Poets, Poetry and Librettos

by Barry Drogin

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I started in American musical theatre. In high school I wrote (music, words and book) a very bad Rodger and Hammerstein musical, called "Backstage," which was cast but luckily never proceeded past a couple of rehearsals. A one-act play, "Fast Food," was produced in college and had a single song (accompanied by piano on tape). I never finished the second act of my two act musical, "We Did It For the Kids," but I did write incidental music for a couple of shows: a jazz-age "Twelfth Night" and a Russian-influenced "The Good Doctor." When I graduated from college, I was working on "A," which resulted in a suite of "theatre art songs." The "Twelfth Night" used Shakespeare lyrics, but all the rest used original, rhymed lyrics that I wrote myself.

I was introduced to my first (and so far, only) librettist by Virgil Thomson. The man had written a 30-page dramatic poem, and it was a great thrill to be handed such a work whole hog. Of course, it needed editing, revision, elision, etc., but as I started to work on it, I found the librettist uncooperative (it's possible his personal life was a little too busy at the time). I started adding dummy lines or words where I needed it for musical purposes, all the time asking for lines from him. I found myself working very fast, and when I was two-thirds through the work, he issued an ultimatum --- go back to the original or forget it. Instead, I purchased the rights to my "adaptation" flat out (using a lawyer), and proceeded through five or six more drafts before completion. At least a third of the final version is lines from the original poem. I'm satisfied with the result.

Since then, I've set poets' works to music, but have never found one capable of a libretto. I've found that a commonality of poets is their ego; since they get almost no compensation for their work, it's all they have left. And they know that an opera is attributed to the composer (even "Mahagonny" is billed by the Met as "Weill's Mahagonny" with Bertolt Brecht down at line 6 as librettist; similarly with "Rake's Progress") and will not make a poet's reputation.

I have never considered myself a poet, although my father and grandfather were both poets, and I have dabbled in comic lyric writing with some success. Nevertheless, I did write, in a couple of bull sessions, the libretto to my second opera, continuing then to revise freely as I compose. I have sought others to revise and/or totally rewrite, but found no takers. What I want is an effective piece with words that don't sound trite --- I don't know if I'm qualified to make that judgement myself.

Poets are concise, but poetic language creates its own world in terms of the opera's sense of reality, and will give the audience, who are struggling to understand the words anyway, another layer to penetrate.

A poet who considers every word that emerges from his pen to be "poetry" has concerns that are quite other to drama, character and other theatrical priorities. Even free verse poetry pays attention to alliteration, meter (although with more of a swing), and then there's word painting and so on.

There are a handful of poets nowadays who are interested in the sound of poetry as it is read and performed, kind of a throwback to Gertrude Stein and dada. I was at an excellent performance at the Kitchen by Edwin Torres and Emily XYZ, curators of a series called "Texty the Clown." Both are collaborating with drummers, but I found that the more musical the attempt, the weaker the piece.

I have set poetry, which is quite different from creating an opera, and I personally feel it is a rape of the text. A form which, on the page, can be scanned, read silently or read aloud is fixed by the composer with a particular interpretation, and the poetry is in many ways "violated". Not that the poets aren't thrilled for the attention and the interpretation, but not a one is interested in not also having their poem published in its original form, which is its original intention. Of course, there are some composers who think they are so simpatico with the poet that a mutual interest is served, but it is a rare poet who thinks so (not that there aren't nuts out there --- I met a poet who wanted choreographers to dance to his words).

A poet who writes a libretto may want to take portions of the final product and turn it BACK into a poem (or set of poems), but otherwise, the work is "lost", know what I mean? It's kind of like writing a score and having someone use it in a poster --- you still want it back and want it performed in its original form.

My statements about the "rape" and "violation" of the text are independent of the success of the resulting song cycle as a song cycle (qua?). The settings do work for the audience, but I feel the poetry is being "used" in a way that restricts its original intent. Similarly, a film of a theatre piece imposes the film director's interpretation of the piece in a way that a theatre director cannot, by forcibly leaving actors out of shots, focusing attention on a speaker or a visual detail, and other affectual aspects of the media itself. I guess setting poetry transmutes the poetry into a collaborative mode that both enhances and restricts the "original intention".

Admittedly, I am ignoring the "extra-musical" focus, as well as our own musical intentions in composing. We want the poetry to fit the drama, the structure, and so on, but this is also a requirement of our music. And yet, we are composers, not just rearrangers of sound effects, and so we also have "musical" concerns that preoccupy us. I am merely pointing out that poets, also, have a "poetic" agenda, and if we start adding words, syllables, phrases, etc., we may be destroying a poetic integrity that we didn't know was there, and so the poet complains (just as we would if a librettist started adding notes to our music in order to add an adjective).

