Colorado Poets Center E-Words Issue #2

Two Poets Writing for Opera

Two Colorado Poets, David Mason and Bill Tremblay, have been writing libretto for operas. We interviewed them, asking the same questions of each, and report their responses here.

David Mason: “The Scarlet Letter”

1. How did this come about?

This particular project came about because I was paid to do it. My friend, the composer Lori Laitman, was asked by singer Robert Holden to write an opera. Lori, who lives outside Washington D. C., had set a lot of poetry and was already very highly regarded for her art songs and song cycles. She had worked with Dana Gioia quite a bit, but he was occupied running the NEA, so she turned to me and I jumped at the chance.

I have always loved opera, though I’m no expert on it. I used to listen to the Texaco Opera program on Saturday afternoons back when I was a manual laborer, and was moved by the mixing of drama and music. I had no idea that most libretti read like the scribbling of a sentimental child – the music made it so gorgeous.

Anyway, we cast about for a story and rather suddenly lit on Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Lori discovered that it had been done as opera about a century ago – not very successfully. We’ve since learned that other people are at work on versions of the book, but I think ours will stand out from the crowd. Rob found the grant money and we were off. When I re-read the novel, it seemed to fall with ease into six major scenes, perhaps two acts. I could see immediately where the choruses would be, how the three major singing parts would be played, smaller parts for some elders, the little girl, and even a witch. Alfred Kazan once wrote an article asking why no one had made an opera of The Scarlet Letter. It’s perfect. Well, now it has been done more than once.

2. What made you want to write a libretto?

As I say, I used to listen to opera with pleasure, if not much knowledge or sophistication. In my thirties, I wrote a dissertation on W. H. Auden and became quite familiar with his operatic collaborations from Paul Bunyan to The Bassarids. Auden gives good advice about writing for music in some of his essays. Still I think he exaggerated a bit: “The job of the librettist is to furnish the composer with a plot, characters and words: of these, the least important, so far as the audience is concerned, are the words.”

My friend John Frederick Nims and I used to argue about poetry set to music. John insisting rightly that the words usually get lost, I responding that there was still something worth listening to, even if you caught only a small percentage of the lines. Lori is a composer who likes to respond to the words – she’s particularly sensitive to their sounds and their pacing. As I wrote, I was careful to use singable phrasings, to avoid showing off too much as a poet, but I think I still managed to make something lyrical and dramatic. I think my libretto actually makes good reading on the page, good listening.

Why did I want to do it? I’ve always written narrative and dramatic poetry; this seemed a natural extension of those concerns. This story afforded me a chance to explore American culture as I have done in other books, The Country I Remember and Ludlow, and to say something about religion in public life, public and private struggles with moral choices – that sort of thing.

3. What did you find out in the process of writing this?

Writing this libretto was a dream. As I say, the shape of the scenes was clear to me from the start, and since I had the characters and the basic dramatic tension handed to me by Mr. Hawthorne, I could focus on the language of the verses. I did write in metered verse much of the time, sometimes with rhyme though not always patterned rhyme, sometimes varying to free verse when it seemed to suit my purpose.

The greatest pleasure comes when Lori composes her music, using my words for inspiration. She calls me up and sings my words to me while she plays this stunning music on her piano. Poets are just not used to this sort of thing – talk about instant gratification! And it’s wonderful that opera can offer different kinds of opportunity for the poet. We have generally avoided recitative – the dull part of classical opera – for a more richly melodic and dramatic technique. I have written arias – a lullaby and a witch’s song among them – that will stand alone as set pieces, performance pieces, so the opera may have many lives.

4. What difficulties or freedoms exist when there’s a pre-existing narrative?

Many operas like ours are based upon pre-existing literary works. I found it rather liberating not to have to dream up the story, rather challenging to decide what to keep of the original, what to toss. In the end, I was able to get a surprising amount of Hawthorne’s tale condensed in my libretto, though I may have put my own stamp on some elements – the placement of the story in time, the echoes of our present dealings with hypocrisy in public life, etc.

5. What’s going to happen to the finished work?

As Lori nears completion of her score, she plans to devote a lot of time and study to the orchestration of it. We have thought that the opera will premiere in Arkansas (where Rob Holden lives) in the fall of 2008. We can’t be entirely sure about the timing of it, but Rob gets the premiere whenever he wants it. A couple of scenes will be performed this coming June at the West Chester Poetry Conference in Pennsylvania. And since Lori’s getting such a huge reputation as a composer, we’re confident we’ll have other productions in various parts of the country. This has really been one of the most delightful and rewarding projects of my writing life, something I never expected I would attempt. I am overjoyed by the results.

Bill Tremblay: “Salem”

1. How did it come about?

I got a call from a guy I’d never met, John Hudetz, asking me for a meeting at an Old Town coffee house about a project he thought I’d be interested in. When we met he told me that his son, Previn [yes, named for French composer Andre Previn] was working on an opera. Previn, he said, was an award-winning composer, but he had no experience and little confidence in writing words. Since both had read my novel, The June Rise, and both liked the even-handed way I dealt with historical material concerning the interface between white settlers and native Americans in this area, they decided to approach me with essentially a love story set in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, during the infamous “witch trials.” I was intrigued enough to agree to meet with Previn himself.

