“The job is really to create a structure that inspires, even demands music.”
When transposing a novel—especially a novel as mighty as Moby Dick—into an opera, where do you begin?
When I start, I’m looking for what is overtly operatic. Why set this book to music? That’s the question. What is it about this story that seems operatic? How can music be used to illuminate the story in unique ways? What stands out immediately is Ahab, who is this titanic character. You can hear music when you read those magnificent speeches of his. Much of Ahab’s text in the opera comes straight from the book.
I needed a period of time on my own to figure out what the novel meant to me, so I did about six months of reading before Jake and I started working together. I had certain ideas developed and developing when we went to Nantucket together. In Nantucket, however, Jake and I had a great chance to knock ideas back and forth. After that trip is when I really began writing the libretto.
The first text I circled in the book was Pip’s. He is such an important character. Before I even came on board, it was decided that Pip would be a “pants role”—there is a great operatic tradition of having women play adolescent boys. Having a boy soprano play the role would have been very limiting. I knew Pip could show us a different side of Ahab, but we needed a mature actor to do this. We get to witness the narrator’s transformative journey, but Ahab has experienced his most significant transformation before our story begins; we only see him get ever more obsessed and lost. Pip’s emotional damage very briefly threatens to stir a kind of humanity in Ahab, which is something he struggles to suppress. This struggle humanizes Ahab and creates interesting emotional cross-currents that music can help to explore.
The narrator of the novel is someone who is both close to the action and removed from it as he relates events that happened to him “some years ago.” Tell us a bit about the character of Greenhorn and how he is different from the person who tells us to call him Ishmael.
It is a challenge to create an opera from a novel, which is a narrative form. What I’m trying to do is create an active form, with characters making decisions in real time. The big “a-ha” moment was to create the character of Greenhorn, before he’s had this experience, so we can see him in the moment confronting various challenges, even crucibles that ultimately change him.
It’s difficult to have a narrator in a dramatic work. Actually, there is a narrator in opera: it is the composer. As a librettist one has to embrace that. You have to trust the music to fill in the emotional details. In a novel there might be several pages of what it feels like to be in a room, what the wallpaper looks like, etc. In opera you have to allow music to do all of that. The real question that we worked to solve was not, “What do you leave out?” but “What can be described by music alone, so that words are not necessary?”
You’ve worn many hats in the theater—composer, lyricist, actor. How do your other experiences play into your work as a librettist? Do you hear music for the words as you write them?
I used to hear music—I even wrote dummy tunes—but I don’t anymore. I think the main thing I bring to the process is lots of experience being on stage. I really do understand what a singing actor goes through when learning and developing a role. Knowing that, hopefully I can provide text and characters that are well enough drawn that they make sense to the singers.
Everyone thinks a librettist writes words, and that is true, but the job is really to create structure that inspires, even demands music. The principal task is to figure out how the scenes will play, so the music will have pillars to stand on. I think of the scene in La bohème where Mimì and Rodolfo meet. The text may be beautiful, but what really makes the moment is the idea of these two people who don’t really know each other, looking for the key in the dark—and then he finds it, pockets it, and takes her hand. The scene just begs for music.
I’d like to talk about the research process for this piece. Research often starts out as a quest to “get something right,” but sometimes the most valuable harvest is something unexpected—not just a bit of information, but a bit of inspiration.
That’s the beauty of working with books versus searching for an answer or materials with Google. When you’re reading, you come across other references. It’s like using a thesaurus—a real one, not an online one—and stumbling across another word. You knock around from one thought to another.
Walter Bezanson talks about Moby-Dick as an organic form, one that grows in a seemingly unplanned way. It’s like a jazz solo that goes off in different directions. This whole notion of the novel as an organic form informed some of my choices about structure. I wasn’t able to include as much detail on whaling as the book, but I did want to show some of it, like the rendering of the oil. I had to focus on the conflict between Ahab and Starbuck, as well as Greenhorn’s transformative journey.
You’ve collaborated with Jake Heggie on a number of other projects. What’s it like to work with him?
Jake is so gifted. In addition to being a wonderful composer, he’s a great reader and editor. When I send him a draft, the nature of his questions announces the fact that I’m working with someone who is brilliant at his craft. He has such a great understanding of the form and what the vocal profile can communicate. Yes, you want a fantastic orchestration, textures that illuminate everything that’s going on,--and Jake’s score succeeds in all of these ways--but in the end, people are singing, and ultimately, the voice is what is going to rock the heart. It doesn’t happen without a good libretto as scaffolding, but the reason we love opera is the music.
-- Interview by Kelley Rourke