Sotto Voce: The Libretto as Literary Form

This excerpt from “Sotto Voce” includes reflections on writing an opera libretto. The full text of the essay is included in Nosferatu.

Why did I choose to write an opera libretto? It certainly was not for lack of anything else to do. I was already ridiculously overcommitted when Alva Henderson approached me. The attraction was also not financial since Henderson did not have a commission for the new project. Literary reputation played little part in my decision. Most of my fellow poets have no interest in contemporary classical music, and the libretto commands little prestige in the literary world. My interest in Henderson’s proposal, however, was immediate and genuine, though my motives were not rational but intuitive and emotional. Once the composer had mentioned the project, an opera libretto seemed exactly what I wanted—and indeed needed—to do. Paradoxically, writing a libretto felt all the more appealing because the form was so neglected. I was also perhaps a little stage-struck. I had just finished two theatrical ventures—a full-length dance theater piece based on my poem, “Counting the Children,” and a production of my translation of Seneca’s Roman tragedy, The Madness of Hercules. Seeing those pieces performed, I had been excited by the possibilities of poetic theater. How many interesting things one might do with poetry, music, and drama under the right circumstances.

What intrigued me most specifically about working on an opera was the chance to explore the possibilities of verse drama. Could a contemporary writer create a compelling story with credible characters in the heightened language of poetry? This Shakespearean ambition has been the downfall of numerous modern poets. (Delmore Schwartz, Archibald MacLeish, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Richard Eberhart and E. E. Cummings are five names that come immediately to mind.) Ever since the Romantic era, when poetry began to focus increasingly on inner psychological reality, verse drama has had little theatrical success. The poetic tragedies of Keats, Byron, and Shelley—not to mention those of Longfellow, Tennyson, Arnold, and Swinburne—are famous examples of Romanticism’s inability to master drama. But I’ve always liked some of those supposedly failed lyric plays like Prometheus Unbound and Manfred. And in the Modern period I love the verse drama of Yeats, Eliot, Jeffers, and Auden. Purgatory, Murder in the Cathedral, Medea, and The Ascent of F6 never fail to captivate me. (I even adore Christopher Fry’s forgotten comedy, Venus Observed, which was written for Laurence Olivier.) Each play displays some aspect of its author’s imagination not evident in the poetry. New forms open up new avenues for expression.

I had wondered, however, if words alone could still suffice for poetic drama? Back in high school I had bought an LP of Yeats’s The Only Jealousy of Emer with background music by Lou Harrison. The simple but bewitching score intensified the dream-like drama. How right Yeats had been to insist on the ritual elements of music, mime, and movement to support the poetry in his Plays for Dancers. “I have invented a form of drama, distinguished, indirect, and symbolic,” he rightly boasted. W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood had Benjamin Britten write songs and incidental music for Ascent of F6 and On the Frontier. Music and dance heighten an audience’s receptivity to poetry. I saw this phenomenon vividly illustrated when the Mark Ruhala Performance Group created its dance work, Counting the Children. The choreography, music, and theatrical spectacle made my long and complex poem, which was spoken in its entirety by the lead dancer, overwhelmingly immediate to the audience—who were mostly not people who generally read poetry. The verse was perfectly supported and amplified by the other elements. For me, the primary appeal of opera lay in its ritual elements. Music allows the audience to experience the words not intellectually but physically, emotionally, and indeed unconsciously. Under such conditions I could explore very different ways of writing than I might use on the page.

Another impulse that led me to opera was the excitement of collaboration. Working with other artists is not always easy. The pleasure is often mixed with anxiety and frustration. But collaboration heightens one’s sense of involvement. Poetry is a lonely art. I often take a single poem through fifty drafts over several years before I ever show it to someone, and even then I may choose never to publish it. But writing a libretto required me to finish every song and scene—although not always on time and rarely in the order they appear on the stage. I was keenly aware that every syllable I wrote would be studied and weighed by the composer. Then every line in the final score would be sung by a real human being who would have to become the imaginary character suggested by the words. These were not demands a poet usually faces, but I found them invigorating. I also resolved to write poetry that would be equally interesting on the page and on the stage—though perhaps in different ways.

I would not have agreed to write a libretto, however, had I not loved the music of the composer, Alva Henderson. Real collaboration requires mutual esteem—otherwise who can do their best? When I first heard Henderson’s one-act opera, The Last Leaf, in New York in 1979, I recognized him as a rare, indeed almost unique talent. He wrote with brilliant expressivity for the voice. He also had a natural sense of theater. His characters felt genuinely alive. And he composed extraordinarily moving and memorable melodies, which embodied the dramatic action. After hearing the music from his Medea (1972) which uses Robinson Jeffers’s powerful version, The Last of the Mohicans (1976) with its libretto by Janet Lewis, and many of his songs, I knew Henderson was one of America’s finest vocal composers. We were close enough in style and vision to make collaboration possible but sufficiently different in temperament to make partnership interesting.

