Libretti Writ Large

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The Libretto

Definition
Libretto as Art (with Brief History)
Names to Know

DEFINITION

     A libretto (literally a “little book”) is the text of an opera, oratorio, or musical drama, generally containing a synopsis of scenes, cast list, stage directions, and poetic lines to be sung or versi virgolati (unsung text) to be performed. It may be original, but it’s usually based upon drama (ballets or plays), literary fiction (short stories or novels), or poetry (mostly extended cycles). The libretti resulting from adaptations are highly condensed, emotionally exaggerated versions of the originals, allowing for further enhancement of themes through musical settings of the text by a composer. A libretto is written with enhancement in mind; it is not a “completed” form of art since all finalizations of its content are not possible until music and stagecraft have been added which embellish the most emotionally and visually evocative moments of the text.

    There are roughly six sub-genres of the libretto: the Broadway opera libretto (or “poperetta” libretto), the musical comedy libretto, the musical drama libretto, the opera libretto (itself divided into ballad opera, opera seria, opera buffa, and grand opera), the operetta libretto (“new” and “traditional” mini-operas), the play-with-music libretto, and the revue libretto. The play-with-music libretto and the revue libretto are contrary extremes, the former being a verse play not intended to be sung and the latter being a series of songs with no plot (the idea is to link tunes loosely by emotion rather than strictly by narrative). Musical comedy and musical drama libretti are story-bound scripts which use short, choppy rhythmic speech or elongated vowel constructions with frequent extended pauses to conjure their respective emotions (humor and intensity); they feature prose dialogue alternating with verse arias.

    The opera libretto is a narrative-heavy text that is meant to be sung in its entirety, featuring recitative (dialogue to be sung between arias) and an exploration of the “grand” emotions (e.g., love, hate, jealousy, loyalty, etc.); the contemporary answer to the opera libretto is the Broadway opera libretto, which uses contemporary diction and rock-and-roll rhythms to evoke its emotions rather than the traditional verse forms of most opera libretti. Less common now than in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is the operetta (literally “little opera”) libretto, dealing with highly convoluted plots featuring exotic locales, hyperbolic characters, and excessive sentimentality in tightly-controlled verse; it is the precursor to musical comedy/drama libretti in that it uses prose dialogue between arias, but its language is always arch. The operetta libretto sub-genre, however, has been recently transformed into a form termed “new” operetta in which characters are three-dimensional and the element of exoticism stems from psychological investigation into character psyches rather than foreign cultures. “New” operetta libretti also prefer to deal with the here-and-now, favoring contemporary social concerns and using vernacular speech.

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LIBRETTO AS ART (WITH BRIEF HISTORY)

    The libretto, with its purposefully simple plots, roundish-but-not-rounded characters, and serviceable rather than lyric verse, is often snubbed in favor of more readily dynamic genres of writing. The customary argument against the form reasons that since a libretto must depend upon a composer and stage technicians to realize its artistic vision, it is creatively weak; true written art requires no bolster from other creative mediums to lend it viability (the term “creative mediums” here excludes the more clinical involvement of agents, editors, marketers, and publishers). However, this reasoned disregard for the libretto makes the mistake of judging the text as a single-creator work (as novels, stories, poems, and plays are generally regarded) when it is really a multi-perspective, collaborative effort.

    Certainly, the libretto did not begin its career laboring beneath the onus of marginalization. The craft of libretto-writing may be traced back to the Greek festivals (particularly those of Dionysus) in which actors in plays delivered dactylic hexameter lines in a declamatory monodic fashion which was written by playwrights to align with the accompaniment of flutes and strings. The music was designed to embellish the poetry of a script, and those words which evoked the best emotions were showcased with florid musical ornamentation to lend them even greater emphasis. The melodic flow of speech and its potential for scoring was as much a concern for the scriptwriter as was his use of theatrical conventions. Indeed, Greek audiences expected interwoven song and speech.
 
    The Romans downplayed libretti in favor of more decadent and violent plays, and the practice of writing non-liturgical dramatic texts to be sung for entertainment purposes was lost during the Middle Ages, but a small group of Florentines took it upon themselves to revive the discipline. In 1587, the Florentine Camerata was born under the leadership of Count Giovanni de’Bardi; its purpose was to create and perform libretti after the Greek fashion. Public response to their offerings was overwhelming, sparking the birth of Italian opera, and the scores created for the new libretti (catchy and upbeat) captured the emotional themes of the texts far more simply than the ornate verse which had first been used to conjure said moods. By the time of Rossini, the words of texts-to-be-sung had become subordinate to their evocative settings, and musical theatre patrons enjoined composers to produce ever more ornate and uplifting orchestrations.
 
    The trend toward placing words beneath music continued well into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with composers claiming primacy in the creation of musical dramas as their librettists toiled in obscurity to produce lines of verse on demand which might satisfy their composers’ musical insights into the dramatic subtexts of carefully-chosen plots. Critical attitudes reinforced this promulgation of unequal partnerships by lauding music as the irrefutable bastion for musical drama, capable of stirring the emotions far more quickly and deeply than mere wordplay.

