Features Guest Column Published 28 September 2012

The Five Obstructions of the Librettist

Re-imagining opera for today.

Hannah Silva

In The Five Obstructions, Lars von Trier takes short film The Perfect Human (1967) and its director Jørgen Leth and asks Leth to remake it five times, each time with a different “obstruction”.

Obstructions include making the film in the “worst place in the world”, filming in Cuba with no shot longer than twelve frames, and remaking as a cartoon.

The results are remarkable. The film is a gift for anyone who has discovered the freedom of working within – or against – obstructions. A librettist must be such a person.

I started out as a musician and have always seen writing as “composing speech”, but I only started thinking about libretto writing in 2010 when I held a place on the Aldeburgh Jerwood Opera Writing foundation scheme. This scheme is for composers, writers and directors with no previous experience of opera; over a year we collaborated on short pieces performed by professional singers and musicians, alongside talks and workshops from practitioners such as Harrison Birtwistle, David Sawer, Steven Plaice, Lavinia Greenlaw and Netia Jones.

As writers we twisted our brains around the conundrum of libretto writing and realisations that subtext, character, language and narrative all work differently when channeled through a composer and an operatic voice.

Funnily enough, on the first day of the course a few participants confessed to not really liking opera. One composer avoids using professionally trained singers. The form of opera itself is an obstruction. We were there not only to learn how it is done, but also to explore ways of doing it differently.

The First Obstruction: The Voice

You may love it or hate it, but either way, the first obstruction for a librettist is that when our words are sung in an operatic voice, it is almost impossible to hear them. There are some tricks that composers can use: writing in the clearest part of the singer’s register, making sure not too much is happening instrumentally at an important moment, using unison, or spoken tones (sprechgesang).

I am devising a key for my libretto ‘Thanatophobia’. I will put a box around the odd line that needs to be heard. However, we have to accept the fact that most of our words will become sounds. This does not prevent them from communicating.

The composer Joanna Lee and I both have an interest in extended vocal techniques, which is everything other than sung tones, such as noises, clicks and gasps. “The voice” can be an obstacle to this experiment; some singers will say: “I can’t make that strange noise, I have to sing Puccini tomorrow”.

But, as Mary King explained to us, that is nonsense. A good singer will be able to make all kinds of strange noises without affecting their voice. It is a pleasure to work with singers who will go beyond the point of looking stupid to a place where they are doing something new. I have a great memory of singer Christopher Lemmings on his back wrestling with a table and singing strange high pitched sounds coming from Chinese vocal techniques in a piece I wrote with the composer Huang Ruo. We gave him the table as an “obstruction” – forcing a performer to work with something real prevents “acting”.

The Second Obstruction: Structure and Length

“It’s best to leave the actual writing of a libretto as late as possible” – writer Alex Knox

Working with Joanna Lee, I have discovered that two very sparse pages equates to 10-15 minutes of music. So for an hour-long piece, I only need to write 8-16 pages of text. But they need to be the right 8-16 pages. The writer Colin Teevan describes the libretto as the mannequin on which the composer hangs the dress. If the libretto doesn’t work, the opera won’t either.

When writing a play I let the words stumble out for pages and discover the form later. With a libretto, scenes or “movements” with different atmospheres are useful. Composers think about structure from the beginning; this seems to be the aspect that is essential to agree on and stick to.

The Third Obstruction: The Composer

“You are handling water when you collaborate to create something, and need to respect the other person’s working method” – Alex Knox

Occasionally composers like to use librettists as hired helps, giving detailed instructions and measuring what is produced against the ideal libretto in their imagination. Unless the librettist is telepathic, it is unlikely they will be able to produce what the composer is looking for. I believe that working as a librettist or composer is always collaborative. There is a magic mixture of trust and communication that needs to remain throughout the process.

In 2002, Colin Teevan was asked to translate Euripides’ The Bacchai for a production at the National Theatre directed by Peter Hall and set to music by Harrison Birtwistle.

Prior to rehearsals they workshopped the play at the National Theatre Studio. They spent the first day of the workshop listening to the translated text being read by actors and singers. Colin Teevan describes the experience:

“After the reading Birtwistle said ‘No, that’s not it’. They read it again. ‘I don’t understand’. And again and again for the next three days, while Birtwistle scribbled sums on the back of an envelope. Eventually he said ‘I’ve got it’.”

Birtwistle had been measuring the text against the clock in his head, trying to find the rhythm of Teevan’s lines. He finally realised that Teevan rarely wrote 60 seconds per minute (as many writers do, and as his previous collaborator on Greek tragedies at the National Theatre Tony Harrison always does), but instead alternated between 58 and 62. Once he had got it he said “now leave it with me”.

