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Refining the Dramatic Rhythm
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Opera America Magazine4/1/2009

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In an interview for Opera Canada, author and librettist Margaret Atwood likened the writing of a libretto to the construction of a coat-hanger: “If it’s a bad coat-hanger, that will be unfortunate, but if it’s a good coat-hanger, nobody will notice it.”

Is it possible for librettists to assess the sturdiness of their creation before entrusting the extravagant weight of an opera score to its delicate structure? Can words meant for music be evaluated in the absence of that essential element?

The Libretto Reading Series at Brooklyn’s American Opera Projects attempts to do just that, giving artists opportunity to hear a work read aloud and then discuss its structure, characters, themes and pacing. “While obviously spoken theater and opera are two very different art forms, you can look at the dramatic rhythm in a particular way, figuring out where the important beats are before the composer spends months writing music,” says Ned Canty, who is director of the series. “It is useful for a composer to think about beats from a performance perspective, to make sense of where you need a big shift in emotion, to see the amount of time an actor needs to get from one beat to the next.”

The process is fairly straightforward: a group of actors rehearses the libretto — ideally before any music has been written — then reads it as if it were a play. “I encourage the composer and librettist not to come on the first day of rehearsals,” says Canty. “That allows everyone to read through once, to ask the silly questions, to speak openly about the problems and get that out of the way.”

Composer and librettist typically do attend the later rehearsals, and that time can be even more revealing than the reading itself. “It allows them to hear from actors who are used to thinking about character and asking questions about motivation. Usually we have some time where a composer can interact and ask for things to be read differently. If, for instance, he had imagined a scene faster or angrier, we can do it that way. It also allows composers to hear different voices, to hear a line read in a way that might not immediately occur to them.”

The company tends to use actors, rather than singers, for several reasons. “There are so few new operas that the experience of working on a new opera is something most singers don’t have. On the other hand, there are hundreds if not thousands of new plays, and actors are always workshopping them. Actors also tend to be more confrontational. They don’t just ask, ‘What do you want me to do?’ but ‘Why would I do that?’ They are possessive of roles in a way that a singer often is not.”

The use of actors also helps avoid assumptions — on the part of creators, performers or producers — at an early stage of the process. “There is no chance we are going to start seeing them in this role,” says Canty. “They’re not there to audition. It keeps things simple.”

Stefan Weisman first worked with American Opera Projects as part of its Composers and the Voice program, and then went on to be commissioned, with librettist Anna Rabinowitz, for his first opera, Darkling (2006). Weisman benefited from a libretto reading prior to writing music for his latest opera, Fade, with a libretto by David Cote. Fade was commissioned by London’s Second Movement to form a triple-bill with Samuel Barber’s A Hand of Bridge and Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti.

“It was very nerve-racking for me,” says Cote, who has worked in the theater for many years as a critic, playwright and actor. “I was convinced that the libretto was going to sound terrible. It was not written to be performed without music. But the reading was incredibly important to find out if my text worked as drama, if it had consistency and internal logic. Without the development process, Fade would have been a much weaker piece.”

“When we were given an opportunity to have actors play those parts, it was eye-opening,” says Weisman. “We discovered all kinds of things we needed to revise and clarify. The actors were able to tell us when things felt awkward, or when they were moving too quickly. One actress in particular had a very distinctive voice, and it was inspiring to hear her speak the words before setting them to music.”

“Stefan and I showed up in the morning and the actors asked some very pointed stylistic questions, like ‘How Pinter-esque is this supposed to be?’” says Cote. “Certainly I’m a huge fan and Pinter informed part of what I was doing — as did Albee and others — but no one wants to be derivative.”

While some changes were minor, others involved altering the structure of the piece, says Weisman. “It originally started with a long solo aria, but we realized it needed a different introduction. We found that people in the audience had questions about things we had thought were pretty clear. We were able to insert lines to clarify information and relationships.”

Audience members also asked for clarification regarding the workings of the “green” house in which the story takes place. A power failure is central to the plot, but wouldn’t such a house have a generator for emergencies? “It made me do a bit more research about the house and how it could fail,” says Cote. “You have to do all that backstory work. You have to know every inch of the house, even if you don’t use it in the piece.”

Perhaps the toughest part of the process for creators is sifting through criticism and deciding what is relevant to their goals: “There is an element of satire in the piece,” says Cote. “While we were really careful not to make these ridiculous stereotypes, one audience member implied our portrait was naïve and condescending. I took that into consideration; you want the characters to be as complex as possible. But you also don’t want to take out all the satire or humor just to protect someone’s feelings.”

In a time when fewer new operas are being produced, such opportunities for librettists to hone their skills are more important than ever. “In the golden age of Italian opera, there were professional librettists — this is what they did,” says Canty. “Today we have just a handful of people who are writing a lot of libretti. In general that mentality of taking a 49 percent share in the creative process, that willingness to collaborate, to edit and re-edit — these things do not come as naturally to playwrights and poets. We are trying to help recover that skill set. Giocosa and Illica sliced a whole act of Bohème because it just wasn’t working. You have to have that kind of ruthlessness. And it’s best and most cost-effective if it can happen before the composer has written music.”
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