When Poetry and Opera Collide
J.D. McClatchy. Photo by Geoff Spear
I’ve been writing poems for half a century now, and for nearly as long I’ve been teaching students---at Princeton and at Yale---how to write them as well, drilling them in the complexities of the craft and the ambitions of the art. Thomas Mann once defined “writers” as “those for whom writing is more difficult than it is for others,” and the constant struggle to make a poem that is at once an accurate and transforming account of the world hasn’t gotten any easier in all the time I’ve been at it.
And one day, 25 years ago, the phone rang. It was the eminent composer William Schuman calling to ask if I’d write the libretto for an opera he had been commissioned to compose for the opening of the new opera house at Glimmerglass. My only experience of librettos had been the years I’d spent listening to the Met broadcasts on the radio. I knew nothing about the business of actually constructing one. So I immediately said yes. Not from mere stupidity or vanity (though they may have played a cameo role), but because the chance to give something back, as it were, to an art form that had meant the world to me was irresistible.
So I wrote the libretto, and then another, and suddenly I was known as a “librettist,” as if I’d changed a light bulb and was thereafter known as an electrician. But I’ve been writing them ever since---13 of them by now, along with singing translations of popular operas for the Metropolitan, supertitles for the Met, and a book of translations of the Mozart librettos. And all the while, people have asked me how my writing of librettos has affected my writing of poems. The answer is an easy one: not at all.
A libretto is a dramatic entity, not a lyrical one. It is a structure of words that, first, is meant to evoke music from a composer, and then to create a drama for voices. Because music dominates an opera and is so encompassing and slow, a libretto can’t afford too much obscurity or nuance, psychology or history. (Poems thrive on these.) In fact, one of the most important lessons a librettist must learn is when to get out of the composer’s way, when to let the music alone move the plot or reveal a character’s feelings. This doesn’t mean that the “poetic” qualities of language are beside the point on an opera stage. Ensembles have to be carefully calibrated, so that crucial words are emphasized and heard. When the story tightens into an emotional climax, the language has to tighten too---often into an expressive intensity that only verse can provide. By insisting that librettos and poems are different kinds of writing, I would also want to suggest that a background in poetry is an ideal preparation for a librettist. The poet’s task is concision---finding just the right word, the startling phrase, the deft description, all in lines and stanzas that must be as taut as they are luxuriant.
Poems are written in “my” voice---some stylized version of myself contemplating and addressing an imagined world of readers. Librettos are a collection of voices. Each character has to be given a distinctive manner of speaking to help individuate him on stage, and in the composer’s imagination. A quirk here, a stutter there, fulsomeness or even silence---all have a dramatic and musical function. And though timing is a consideration in poems, it is essential to a libretto. Not just the pacing of the characterized voice---how a plangent aria expands to a startled duet, which brings the chorus on, which the baritone interrupts and scatters, so that the soprano is again alone with her thoughts. There is also the range of practical decisions that have to be made by the librettists---how to get a character from one scene to another, in a different costume; how to build into the dramatic structure both variety and the time necessary to achieve it. And things! In any libretto, things are as important as words---a letter, a tree, a snowfall, a sword, a trail of blood, a bunch of violets, or a glass of water. The stage depends on the poetry of inanimate objects.
When I was young and liked thinking of myself as A Poet, it was the tragic operas I most swooned over. Tristan und Isolde was constantly on the turntable---or rather, in my soul. Now that I am older, it is comedies I prefer---Le Nozze di Figaro, L’Elisir d’Amore. The closer I am to death, the more I cherish the impossible fables of happiness and triumphant love. My poems too, I suppose, have become less angst-ridden and more ironic and indulgent. So changes in sensibility may merely be symptoms of elapsing time. But the librettists I have come most to value are those who seem to be able to encompass both strains, sometimes simultaneously, in their work: Pietro Metastasio, Lorenzo Da Ponte, Felice Romani, Arrigo Boito, Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Each is a “poet” of detail, each a master of structure and momentum, each a writer whose bright ideas are clouded by realism and melancholy. In other words, each knows the human heart. And, in the end, I go to the opera to discover the true passions---the vibrant, eternal conflict of power and love---and how they rage and glow within the heart. The Countess, the Marschallin . . . creations made out of words and notes. The “poetry” that these black squiggles makes is an unrivaled portrait of the human condition, compromised, still yearning, resigned. Other characters---the Cherubinos and Octavians, Charlottes and Fedoras---give enormous pleasure, but those women abandoned by their hopes are the ones who bring tears of recognition to one’s eyes.
Let me add a final word about opera in America. It is heartening to see so many fine writers---poets especially---working in the field now. The literary quality of librettos rose in the twentieth century, when the likes of W. H. Auden, Bertolt Brecht, Gertrude Stein, Colette, E. M. Forster, and other titans were attracted to the opera stage. Today, a much broader swath of literary talent is taking up the challenge, and the result has been a series of strongly shaped and exquisitely written librettos for contemporary composers to work with. It is true that in the 1920s and '30s the Metropolitan Opera seemed to have been mounting many more new operas than it does now. But nowadays, commissions for new work have spread around the entire country, from Seattle to Fort Worth to Sarasota to Boston. Let the statisticians parse the sociological data---the age of audiences, attendance records, and the rest. There is no measure to gauge what a brilliant opera, powerfully performed, does to a person sitting there in the dark. The effect is like reading Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman for the first time: everything shifts under you, trembling with new depths, a new understanding of your own feelings about a world so familiar and now so strange.
J.D. McClatchy has published six collections of poems and three volumes of literary essays. A former NEA Literature Fellow, his work regularly appears in publications such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The New York Times Book Review. McClatchy is a professor of English at Yale University, and currently serves as the president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.