Anna Moody - The Librettist’s Process
#2 The libretto form
What is a libretto? This is the first question I often get asked. My short answer is that it’s the script which is set to music. But if I had more time, there would be a lot more to unpack.
A libretto is such a hybrid literary form, combining drama, poetry and lyric. You could say that it’s like a play written in song lyrics. But two traditional operatic constructs offer more nuance here. Firstly, there is the aria form. This invites the action to stand still for a moment whilst a character gives voice to their emotions. Secondly, there is recitative which is the dialogue between characters. Whereas an aria invites something closer to poetry, recit calls for rhythms that are closer to speech.
Libretti traditionally move between these two forms, balancing the dramatic momentum of character interactions, with moments of stillness that open up heartfelt song by one or several characters. In a piece such as Solar, there is also another type of text required for the dramatic interaction, commentary and intervention of the young choruses.
Crucially, and throughout the whole libretto, less words is more. The music will expand the time it takes to express everything and superfluous words are just restricting and clunky. So, when writing a libretto, I have to have a sharp radar for concision and make sure that every line is extremely distilled and direct.
What I find really curious about the libretto form is that it is so rarely studied or read on its own unless you are the composer or the director. I studied literature as an undergraduate and as a masters student, and in all four years I never encountered a lecture on the libretto. This is because the sheer power of the operatic voice is seen to overwhelm the text. And yes, it is probably rare that you’ve listened to an opera and understood the words.
This idea of language giving way to sound invites dismissive accounts of the libretto as just a passive offering to the composer. In fact, the poet W. H. Auden, who wrote his own libretti as well as essays on the libretto form, went as far as to claim that the words for opera must ‘efface themselves and cease to care what happens to them.’
Having taken on the project of studying the form as well as writing three of my own, I am keen to prove Auden wrong. I was inspired during a conversation with an opera singer whose work I greatly admire. He described a particular moment, whilst singing, of feeling the audience listening to the text rather than just admiring vocal sound and the singer’s virtuosic technique. He acknowledged how an audience is too often distanced by a barrier created by vocal virtuosity which distracts from or overpowers what is being expressed. For him, what overcomes this in performance is when there is enough textual presence and interest. I wondered what ‘textual presence and interest’ actually meant and realised that here lay my challenge.
And so, when writing a libretto, I must create concise and highly rhythmic poetic lyrics that carry their own power and presence. Where the words are dynamic, bold, active, rhythmical and direct, the music can elevate rather than overwhelm them.
This requires a careful process of editing. For example, at the end of scene 2 of Solar, Icarus mourns the death of Talus who his father has murdered. When I read my first draft of the aria, I just knew that it wasn’t strong enough. I had described feelings of grief but I hadn’t been brave enough to directly capture the physical feeling of heartbreak. This meant that although the words were nicely poetic, they would certainly get lost. I immediately deleted them, closed my eyes, and took a moment to let myself really feel it.
The shock stage of grief is like a ripping feeling inside you. It is as though someone is pulling apart your organs. “Tearing” filled my head.
Little else was needed, and I started to write again. In its finished form, Icarus begins his aria with a very simple line: ‘my world splits’. The first verse then closes with that single word on repeat: ‘tearing, tearing, tearing’.
The other day I heard Howard’s music for this section. The harmony exactly captures a tortured, tearing sensation of being ripped apart. And when Icarus’s vocal line soars above it, you can hear that magical meeting of textual voice and musical voice as two powerful forces. It is this meeting that truly elevates the drama and breaks down the barrier between text and listener so that an audience might be drawn into that feeling themselves.