Interviewer Lequita Vance-Watkins: What is the leap from the poem to the libretto?
Ideally, there should be no leap —just a step. Opera began as a kind of poetic drama. The Renaissance Florentines who invented it were trying to recreate the ideal balance between poetry and music found in classical Greek drama. That balance between words and music should remain the artistic goal. I consider the libretto a significant poetic form whose literary potential has barely been realized in English.
The opera libretto isn’t a particularly prestigious form – at least in literary circles. Why would a serious poet want to write one?
To grow. It is exciting to explore a new form. In Shakespeare’s time, poets took for granted that they could work in all three basic literary forms – the lyric, narrative, and drama. But nowadays poets are supposed to settle down and just write short lyric utterances. I want to try the larger forms of poetry that are now mostly neglected – the narrative and dramatic forms. There are some things a writer can only do in drama. Opera is the only branch of contemporary drama in which the poet remains an essential collaborator. Once you accept its special requirements, opera allows a writer to explore all sorts of material that doesn’t easily work in other forms. It opens up extraordinary artistic possibilities.
What sort of possibilities?
First of all, opera is the only living form of poetic drama. It is also the only remaining form of tragic theater. If you want to write a verse tragedy today, you have to write it for the opera house.
How does a libretto differ from poetry?
A verse libretto must work simultaneously as poetry and drama. The language itself must be memorable and expressive, but good words aren’t enough. The libretto must create arresting characters and powerful situations that propel the action Otherwise it is a failure. The great challenge is finding the right balance. The words must be emotionally direct and evocative but also extraordinarily concise. They must be richly poetic but not too dense or complex. The text must give the composer enough room to let the music take charge. The biggest difference between a poem and a libretto, however, is its essentially collaborative nature. A libretto doesn’t exist to be judged on its own literary quality. It exists to inspire a composer to create a compelling musical drama. The libretto ultimately justifies itself as the departure point for a collaborative work in which the poet is a minority partner.
How is a libretto similar to poetry?
Good poetry is good poetry. Awkward language and stale images won’t be redeemed by music. Writing lyrics requires arresting emotion, memorable phrasing, sharp images, and evocative compression. In Nosferatu I have set myself an additional challenge. I have tried to write a libretto that works both on the page as poetic drama and in performance as musical theater.
How did it happen that you and Henderson worked together?
My good luck. Fifteen years go in New York I saw a production of Henderson’s one act opera, The Last Leaf. It both impressed and astonished me. The Last Leaf was the sort of new opera that isn’t supposed to exist – dramatically powerful, stylistically distinctive, but radiantly melodic. It was also inherently vocal. So many modern operas focus on the orchestra rather than the human voice. After that evening, I made it a point to hear everything I could by him. I never thought we would be working together. For years the novelist-poet Janet Lewis had been his collaborator. But when Janet entered her 90s, Alva started looking for a new partner. We knew one another only slightly, but he set some of my poems to music. We both loved the results. When he suggested we work together on an opera, I immediately agreed. My only condition was that we choose a subject I could enter imaginatively.
How did you and Henderson pick Nosferatu as a subject?
Sheer serendipity. Just as Alva and I started to discuss possible subjects, I happened to have lunch with the critic Gilberto Perez who told me he had just written an essay on F. W. Murnau’s famous silent film. Reading his analysis of Nosferatu, I was struck by how much the film resembled a bel canto opera —like Lucia di Lammermoor or I Puritani. It depicted a strong and sensitive woman trapped by tragic circumstances beyond her control. It also occurred to me that there had never been a great vampire opera. Although the vampire is one of the central romantic myths, and opera was the greatest romantic art form, the two never came together. Nosferatu offered a great myth that was not only natural to opera but still untouched—an irresistible combination for a poet.
What did Henderson think about the idea?
