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Unseen But Not Unsung

The writer in the opera house

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

The email read: ‘Can I have two lines of deep despair, please, and a rollicking drunken song? By the end of the week, if possible.’

The writing of my opera libretto Good Angel, Bad Angel, based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story ‘Markheim’, had reached the fiddly back-and-forth-to-the-composer stage. Having worked with composer Lyell Cresswell on other operas since then, as well as commissions for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, among others, the writing stages have remained more or less the same as for that first collaboration more than a dozen years ago:

1. Meeting for a meal at the Yocoko in Edinburgh. Wine. Discussion followed by phone chats and emails. I craft a ‘treatment’, i.e. a proposal that includes a brief synopsis, a list of the possible musical forces required and a time frame for delivery.
2. Lyell approaches the Hebrides Ensemble. They like the treatment. They fill up forms to apply for funding, both state and private. Fill up more forms. They confirm the commission. Lyell receives a contract from them which includes reference to myself as sub-contracted librettist. It specifies instrumental and vocal forces required, duration of piece, stage and prop limitations, deadline for delivery (ten months ahead), period for rehearsal, scheduled performance date. Fee. 
3.  Back to the Yocoko. I am in the middle of a new novel, Lyell is working on an orchestral piece for the SCO. We discuss how to fit everything in with the Hebrides’ timetable. More wine. We can do it.
4.  Fast forward five months: my draft libretto has entered the fiddly back-and-forth stage (as described above). Another five months later, I am invited round to hear the new work as performed on high-tech Sibelius software. The computer’s sounds leave much to the imagination, let’s say, but hidden within is the ghost of Lyell’s fine opera. 
5. The completed score is sent to the Hebrides Ensemble, who have meanwhile engaged a director, set designer, costume designer etc. Good Angel, Bad Angel is now pretty much out of our hands. A celebratory Yocoko, then onto a piano concerto commission for Lyell and completing the novel for me.  In due course, we meet the cast and attend the first sing-through rehearsal (with piano), then comes the techie rehearsal, the dress rehearsal and, finally, the first performance. 

For state funding read the local prince, for ten months read ten weeks, and the above process would have been much the same in the eighteenth century for Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. In addition, this hard-pressed duo also had to deal with endless court intrigues, rivals’ machinations, divas demanding more crowd-pleasing arias, state censorship, petty jealousies and the like. Result — their work was often forced to take second place to that of mediocre composers who held official posts at court. The Marriage of Figaro, one of the greatest operatic masterpieces of all time, was closed down after only a few performances, even if it did triumph in Prague later that year.

Haydn and his several librettists were better placed. As Kapellmeister to Nikolaus I, Prince Esterházy, whose wealth approached the Bill Gates’ scale, Haydn had a full-time orchestra and chorus at his disposal. He was employed to write operas in Italian and in German, and to keep them coming. Occasionally, however, he had librettists only too keen to get their oar in. Baron Gottfried van Swieten’s text for his oratorio The Creation, for example, is heavily annotated with detailed advice to the composer on how best to set the words. Sometimes this worked well, as when van Swieten suggested ‘only once’ for the C major chord at the words ‘Let there be light’. Such oaring-in was less appreciated, however, in The Seasons when Haydn was forced to depict a chorus of croaking frogs.

By the nineteenth century, indulgent patrons were becoming an endangered species. It is no surprise that Rossini and his various librettists had to write at breakneck speed as most of their time was spent raising money while sidestepping professional rivals, backstage cliques, back-stabbing impresarios and mercenary critics. Which, of course, often left very little time for them to actually write the opera. The delightfully eccentric Ludwig II of Bavaria, however, took up Richard Wagner grand-style, built him a Festival Theatre at Bayreuth and wrote all the necessary cheques.