    It would seem that, as popular philosophy would have it, a collaboration between two or more disparate mediums results in one medium dominating the other; in this case, music apparently overwhelms the libretto. Yet a closer examination reveals that musical supremacy pertaining to sung theatre is really only wishful thinking on the part of music critics. The librettist didn’t collapse when the public shouted for melody – he adapted. The growing popularity of music over words forced him to rely upon his dramaturgic ability more than his versification skills in order to make a more effective contribution to the shows he created. Verse became simple, concise, and narrative, designed to ease along the pacing of a well-reasoned plot which featured ample opportunities for spectacle.
Librettists developed texts which were more streamlined and stageworthy, granting their composers more dramatic space upon which to impose scoring and more material from which to take inspiration. Consider Patrick J. Smith’s definition of a librettist:
        [He is] an artist who, by dint of his professional training as a poet         and/or dramatist, can often visualize the work [at hand] as a totality         more accurately than the composer. This totality includes not only the         ‘story’ but also the means by which the story will be most effectively         presented on stage both organizationally and scenically.
Story sensibility and stagecraft have taken the place of excessive poetic declamation in the librettist’s toolkit, and he has acquired a stronger role in the composer-librettist partnership dynamic as a result. If composers continue to overshadow their wordsmiths, it’s only because they are generally more recognizable individually in terms of historical influence (many writing separate melodies, suites, and symphonies which reach an audience far larger than the theatre-going crowd) while librettists work best in the background as shapers and guiders of dramatic ideas.

    To illustrate the power that a librettist has in crafting the form of a show, the differences between La Favola d’Orfeo (1607) and Orfeo ed Eyridice (1762) should be explained. Both shows recount the tragedy of Orpheus, but their libretti cause them to develop along highly different paths. In La Favola d’Orfeo, Alessandro Striggio provides composer Claudio Monteverdi with an impulsive but dispassionate Orpheus, resulting in a text with few flights of fancy and multiple incidences of commentary which the composer sets as ever-flowing and intensifying recitative that ultimately explodes into vibrant nothingness in the moment Orpheus completes his fruitless quest. Ranieri di Calzabigi’s Orfeo ed Eyridice for Christoph Willibald von Gluck, however, features a less impulsive and more emotional Orpheus who vents his feelings freely through sweeping arias richly set by Gluck; the hero is even carried away on strains of majestic music when the piece closes.

    Modern librettists have yet another component with which to create their libretti – the psychological archetype. For an explanation of why this should be so, one must turn to the words of noted librettist and scholar Robertson Davies:
        Jung’s collective unconscious deals with the idea that genetically-        derived instincts respond to specific sensory stimuli in predictable         patterns across the breadth of humanity. Certain sights, smells,         sounds, tastes, and tactile sensations evoke the same or similar         understandings for all persons. These evocative sensations are known         as archetypes, and they are the staple of the libretto. What is         experienced in the [musical] theatre is an appeal to basic human         nature as derived from biological evolution.
Of course, the idea of the collective unconscious being a component of humanity’s biological evolution is still unproven to science’s satisfaction (indeed, it has been called a purely cultural phenomenon), but Davies’ connection of the two provides a useful rubric to follow when considering artistic creation. The libretto evokes emotions through verse, story, and stagecraft which reference myth and archetype in order to cater to the primal understandings of mankind. As W. H. Auden notes, the show evoked by a libretto makes the province of the supernatural the province of the human, portraying the realm of the unconscious onstage so that its passions may be felt and examined offstage.

    The art of the libretto is the art of the incomplete shape; it is a performative vessel waiting to be filled by music and mechanics. A librettist must write lyrical narrative lines which resonate with potential music, heavy with open vowels and loaded with repetitions of emotional context; he must develop a layered but straightforward story with archetypal resonance that may be realized through his understanding of stagecraft; he must telegraph all character motivations in order to transform subjectivity into a palatable form of understanding for an audience. The result is a slender volume (usually less than one hundred pages in length) which explodes into raw vitality when presented upon a stage. It is this transformative quality of the libretto which has attracted the attention of such modern-day creative writers as Truman Capote (House of Flowers), Dana Gioia (Nosferatu), and Joyce Carol Oates (Black Water).

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NAMES TO KNOW (ABRIDGED)  

Twenty-First Century Librettists

Dana Gioia
Greg Kotis
Terrence McNally
Richard Nelson
William Wenthe

Twentieth-Century Librettists

W. H. Auden
Henri Cain
Truman Capote
Gustave Charpentier
Dana Gioia
Chester Kallman
Maurice Maeterlinck
Joyce Carol Oates
Sergei Prokofiev
Gertrude Stein
Richard Strauss
Hugo Von Hofmannsthal

Nineteenth-Century Librettists

Arrigo Boito
Alexandre Porfyrevich Borodin
Salvatore Cammarano
W. S. Gilbert
Luigi Illica
Ruggiero Leoncavallo
Henri Meilhac
Modeste Petrovich Moussorgsky
Felice Romani
Augustin Eugene Scribe
Richard Wagner

Eighteenth-Century Librettists

William Congreve
Lorenzo Da Ponte
Ranieri Di Calzabigi
John Gay
Emmanuel Schikaneder

Seventeenth-Century Librettists

Francesco Busenello
Alessandro Striggio
Nahum Tate

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