endeavour, so learn how the house works and what jobs people do in it. You may be one of the creatives, but to everyone else you are another cog in the machine. In early rehearsals, you need to be on hand to clarify the intention of your characters and plot – even mundane things like pronunciation. Singers and directors are very grateful for this.

Opera is a cruel medium for composers and writers because you have to get it right so far in advance. Once everything has been set and orchestrated, very little can be changed. Come dress rehearsal, dead librettists are vastly preferred to living ones who have just spotted a line they would like to change.

But when you and the production get it right – when your words are sung and your scenes and characters engage an audience and move them to tears and laughter – it’s the most exhilarating experience a dramatist can enjoy.

Stephen Plaice is writer-in-residence at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Join our community of arts, culture and creative professionals by signing up free to the Guardian Culture Pros Network.