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PDX OPERAbeat | A Company Blog is the blog for all things Portland Opera, featuring a variety of guest contributors who will provide insider's tidbits on all we do to celebrate the beauty and breadth of opera.

Write It: The art of writing an opera libretto.

Logan is taking our Summer Opera Education Class: "Putting it Together."  We asked her to share her experiences throughout this 8-week interactive class.  Updates will be posted weekly.  Enjoy!

Week two of “Putting it Together: Write it!”

In this class, we had the opportunity to learn about the role of librettists and their relationship with their composer employers, and we practiced the art of writing a libretto. We were also visited by local composer John Vergin, who has agreed to set our own librettos to music, which will be performed for us next week. Our second visitor was Figaro, the company cat. When he wasn’t wandering around between our chairs, jumping on top of tables and laps, or licking himself, he spent his time bumping his furry head against our faces and clinging to our legs, demanding attention. It’s a good thing he’s a cute kitty.

We started off learning what the librettist did. To put it simply, the librettist writes the text of an opera, or the words that the composer sets to music for his singers. However, there are many rules and conventions to follow. For example, the librettist needs to write lyrics that can be set to a certain rhythm/musical style, as well as make sense and be poetic enough to add an element of beauty that is enhanced by the composer’s music. The librettist also needs to be a “master of compression,” which means the recitative needs to be concise while providing the audience with a lot of information to move the story along. Other considerations include government/religious censorship: This sparked particular interest in our class. Even up to the 20th century, censorship was thrust upon composers and librettists alike. Alexis gave the example of Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti, after Lucia’s Mad Scene. Censorship didn’t allow the idea of Lucia committing suicide (yet they allowed murder) so she had to simply drop dead. The rules of censorship weren’t ideal for librettists and composers, but they had to make do.

Next, Alexis continued to teach us about famous librettists, such as Metastasio. He had 27 opera librettos just sitting on his shelf to be commissioned by over 300 composers. Others include Arrigo Boito, Philippe Quinault, and Lorenzo Da Ponte. After learning about the individual characteristics of these librettists, we circled back to elements of writing and music that the librettist needs to keep in mind when working on an opera. Such elements include dramatic intent, aria versus recitative, voice type, characterization, etc. Alexis and John Vergin did a great job explaining these aspects to us, and it really helped us on our first assignment: writing a libretto!

Alexis passed around a synopsis of the Greek tragedy, Antigone by Sophocles. Each table group was given a specific scene and had to write a libretto set for two mezzo-sopranos: one lighter and one darker. This task was much more difficult than I originally thought at the beginning of the class. After learning about everything the librettist has to keep in mind when writing lyrics for singers, it was almost overwhelming. Fortunately, we had plenty of time to put our heads together and come up with five scenes for Mr. Vergin to set to music. I can’t wait for next week when we hear our librettos sung!


Truly yours,

Logan Stewart


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