When I met with Previn, I found him to be a genial spirit, full of idealism and positive creative energy. He sketched an outline of a story. It seemed based on his own research; it owed little or nothing to Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” or to Robert Ward’s 1962 Pulitzer Prize-winning opera based on Miller’s drama.

As I worked to write the “recitative” fleshing out the drama, what I realized immediately was that Previn wanted a happy ending. That was our first topic of discussion at our next meeting. He explained that he wanted the audience to rise out of their seats with a positive feeling, humming his music as they filed out of the theatre. I tried to impress upon him that the Salem witch trials left many women and a few men dead. How was he going to turn that into a cause for joy? He agreed that the ending had to be credible. So we went on a basis of a realistic ending, and Previn began moving toward the music of the tragic ending.

I realized that the opera had begun in some of the sacred music Previn was writing. He had at least two hymns and a rousing chorus of “Salem Town” to begin with and some preliminary sketches for a singing contest centered on “Valentine’s Day.” Attracted to the creative potential of a new collaboration with an obviously very gifted young composer, I sat down with my Final Draft application which I’d been using to write screenplays with and within a few months had a version of what amounted to a stage-play.

2. What made you want to write a libretto?

Writing “Salem” was right down the new alley I’d been exploring for a couple of years as I moved into full retirement after 33 years as a professor of poetry and poetics at Colorado State University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing. Writing a screenplay and writing a libretto were not that different as forms, and I could use the knowledge I’d gained from my mentor, Mark Medoff [famous for “Children of A Lesser God”]. As well, I had taken Robert McKee’s “Story Structure” seminar at UNLV and David S. Freeman’s “Beyond Structure” lectures at Universal Studios. My only experience with opera was as an opera-goer; my wife Cynthia and I had seen perhaps a dozen productions by Opera Fort Collins at the Lincoln Center.

3. What did you find out in the process of writing this?

The general story-line wasn’t that hard to work into a libretto; but it was the actual language, the arias, the duets, the choruses, that made for such a wonderful sharing. Previn and I would sit at the piano; he would play the music he had been working on, I learned that as long as I could gather the rhythm or cadence he was working with, usually in four-bar units, then I could fashion the words together into musical phrasings so that it didn’t matter whether the arias were rhymed or not, though often I could write in a rhymed fashion. He would explain to me his diction choices. He would use a word like “boat” rather than my word “ship” because, he said, “boat” is an easier word for a baritone to sing; it was a deeper vowel, easier to vocalize. The light went on in my head.

Ideas came. Some of them stuck, like having Nathaniel Hawthorne come on-stage to deliver a spoken “prologue.” Others like an entire sub-plot involving Giles Corey’s murder of his wife, Martha, simply wouldn’t fit within the 2 hour time-limit we set ourselves.

Basic principles, such as having open, honest, and clear communications between composer and librettist applied in this case. I began to take the dialogues and transform them into recitatives and arias very similar in tone and imagery to poems. Previn liked the density of the language, the texture. He told me he would never have been able to write such lyrics. Sometimes he changed musical notations to accommodate my words.

At the same time, the larger framework was narrative. It was like working on a sequence [rather than a series] of poems that cohered around the love story and the “character arc” of Margaret Scott, a pretty young woman, new to Salem, who goes from a rather shy, withdrawn person through a process of identifying with Bridget Bishop, the fiercely independent owner of a tavern, to finding the courage to confront the entire townsfolk of Salem when they hang Bridget Bishop as a witch for reasons so unjust as to seem insane.

It was like writing a screenplay made out of poems. Sometimes I did not like having my words changed, but I realized that Previn’s choices were coming from his youthful idealism while I was thinking in Hawthorne-like gloom. I got over it. And we pressed on.

4. What difficulties of freedoms exist when there’s a pre-existing narrative?

When I thought of such operas as “Carmen” or “Pagliacci”, I could see there is a certain format to operas: there is a village square, there are dozens of people, the chorus, singing these songs within which the drama between the main characters unfolds, scenes where the lovers sing duets, scenes where the villains hatch plots. And what I realized was that “Salem” had all those things, only in a Puritan context and in a contemporary subtext, i.e. that the way in which the witch-hunt grows in intensity and violence shows a pattern that community leaders have used and abused in order to execute a “tyranny of the majority,” which is a terrible thing and which the framers of the US Constitution tried to forestall through various provisions in The Bill of Rights. What Previn and I tried to do was to keep focus on the love story yet the theme of religious intolerance was there in the very nature of the historical events we set out to portray.

5. What is going to happen to finish the opera?

First of all, it won’t be “finished” until we have gone through rehearsals and made the necessary revisions. But beyond that, Previn has entered “Salem” into the New York Opera Company’s VOX Competition. If our opera is deemed worthy, portions of it will be performed in New York before what amounts to a booking convention audience made up of artistic directors from all the major opera companies in the US. We hope, then, that the opera will be picked up and given its premier. Beyond that, who knows? We’re allowed to have big dreams, aren’t we?