Thursday, February 18, 2010

Librettist, Where Art Thou?

This week I'm proofreading the lower trombone parts and the lower horns, and that will be the end of proofreading. How many parts are there, anyway? 31, I think.... 5 of which are the strings, which then get copied as many times as there are players (although several pairs share one part on a stand). I believe the orchestra will be a total of 53 players, which is quite swank nowadays, although ideally the sound in my head would've had 8 more strings or so. Never mind....!

Sidebar: I've been rediscovering the recordings of the Tchaikovsky symphonies I grew up with: Bernstein and the NY Philharmonic. What thrilling interpretations! Some may say "over the top," but I say: genius! And of course, the sound on the CDs is so much clearer than what I was used to. I've always thought it was utterly unbelievable that Tchaikovsky was ever considered to be a lesser composer. Pure snobbery as far as I can tell — and it may have begun with more than a whiff of homophobia in his own day and right after he died. By the way: the idea that he committed suicide is one of the longest-running falsehoods in music history. The latest scholarship has debunked that myth (read Pozhnansky and Taruskin). I never thought an artist, who was at the very top of his form, having just opened Carnegie Hall in New York, finished the 6th Symphony and the Nutcracker, and — to me most tellingly — with plenty of ideas for new works, would commit suicide. Suicide is born of despair, and he was full of ideas and had plenty to look forward to. The worst part of his depression, dealing with the repression of his sexuality, had already peaked many years before with his "show" marriage and divorce, after which time he felt much more at peace with himself. (A propos of nothing, one of my favorite vignettes I read about somewhere: when Saint-Saens visited St. Petersburg, he and Tch. got along famously; apparently one day they donned tutus and danced for Rubinstein at the Conservatory! How gay is that!?)


Librettist, Where Art Thou?

I was already in touch with J. D. McClatchy, who even then,
to my mind, was the most notable librettist out there, for another project (which alas came to naught), so I thought, hm, what about Terrence McNally? He was a well-known “out” playwright, and I knew he was an opera buff. He had not yet written a libretto, but I thought it would be a coup to get him to collaborate with me on his first. He read the book, and we met in his Chelsea apartment. He was very sweet, but assured me he had no idea how to adapt the book for the stage, for which I did not blame him. My consolation was that while I was visiting, Joe Mantello, whom I had seen on Broadway in the original production of Angels in America — and fallen immediately in crush with! — stopped by: ohmygod, there he was! My star-struck moment....

Going down the list of gay playwrights (clearly I was playing the
identity game by now full tilt!) I approached Bill Hoffman, who had
written the libretto for Ghosts of Versailles. Again, very nice, but
that didn’t work either. I thought of asking Tony Kushner, even though at one point he was sitting two feet away from me at a house concert — but I lost heart and didn’t. I started to think the unthinkable: going for it
myself, to which end I began to reread the book culling from it the
passages that I felt were most important, emblematic, striking, stageable or
dramatic. But still — I decided to approach Andrew Joffe, who had
written the libretto for my Saki opera Beast and Superbeast, on which he did
such a great job. Admittedly this was quite a different “beast.” He
was over the moon with the idea, and although he admitted to feeling
intimidated by the greatness of the book, we launched into it.

We came up with a treatment, the most salient aspect of which was that
Andrew came up with the idea of having a dying Reinaldo telling the
story and the younger Reinaldo acting it out. I showed this treatment
to a few folks whose judgment I trusted. Most memorable was Jack
Beeson’s assessment. Jack had been my teacher at Columbia and the
composer of Lizzie Borden, so he knew more than a thing or two. He was
lacerating. He made his position entirely clear, and convinced me, as
a matter of theatrical experience: in dividing the character you also
divide the audience’s identification with the protagonist, and that’s
a really bad idea. I went back to Andrew with this, and we mutually agreed to
drop further work on the libretto.

I came up with a treatment of my own and learned another thing, from
Jack again. I was working from the largest elements down to the small,
and came up with a framing prologue and epilogue with five main arcs of
action in between, which I, in my naïveté, called “Acts.” When Jack saw Five Acts plus prologue and epilogue he went nearly berserk. I tried to explain that this wasn’t a French grand opera; the term “act” was just.... Forget it. Anyone seeing “Five Acts” wouldn’t give the work another look.

Mind you, from the first I was powerfully aware of “union rules,”
which stipulate, essentially, that any opera that goes over a set time, usually three
hours, incurs killer overtime fees, so my opera had to have no more
than 2 and a half hours of music, accounting for one intermission, and
preferably less, or it would be rejected out of hand as too expensive.

So I kept my five structural arcs and just renamed them; Act One (a
prologue and three big arcs, or scenes) and Act Two
(two more arcs and an epilogue). I decided to keep the book’s own
framing device of the writer in the present, looking back on his life, and
returning to the present at the end. Not original, but effective. But
still, I felt I couldn’t quite write the libretto by myself, so I had
an idea....

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