What Do Words Matter?

In his opera Capriccio, Richard Strauss posed the question, is the music in opera based on the words or are the words based on the music? He personified it in the form of two men competing for the love of one woman and left the answer somewhat ambiguous. Yesterday evening I went along to a local church to hear two librettists discuss this and other questions. Very interesting it was too.

Meredith Oakes is a playwright, dramaturge and violinist who is also a very successful librettist, working with Gerald Barry (The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit, 1995) and Thomas Ades (The TempestPhiliphensher, 2004), the latter opera performed around the world. She is currently working on a piece to be performed in her native Australia. Philip Hensher is better known as a novelist, twice listed for the Man Booker Prize (The Mulberry Empire, 2002 and The Northern Clemency, 2008) but has an abiding love of opera and produced the libretto to Thomas Ades’ debut opera Powder Her Face (1995). His latest book is A Small Revolution in Germany (Fourth Estate, 2020). The discussion was marshalled by Jonathan Boardman, Vicar of St Pauls, Clapham, where the event took place.

We began at the beginning, how does collaboration between composer and librettist start? For Hensher it was almostPowderHerFace by chance, it was he who suggested the subject of Ades’ first opera, the scandalous divorce between the Duke and Duchess of Argyll, which became Powder Her Face. He described the process as a suggestive and seductive one, the librettist leaving a trail of breadcrumbs (words) to entice the composer into following creatively and then to exceed the limitations of those words. Oakes described the process differently, more of a collaboration in joy. She took on the task of writing the libretto for an opera based on Shakespeare which was filled with particular challenges. She described the process as being like ‘walking around a monument, seeing it from different angles and bringing out its different aspects’. Should she adopt iambic pentameter, the verse form used most frequently by Shakespeare? Yet it might constrain or run directly against the meter of the music. Should she use it occasionally, or abandon it altogether? She also had a particular problem in that, in the play the heroine Miranda, daughter of Prospero, says very little. Oakes had to get inside the head of this character and give her more of a voice, bringing out her hopes and fears in order for her to act as a balance within the opera.

The discussion ranged widely. Is the collaboration improved by the composer and librettist being friends? Both theOakesthetempest librettists speaking last night remain friends with the composers they had worked with, but there are some examples of the relationship between collaborators breaking down. So much so in Harrison Birtwhistle’s case that one of his librettists alleged that Birtwhistle had tried to run him down with his car! Gilbert and Sullivan cordially hated each other (though they made a lot of money together). On the other hand there have been some great collaborations between partners, like that between Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears (though Britten was, apparently, notoriously difficult to work with).

Throughout the conversation was punctuated by illustrations, pieces written in English and set to music across the StPaulsages, by Purcell, Handel, Gilbert & Sullivan and Britten. The young singers, Hugh Benson (tenor), Alexandra Dinwiddie (mezzo-soprano), Edwin Kaye (bass cantate) and Davidona Pittock (soprano) were from St Paul’s Opera, accompanied by pianist Elspeth Wilkes.

Add in some Provencal rosé, a sunny summer’s evening in a churchyard and music in a church with a wonderful acoustic for music. What more could one ask?

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