At first he was skeptical. He didn’t see how he could create an opera with the vampire as its central character. I was then still living in New York. I flew out to California, and we spent an afternoon walking through Armstrong redwood grove – a natural masterpiece of Gothic Romanticism. I explained that I wanted to build Nosferatu around Ellen, the soprano role (just as Murnau had originally built his film around the heroine before it was cut for export). The opera would be a tragedy about a gifted woman caught in a supernatural trap. I didn’t imagine a gothic thriller like Bram Stoker’s Dracula. By the time we left the grove, not only was Alva convinced, but we had jointly created a rough scenario.
How did Susan Gundunas get involved?
She had sung in the Opera San Jose production of Alva’s West of Washington Square. He loved her voice, and she loved his music. When she left the Hamburg Opera to return to California, she tried out Ellen’s entrance aria from Nosferatu, which Alva had just composed. Alva then began writing the role with her voice in mind – just as Donizetti, Bellini, and Verdi wrote their finest roles for specific singers. Her voice is radiant and wonderfully emotive. A lot of contemporary composers write rather timidly for the voice since they don’t know who will ultimately perform the role With Susan at hand, Alva has been able to create powerfully virtuosic music. In both technical and dramatic terms, Ellen is a commanding prima donna role. The title role for baritone is almost equally virtuosic. It requires a singer with both a magnificent voice and immense stage presence – like Thomas Hampson.
What is new about Nosferatu?
What is the most novel about Nosferatu is its traditional structure. The opera builds its story through arias, duets, trios, and ensembles. We have tried to reinvent these powerful forms of dramatic and musical expression. I’ve attempted to write real poems for these numbers, especially the major arias, to shape lyric language into traditional forms that convey contemporary psychology. These forms can focus huge amounts of energy as long as the composer finds fresh and authentic ways of using them. Arias, duets and trios also elicit deep responses from singers. That is absolutely essential. Opera is a performing art. Unless it creates powerful expressive singing, it doesn’t exist.
There is a long history of poetry and music collaborating. Do you find such collaboration as strong today as in the past?
Most American poets don’t take the idea of collaborative art seriously. They rarely write their best for musical setting. Our national tradition stresses the personal and indeed private side of poetry – the posture of an Emily Dickinson or Wallace Stevens. We have few modern models for either public or collaborative poetry. Working with another artist, one needs to find common ground, some area where both persons can work at their best. When artistic collaboration succeeds, it doesn’t create compromise but a strangely intensifying transfiguration.
Did you find the process transfiguring?
Absolutely. In writing the libretto for Nosferatu, I was able to make certain ideas work that I could never have brought off in other genres. Let me give you two examples. In Ellen’s serenade, which opens the second act, I was able to write simple lyrics (albeit in an intricate metrical scheme borrowed from Tennyson) that work simultaneously on two levels – first as a love song for her absent husband and second as unwitting prophecy of the vampire’s imminent arrival to claim her. Almost every phrase has a double meaning, but the dark irony only becomes evident as the scene unfolds. I love the idea of a direct and simple text that gradually reveals a complex and troubling subtext.
My other example is Ellen’s prayer in the final scene. I was able to write this aria in two languages. It is half Latin and half English. The aria might look obscure as a poem on the page, but it sounds utterly natural in operatic performance. Ellen begins the Salve, Regina in Latin. Then she breaks down and continues in English – mistranslating the prayer in ways that project her fears. Eventually the two versions become intermingled. The verbal effect is almost surreal. Alva created an overpowering aria – both exquisitely beautiful and genuinely terrifying. Having helped create that magnificent aria satisfies me as deeply as having written one of my own poems.
Is it only my perception or is it true that many people involved in the reading and writing of poetry do not venture far into the world of music?
Most poets know very little about classical music, especially opera and lieder. This represents a great loss – in both individual and communal terms. The arts enrich each other. The poet who neglects music not only misses the pleasures it affords. He or she also misses the vast possibilities it opens to their art. The losses are especially great in two arts as closely related as poetry and art song.
You stand in a long line of poets involved in opera and lieder. Who stands out as a mentor or inspiration?
