<< -- 2 -- Robert Hugill WRITING NEW OPERA
For their part, the composer needs to avoid creating a play with music. Realism seems to be in at the moment, so operas are dramatic stories set to music. This is all well and good if you have the sure touch of John Adams and Alice Goodman in Nixon in China. But if you are not careful, the music never really gets a chance to speak; vocal lines which are a constant parlando with orchestral accompaniment produce something more akin to a play with incidental music. To be effective opera, then the composer needs to give the music space to breathe. It is no good the librettist creating a fine libretto, if the composer sets it in a hell for leather without a pause for breath. In the old days, of course, such pauses were called arias, but nowadays the composer is free to do what he will, providing he understands the form.
And this is the problem, understanding the form. There are few spaces for journeyman opera composers, few places where a composer can work on the nuts and bolts of the theatrical art before committing himself to a high profile.
It would seem to make things simpler if you choose to create an original story. That way, you can have a narrative crafted to your own needs. In the old days, of course, a librettist was a profession and an experienced one could create a fine, structured, settable libretto based on hints from the composer. But like journeyman opera composers, journeyman librettists do not seem to exist. In fact, the profession of librettist seems to hardly exist at all; there are only a handful of writers who, like Amanda Holden and Andrew Porter, have managed to combine the production of a respectable number of operatic libretti with the useful parallel career as a translator. So a fledgling composer can only rarely work with someone whose previous theatrical experience will help him come up with a highly theatrical work.
But, before we get carried away, we should not romanticise the past. There were plenty of librettists who produced crazy work, and some composers simply set whatever was put in front of them. But at least the system did allow composers to try and try again. Consider Gounod: no-one listens now to La Reine de Saba, but it was followed by Mireille and Romeo et Juliette -- he completed twelve operas in all.
Copyright © 9 November 2004
Robert Hugill, London UK