Intimately Uninvolved: Notes of a Librettist


When it gets to curtain up, The Librettist is intimately uninvolved in the opera she has co-written.

She is aware that, some time in the past, if her fingers had struck a different arrangement of keys, then what is about to happen would be other.

That this character is already on stage – that they are in this emotional situation – that they are to begin by making this vowel sound; The Librettist can see vestiges of her now dwindled power.

She thinks back to the private spaces within which she imagined a very few elements of what the curtain now rises to show.

Obviously, some of the major decisions about what the audience is about to see and hear were made collaboratively. The Composer, for example, may have had strong ideas about the original subject and plot. They may have asked for this or that character to appear earlier or later or not at all. They may have asked for or demanded a more singable or less simplistic assemblage of syllables.

And there are a dozen others who may have altered details in between the final version of the libretto and the baton going down.

  1. The Conductor may have their own interpretation, which involved major changes in every rehearsal, or they may have decided to treat each word of the text and each note of the score as sacred.
  2. The Director may have ignored every single stage direction apart from ‘Enter’, or may have coaxed insightful performances into one-dimensional characters out of selfish or stand-and-deliver singers.
  3. The Singers may have committed fully to employing their hearts and souls and lungs, or may be thinking of their CVs or their dinners or their complexions.
  4. The Stage Designer may have made certain necessary details of stage business completely impossible (it is not possible to put a spherical object down on a radically raked stage and have it stay in place), or they may have introduced scene changes so delightfully mutative that they disguise jerky plotting.
  5. The Costume Designer may have added subtlety to or completely trashed all characterization.
  6. The Lighting Designer may have – for reasons of their own –decided to obliterate all nuances of facial expression, or may have created another through-line (light to dark, blue to green) augmenting those in text and score.

As time passes, the opera is performed and The Librettist, unable to make any revisions to it for perhaps several months, watches and reacts. In it and not.

The Librettist reacts with appalled surprise and grateful recognition, grateful surprise and appalled recognition.

As the climactic minutes pass away, however great or godawful, The Librettist is left with the comfort of knowing that – just as with the Hollywood screenwriter – she was the necessary origin of all this human effort.

A different Director would only create a different production; a different Librettist would have created a different work.

The successful Librettist will have helped the composer to make their best ever music, and will have been so successful that it is the composer who gets credit for this.

The opera ends, and The Librettist has learned yet again that operas are about big effects not finicky details. But only those involved in the production know how many finicky details had to be gone over, again and again, in order to make those effects big.

After the curtain calls, when the story is told or the non-story is over, and the ritual congratulations of Conductor, Director and Singers have been gone through, and the house lights are on, and everyone walks out, no-one will quite know what to say to The Librettist. Pick any detail of the production and she was probably not responsible for it. ‘You gave them some really good vowels to sing,’ is not a common compliment, but it’s probably the only safe one.




Here’s Satyrs, a short opera I co-wrote with Jamie Man as part of the Jerwood Opera Writing Programme.

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