On the first day of rehearsals, Birtwistle gave a score to the cast, which included several opera singers. He told them: “You will spend the next three weeks learning this”. They wanted to know about their characters, the motivation behind the lines. He asked: “Does a violinist ask why they must play the note C in such a place? Learn it, then you can interpret it”. Similarly, Birtwistle added lyrical elements later in response to the set and the staging. “Music,” Birtwistle remarked to Teeevan, “is simply the division of time”.

When I was a musician, I never questioned that there was meaning in the music I played or composed. The process of interpretation and communication was central to the work. However, when I write a text that is sound based, people often assume that I am not concerned with its meaning. I believe that meaning is as much in the sound, rhythm and voice of a text as it is in its semantic content.

Birtwistle trusted that the libretto worked, he just needed to understand its rhythm. He didn’t ask the librettist to change anything. He didn’t return it saying he “didn’t get it”. He found the music in it and then composed the score.

“A good collaboration is when you are equal partners with joint levels of enthusiasm for the project…and leads to a piece that is greater than the sum of its parts” – writer Kathryn Lewis

The nature of the Teevan-Birtwistle-Hall collaboration can be seen in the manner in which Birtwistle approached the libretto. Through this collaborative process the libretto no longer belongs solely to its author; it is interpreted and re-appropriated. In this example, the communion occurred not through debating story on a cerebral, logical and verbal level, but through the art itself. Rather than librettist speaking to composer, the libretto spoke to the composition.

The Fourth Obstruction: The Music

“In a play: the words are the music, with a libretto: you have to strip back words to allow space for music” – Colin Teevan

Once the composer has set the words, it is almost impossible for the librettist to change anything. Even substituting one word for another impacts the composition. This means most of the librettist’s work has to be done before the words are set – unless you have a long rehearsal process or a composer with a different working method.

The libretto needs rhythm, or a “pulse” as Birtwistle calls it, without fixing a rhythm that limits the composer. The libretto is the beginning, and the architecture. Playwrights such as Pinter and Beckett wrote plays that invite treatment as precise musical scores. This level of composition within a libretto leaves no room for music.

In an opera, or a piece of music theatre, neither libretto nor music exists independently. When discussing collaboration people often talk about compromise. This is one of the most exciting obstructions; the word “compromise” is interchangeable with the word “collaboration”. Compromise can be beautiful when it causes something new. A libretto proposes space for music, but cannot imagine what that music will be.

The Fifth Obstruction: Language

Opera can never be “naturalistic”, because it is sung. In many ways libretto writing suits the rhythms and sounds of poetry, but on the other hand, this carefully crafted poetry will often not be heard, and poetry on its own may not be enough to carry the work dramatically. Therefore it is the bones of the libretto, the structure, that needs to be strong too. Words and phrases need to be strong enough to stand repetitions and the operatic voice, while the skeleton needs to strong enough to hold the drama. Words become sounds, and sound also communicates meaning.

We can explore a different approach to narrative. Composers such as Luciano Berio, György Ligeti and Mauricio Kagal did not tell stories in the traditional sense, but composed language and dramatised their music. It is possible to stage this work in different ways, and to communicate different layers of meaning through these choices. Rather than being contained by a story, the drama is found within the music. Finding out “what happens next” is never the reason to go to opera. There can be many interpretations of a wish to find out “how” it happens.

“Sung words take a lot longer than spoken ones, and some spoken words do so much on their own that they are almost impossible to set in a non-humorous way” – Aaron Holloway-Nahum

Librettists learn pretty quickly that everyday language (“pass the salt”), swear words and slang do not suit opera. But, as demonstrated in Jerry Springer – The Opera and Anna Nicole, this can a fun rule to break; everyday language, slang and swear words sound hilarious in opera, which is brilliant as long as the comedy is intended.

There are many more obstructions that the librettist might face. I have not mentioned the hierarchy in the rehearsal process, the rigidity of what rehearsals are for and what everyone’s place is. The sheer challenge of getting a big budget opera to production makes blurring boundaries between roles impossible.

But perhaps there is more room for exploring roles and creative processes in a new generation of small-scale opera or “music theatre”. Fringe theatres and even festivals such as Latitude are programming opera. Opera is shedding its elitist skin and opening up to my generation. It is up to us to re-imagine opera for ourselves.

Hannah Silva is a writer, performer and theatremaker who is currently touring with her production Opposition. She also regularly blogs on her website.

Photo: from the Lars von Trier Film The Five Obstructions.


Hannah Silva is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine



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