Certainly there have been and will be poets attuned to the needs of opera. Harvey Weinstein, who has done such excellent work with William Bolcom, and collaborated with others, too (I believe I heard a wonderful cycle by William Schimmel), is a prime example. But I think I am still correct in believing that these poets do not earn reputations as poets from their opera work. If Brecht had not written "Mother Courage" and "Caucasian Chalk Circle", if W.H.Auden had only written "The Rake's Progress" (assuming he had written it), opera lovers would know their names but poets and theatre people would not be including them in their histories. For that matter, one could easily write a history of classical music without Bizet, Puccini or even Verdi, but not a history of opera. To be a great composer of vocal music, and of opera, is not necessarily to be a great chamber music or symphony composer, and vice versa. We are specialists.

Most composers are not opera composers, and most poets are not librettists, but all exist. What the composer, poet, librettist, etc. does need is years of trying, years of working at his/her craft, with some validation, usually through performance, publication, favorable criticism, box office, and so on. I think we are all trying to make some original contribution to the field --- otherwise, we'd be focused on creating faux Puccini or Verdi (as some amateurs and students may be). It's my general feeling that to make such an original contribution takes about ten years of trying (this is why I am usually very suspicious of someone in their twenties claiming to be working in jazz/classical fusion or some such). Thus a composer, who has been participating in composition for many years, has doubts in his/her ability to write a first libretto that isn't stale, old-fashioned, regurgitated, trite, dramatically wrong-headed, and so on.

The real questions are:
1. Whether to try, which means embarking down a road that may take years; and
2. Whether one has the talent and insight in the first place to consider even trying.

Personally, as someone who took the first steps down that road in 1973 or thereabouts, and has seen some validation since, my major problem, and a major reason I still consider using collaborators, is my difficulty with the process of libretto writing itself. I simply do not enjoy sitting down with a blank piece of paper and writing dialog as I do writing music (or perhaps I should say my distaste is greater, and compulsion weaker, for writing dialog than for writing music).

If you feel, for whatever reason, that you can't write your own libretto, I have some advice: money talks. If you go to a poet with a proposal to pay them, flat out, for a first draft of a libretto on a topic and structure of your choosing, you may get some takers. Make sure it's a "work-for-hire" and you end up with all rights --- use a lawyer. The poet you'll get relatively cheap; the lawyer will be a third of your cost.

If you don't specifically set up a written agreement in advance, the courts may easily interpret your work as a "collaboration", which means both parties have rights in the work. Just as you can take a poet's words and get another librettist (or yourself) involved in completing the work, so can the poet take your music and get another composer involved in completing the work. Also, the poet can grant performance rights independent of you or your publisher's desires. Also, all profits will be assumed 50/50, so if you complete it by yourself or with someone else, the poet gets his 50% share and you split the rest. Otherwise, you could end up with a very unsuccessful law suit on your hands.

An alternative route to this whole mess has been a developing interest in "found object" librettos, based on the actual writings of real people. These "biographical" pieces have been very satisfying, and very successful with audiences. Since the "character" has actually used the words in the real world, the audience cannot sit in judgement of the lyric art --- they approach the libretto from a different vantage point. If the words are trite, the character is trite. If the words get poetic, that's in character. The trick is to find a dramatic monologist whose words lend themselves to a musical presentation. "Alamo!" is taken from the paranoid pamphlets of a religious cult leader. There's a chilling final plea by Dr. Karl Brandt at the Nuremberg trials that I am considering for similar treatment (It's mine! It's mine!). And there's an out-of-print book by a fellow who killed his wife that I have some designs on. I'd also include in this category the oratorio (in Hebrew) from Exodus that I have score and sketches of.

So there are ways to "write" a libretto without actually having to write it. Adapting plays and books, or even public domain librettos of forgotten operas, is a possibility, too, especially if you attempt your own translation, or commission one.

If you're going to go the "found object" route, but are unsure of yourself, hire a dramaturg for help with script revision. They're certainly more qualified than poets. A poet may be totally uninterested in found object writing, and they certainly won't want any credit, so I wouldn't recommend a collaborative relationship for that kind of thing. A director or even playwright may be of use, too. But again, make sure there is a written agreement in place: think of Jonathan Larson's estate and "Rent."

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Last Updated: August 4, 2007