With total control of production and all the props, players and singers he could ever want, Wagner had struck lucky and could compose his five-hour operas in the certainty of lavish performances. Before a note was written, his generous patron had paid off all the composer’s considerable debts and awarded him a salary in excess of top-grade civil servants’. To get the composer in the mood to work he was then given a luxurious house in Munich, a carriage with a budget for its upkeep and a Bechstein designed to sit on his desk – yes, it must have been a vast desk! – on which he then composed parts of Die Meistersinger, Götterdämmerung and Parsifal.

Ah, those were the days. The economics of contemporary opera, on the other hand, dictate the absolute minimum of props and scene changes, and the smallest cast possible. The Perfect Woman, my second collaboration with Lyell, was the result of a Scottish Opera commission to write a 15-minute opera. No townhouses, carriages or Bechsteins, but a most enthusiastic band of singers, musicians and production staff. I based the libretto on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story ‘The Birthmark’, one of several possibilities Lyell mentioned at a hastily convened Yocoko meeting. Hawthorne’s magnificent and highly complex narrative takes place over a period of weeks and touches on many issues — including the scientific search for truth, scientific hubris, the nature of love, physical perfection, mortality, trust and sacrifice.

Fifteen minutes?

Changing and cutting many details, including the title, the ending and much in between, I did my best to turn the story of a scientist attempting to rid his wife of a facial disfigurement into music-theatre. Rather than re-tell the story, I compressed the essence of the plot into one continuous scene: the scientist giving a public demonstration of an experiment on Rosanna, his wife. The libretto begins with the scientist addressing the audience, singing: ‘In a few minutes you will meet a woman / who was laughed at and bullied as a child’. He then exits and re-enters, leading Rosanna, who is blindfolded:

S:	Almost there, Rosanna.
R:	Where?

The characters and situation are thus firmly established within the first few moments, and we can hope that the audience will not be left wondering who’s who and what’s happening, when the action speeds up. At 15 minutes there’s no time for a recap.

After I had sent Lyell the draft libretto we had another Yocoko. A frank discussion: this section needed shortened, that needed cut, another needed expanded. More vowels (best for singing: too many consonants too close together won’t work) and fewer words. Always, the fewer words the better. And rhythm — could this line be recast in trochaic metre, and this in dactylic? Even when Lyell was well into writing the score, the draft went back and forth for further changes, then tweaks, then micro-tweaks.

The opera was finally put on as part of a series: Five:15 operas made in Scotland. Other librettists included Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith. The series was a sell-out and a critical success, and a well-deserved triumph for Scottish Opera. McCall Smith has since collaborated on new musical works both here and in Botswana where he has set up an opera company.
I have worked with several other composers, and it has always been a pleasure. Seems I’ve been unusually fortunate. Creative partnerships are notoriously volatile. W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan collaborated on 14 comic operas in the course of an on/off professional relationship that sometimes became so poisonous that they’d refuse to speak to each other. Vincenzo Bellini’s opera Beatrice di Tenda, was a failure. Result — the composer fell out with his wordsmith Felice Romani. Their dispute quickly got out of hand and became tabloid fodder, in Venice at least. Some say the resultant break between them was permanent.

Methods differ too. Usually the libretto comes first. It sets the tone, the characters, the dramatic argument and structure. When Rossini found himself even more right-up-to-the-wire than usual, his librettist Cesare Sterbini was told to send him the text of The Barber of Seville one short section at a time, as soon as it was written. Rossini then set the words as he received them — with no notion of what would be coming next, let alone having any sense of the overall drama. And all in less than three weeks. The result, though, has become one of the best-loved operas in the repertoire. On the other hand, Wagner, being Wagner, wanted total control over absolutely everything and so wrote his own libretti.

Shortly before starting to write this piece, Lyell and I were approached by an established ensemble to create a new opera — a 45-minute extravaganza no less! We’ve had a couple of cheerful and productive Yocokos, and the treatment has been accepted. The funding applications have been submitted, potential sponsors lined up. All we can do now…is wait.

Novelist and former Edinburgh Poet Laureate Ron Butlin has collaborated on seven operas. His most recent books are The Magicians of Scotland (poetry) and Here Come the Trolls! (for children).

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