I had one unusual demand for Henderson. I asked to choose the subject of the opera. He could veto my suggestions, but I needed a story and an imaginative world that I could inhabit for the years it took to complete the project. I have gone to the opera regularly since high school—and I always go to see new or modern works. I have, however, frequently been struck by the soulless quality of many new commissions (like André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire or Philip Glass’s The Voyage) where the composer or impresario dictated some subject for which the librettist had no deep affinity. The resulting libretti are usually professionally executed but imaginatively stillborn. If you believe that a good text inspires better music—and I do—then there needs to be some genuine poetic spark of inspiration to ignite the project.

I wrote Nosferatu in an odd way that—to my surprise—exactly mirrored Alva’s compositional approach. I would begin each scene or half-scene by writing the central aria first. (The total action of the scene had, of course, been previously plotted in a prose summary.) I wanted to create the emotional highpoint of the scene as a lyric poem that had some independent imaginative energy. If opera is lyric drama, then it must have lyric power. Only after finishing the aria would I write the scene that led up to and away from that moment. As it turned out, Alva liked to work this way too—composing the major themes first and then expanding and developing them across the scene.

I happened upon the subject of Nosferatu by accident. I had lunch one day with the film critic, Gilberto Perez. I asked him what he was working on, and he showed me a new essay on F. W. Murnau’s film. I learned from Gil, however, that I had never seen the director’s original version, only a version severely cut for export. Gil gave me his essay, “The Deadly Space Between,” and loaned me a videotape of the full Nosferatu. Reading his essay and watching the complete film, I was struck by how much Murnau’s Expressionist tale of horror resembled a bel canto tragic opera. Surely the director had thought of his film in musical terms; he subtitled Nosferatu “A Symphony in Grays,” and wrote the screenplay-scenario in verse. Although Murnau borrowed most of his plot from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (which he could not legally obtain the rights to film), he simplified the story in ways that made it dramatically stronger and more resonantly symbolic. Nosferatu offered a librettist the positive virtues of a compelling plot, strong characters, and vivid, indeed often unforgettable, images. The silent film also afforded the negative virtues of having neither spoken words nor music. How astonishing that the Dracula legend, one of the great Romantic myths, had never served as the subject of an enduring opera. (Marschner’s rarely performed 1828 opera, Der Vampyr, is hardly about vampirism in the modern sense of the word.) Murnau’s Nosferatu provided a resonant but compressed version of the Dracula myth in a dramatization that left room for poetry and music.

As a child, I loved horror movies, which I knew mostly from television. On weekends my cousins and I would gather to watch the local station broadcast the black and white Universal films of the early talkie era—Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Wolfman (1941), The Mummy (1932), and our collective favorite, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Such old films must have been inexpensive to broadcast because they were constantly replayed, and in those pre-videocassette days, we watched every time—often mouthing the dialogue along with Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff. Always obsessive about my passions, I read all the movie books in the library and bought—to my parents’ horror—each new issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland. These sources soon led me to German silent horror and fantasy films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) and Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), both of which I managed to see at age twelve. (Los Angeles offers advantages to juvenile film buffs.) Nosferatu, therefore, was a part of my working-class, Latin-Catholic childhood and not my university years, and I first watched it as a horror movie and not a classic of German Expressionist cinema. Perhaps for that reason working on the libretto touched other childhood memories of religion, family, and poverty. Memories of my beautiful Aunt Felice dying of cancer, the “Salve Regina” being recited at the end of our parochial school’s daily morning mass, and the constant family worries about money intermingled naturally with my first sighting of Max Schreck’s shadow climbing the stairway toward his shuddering victim. I had never written about any of these early experiences before. But the new form invited new subjects, and I could disguise my life as part of someone else’s story since the underlying myth was big enough to hold it all.

To write an opera libretto that might also succeed as poetic drama is to bet against the odds. Worse yet, it is to take long odds for almost no reward. But what poet today does not implicitly hazard a similar bet as a precondition of the art? Just to write a poem is to risk overwhelming odds of failure. And if one succeeds, how few notice. Why bother to write except for the joy of hard work and fresh discovery? Robert Frost once called poetry the highest kind of enterprise, “the self-appointed task,” where “hard labor comes from one’s own desire and internal pressure for perfection.” With a haunting myth, a great film, a fine composer, and the prospect of long hard work, what more could a poet want?

Full text published in Nosferatu: An Opera Libretto (Graywolf 2001)