Anna Moody - The Librettist’s Process
Step 1: writing a synopsis
When writing a new opera, the very first step is always to create a full synopsis. Not only does this detail exactly what happens in each scene, but it gives me an overview of the whole story and the dramatic arc of each character and their relationships. It is only when I have this full shape in front of me that I can start writing the libretto itself.
So, where to start in creating this synopsis? It is a daunting task to write one that will bring together all of the practical requirements of the commission. For Solar, I was told that the following elements needed to be implemented:
• 4 professional soloists: Soprano, Counter-Tenor, Baritone, Tenor;
• A children’s chorus;
• A youth chorus;
• Approximately 1h10 duration;
• Based on the myth of Icarus and Daedalus;
• With an environmental theme.
I spent a while studying this list of ingredients and wondering how to mix them together to create drama. How could I take that famous myth of Icarus flying too close to the sun and give voice to an urgent environmental message for our times, whilst also utilising this very specific cast? From my own previous knowledge of the myth, it was clear that flying too close to the sun was already a relevant environmental metaphor. But I needed a lot more dramatic detail.
To find this, I began a detailed process of researching the ancient myth itself in order to uncover the interlacing stories and webs of relationships that lie behind that famous moment of flight. I found so many versions of it in poetry, prose, art and drama, and was inspired by the way in which different artists had taken the bones of the myth but re-imagined the relationships. However, it was Ovid’s Metamorphosis, written in 8 AD, that provided my first pot of gold.
Ovid tells an important aspect of the story that is not well-known. This is narrated in a subsequent chapter, almost as an afterthought to the story of Icarus and Daedalus. In this, we are told about how Daedalus had previously killed Talus - his own nephew and apprentice - out of sheer jealousy for Talus’s talent. Daedalus does this by throwing Talus off Minerva’s Citadel. I was genuinely astonished to read this, and as I sat on the train to work that day, the scene started to play out in my head. When the train stopped I messaged Howard immediately to tell him the news: Daedalus is a murderer.
But Ovid also told me more: One of the gods rescues Talus from the rocks by transforming him into a bird before he is dashed to pieces. Talus becomes a partridge: a low-flying bird that lives close to the ground, in fear of heights. As Daedalus buries his son Icarus, this partridge appears to make “a lasting reproach” to Daedalus. Another seed was planted in my head: Daedalus is haunted by his crime.
It was immediately clear to me that the opera should begin with Talus’s murder. I wanted the audience to be confronted with an image of Daedalus holding Talus over the edge of a precipice and preparing to let go. There couldn’t be higher dramatic stakes for an opening operatic exchange and it would immediately show that this is a much more troubling and urgent story than we might assume. I wanted to write words that would give voice to Talus (Soprano) fighting for their life and to express the sheer ruthlessness of Daedalus (Baritone), whose fear of being overshadowed leads him to let go. As in Greek Tragedy, this original crime could form a trigger for unfolding crisis throughout the opera. Therefore, when Icarus dies in flight, he becomes a sacrificial victim for his father’s crime.
I realised that this myth was too strong to override. So I decided that I would use its core structure as my foundation. Upon this base, I started to build up my own interpretation and weave in new elements to re-focus the story as an urgent environmental warning.
I read Greek philosophy to discover more about the role of the elements, I scrutinised paintings to consider social attitudes, and read poetry to uncover the emotions that this myth inspires. With each piece of research I built up my synopsis from that opening scene. I matched each soloist with each character, cast the two choruses, and by the end of this short but intense two-week process, I sent Howard another message: here it is!