There is no continuous tradition of the libretto in English, so there are few major examples for a poet starting out in the form. The one great exception is W. H. Auden, who wrote (mostly in collaboration with Chester Kallman) wonderful libretti for Igor Stravinsky, Benjamin Britten, Hans Werner Henze, and Nicholas Nabokov.
Auden has been a guiding light. I not only kept copies of his libretti on my desk but also his verse dramas. I also admire the libretto that Robert Graves and Alastair Reid wrote for Peggy Glanville-Hicks’s Nausicaa, a feminist retelling of The Odyssey. Why is this beautiful work never performed? With all the current interest in women composers, it seems astonishing that no one has rediscovered this small masterpiece.
But most of my touchstones have been in Italian and German. I know both languages reasonably well. Felice Romani, who wrote many masterful libretti for Bellini and Donizetti, provided a model of creating powerful drama with elegant poetry. There is also, of course, Arrigo Boito who adapted Shakespeare for Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff. (Boito helped create the only two Shakespearean operas that are greater works of art than the original plays.) I adore the lyrics that Bertolt Brecht wrote for Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera. Brecht demonstrates how powerful verbal irony works in opera. My patron saint, however, is ultimately Hugo von Hofmannsthal. His libretti for Richard Strauss are all significant imaginative works in their own right – gripping ideas brilliantly executed. Ariadne auf Naxos, Die Frau ohne Schatten and Der Rosenkavalier are literary as well as musical masterpieces. Hofmannsthal reminds a poet that the opera libretto need not be inferior form.
Where are you and Alva headed with this new opera?
To La Scala, Covent Garden, and the Met – we hope. We don’t have a commission yet, but we haven’t really gone looking for one. The opera is now about three-quarters finished. We recently had a sold-out showcase in Palo Alto. Next June the Western Slope Music Festival in Crested Butte, Colorado will present an expanded showcase. (They will pair Nosferatu with The Magic Flute – an ideal combination.) Then we will probably do another showcase in New York. By then, I trust we will have a commission. In the meantime we are premiering arias and scenes around the country. The music is so good I don’t want to wait until we’ve finished it present it.
At the moment I know of A Bridge Too Far being set for the Met in the near future and the commissioning of San Francisco Opera for Andre Previn to produce an opera based on A Street Car Named Desire. Are there, to your knowledge, other productions of opera based on literature now in the works?
Opera is now undergoing a rebirth in America, but the form still suffers from an inferiority complex. The composers too often feel that opera is not as good as absolute music Contemporary librettists don’t know whether to take the form seriously, so they too often turn out merely adequate texts. I suspect that many poets are handed a pre-selected literary property by a composer or impresario – usually a subject they would not have chosen on their own. The resulting libretto becomes a workmanlike affair rather than an imaginative enterprise in its own right. I find most new libretti unexciting as poetry and timid as theater. There is too much rehashed naturalism. The natural impulse is to take a well-known literary property – a famous novel or a play – adapt it and set it to music. The trouble is that few novels or plays translate naturally to musical theater. They need to be radically compressed and re-imagined. Poets are just beginning to explore the possibilities.
Opera is more at home with myth than with naturalism. It also lends itself to symbolism and allegory. Look at The Magic Flute, The Ring of the Nibelungen, or The Rake’s Progress. Even operatic language is mythic. Think about what they call a great soprano – a diva, which is to say, a goddess. Opera is closer to cinema than to novels or spoken theater. Opera and film are both bigger than life. One thing that drew me to Nosferatu was that Murnau’s original was silent. It had neither words nor music. But Murnau offered unforgettable characters, images, and situations all hovering around a great myth. The Italians invented opera by trying to recreate Greek tragic theater, which was the ritual reenactments of myth. If we are going to foster American opera, I think we had better not lose sight of myth and ritual.
Do you plan to write more libretti?
For the right composer, of course. I am sure that Alva and I will do another opera together once Nosferatu is finished. I enjoy working with him immensely. In the meantime I will be writing a one-act libretto for the composer Paul Salerni. It is the first commission for a new opera house/concert hall in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I find the form fascinating. Why stop now?
First published in Caesura (Winter 1998)