Monday, January 2, 2017

Want to write an opera?

Seattle Opera’s all-new “Write a Libretto!” class gives students the chance to write the words that go with the music

Jessica Murphy Moo
Most Seattle Opera performances feature music and words written by men who lived centuries ago. Luckily for us, Seattle Opera is home to a living, breathing librettist—Jessica Murphy Moo. While Moo works as our Communications Editor (authoring the programs you read before every opera at McCaw Hall), it was her powerful words that helped tell the story of a Japanese American family in An American Dream (2015). Writing libretti has been an exciting new challenge for Moo, whose first medium was not opera, but fiction and nonfiction. Her accomplishments as a writer, editor, and teacher have included being published in national publications such as The Atlantic to teaching at universities including Harvard! After creating An American Dream with composer Jack Perla, Moo has since had the honor of being selected for Tapestry Opera’s Librettist-Composer Laboratory Workshop in Toronto, Canada. While she continues to craft her own stories (and hopefully, more libretti!)—you don’t have to be an experienced writer like her to learn how to write the words of opera. This January, Moo will teach “Introduction to Libretto Writing” through Seattle Opera’s new Opera in the Making program for adults—anyone interested in indulging their passion for creativity, opera, and storytelling are welcome! [Sign up here.] 

Jessica Murphy Moo was a writer of fiction and nonfiction before being asked to write a libretto for a Seattle Opera world premiere -- which later became An American Dream. Morgan Smith (Jim), Hae Ji Chang (Setsuko), and D'Ana Lombard (Eva) in An American Dream. Philip Newton photo

What is a librettist?
The librettist writes the words of an opera. Libretto means “little book,” in Italian, and that’s really what it is—a little book that goes along with the music.

Tell me about your journey to becoming a librettist. 
In addition to writing fiction and nonfiction, I work in Seattle Opera’s marketing department as an editor (I’ve also been an editor for many years). Before creating An American Dream, our former education director Sue Elliott came by my desk and said she was looking for a librettist for a new opera she was going to commission. I said I didn’t know any librettists, I’m sorry, and wasn’t sure how I could help her. She then said, no, that she meant me—she wanted to show my work to Jack, the composer, to be considered. After reading some of my writing, he was on board!

People are often surprised to see how short an opera’s libretto is. 
Yes—an hour-long opera is just 20 pages of script—not full-paragraph pages either, it looks like just a list of words and some stage directions. Only 20 pages of words for many, many pages of sheet music. You have few words to work with, and the words don’t have to sound like how we talk.

Jack Perla (Composer) and Jessica Murphy Moo (Librettist) -- creators of An American Dream. Brandon Patoc photo

How do a librettist and composer work together?
Many different ways. One way is that both composer and librettist come to an agreement on a story (regardless, there has to be some sort of initial agreement). The librettist will run with the idea, writing the words that the characters will eventually sing. After that, you hand your work off to the composer who will give all kinds of feedback. Anything from, “Let’s start this part over from scratch,” to “That word might be hard for that singer to sing.” Sometimes the composer might request a certain part be more realistic, or more lyrical.

How has the librettist/composer collaboration changed over the years?
When Seattle Opera was doing Ariadne auf Naxos (2015), I looked into some of the correspondence between Hugo von Hofmannsthal (librettist) and Richard Strauss (composer). It was so interesting to see their correspondence after having worked with a composer myself. Hofmannsthal handed in the libretto to Strauss, and Strauss said, “I don’t get it.” He didn’t think other people would get it either. Hofmannsthal had the confidence to say, “I think people will get it.” This sort of thing went back and forth until they eventually were able to come to an understanding.

In some ways, nothing has changed about the librettist/composer relationship. It’s about two people communicating, not just words, but ideas and imaginations. You don’t know what the end result will be. Collaboration is challenging; it can be hard for two people to get on the same page.

Tell us about the back-and-forth collaboration between yourself and composer Jack Perla when creating An American Dream.
I knew I could use more poetic language with this form of writing, but wasn’t always sure this was appropriate. That’s something Jack helped with. He might look at the story, then say, “This could be a good place for the character to pause, then sing an aria!” Or he might say, “This is a good place for a duet, or for all characters in the ensemble to sing.”

What was a major thing you learned during An American Dream?
Before the opera made it to McCaw Hall, we held an informal workshop performance. This is when I heard singers breathe life into these characters for the first time. I learned how much the music really does tell the story, and how much it supports the emotional moment. That’s why you really don’t need as many words.

During last summer, 2016, you were selected for Tapestry Opera’s 10-day Librettist-Composer workshop in Toronto. Tell me about the other librettists you met in “LIBLAB.”

The other librettists included: a playwright/actor, someone who wrote for TV, as well as translations—mostly French translations—in Canada, and a librettist/short-story writer/musician. There were people coming in with a lot of different backgrounds, some had written a libretto before, some had not. (By the way, we’ve all decided to stay in touch and keep working together!)

Jessica Murphy Moo (center) at LIBLAB in summer, 2016. 

What was a typical day like for you during the intensive?

I’d get a prompt, be paired with a composer, then the two of us would have to come to an agreement on how to move forward. After we decided what we wanted to write, we librettists would spend the night writing. The following day, we’d hand in what we wrote to singers who were there as a resource for us at the workshop. They would read the words, then there’d be a quick workshop of the scene we created. I would make revisions, hand the libretto to the composer, then they would spend the night writing music. The next day, the composer would deliver the music to the singers to learn. Then we’d start all over again with a different librettist/composer pairing.

What was one of your prompts? 
One of the prompts was to pursue an idea that the composer was interested in. I worked with an Iranian composer Afarin Mansouri who was interested in telling the story of a gay Iranian couple from the perspective of a man who left Iran after his partner had been arrested, and likely, executed. (The act of homosexuality is illegal in Iran.) The composer was really interested in the partner who survived and fled, as he would have to leave his whole life and cut family ties—not only to save himself, but to save his family from persecution as well. She was interested in exploring the rituals that we create, when you leave a place, you have the traditions you grew up with. Then you move somewhere new, and must create new rituals. OK—you have 24 hours to write the libretto—go!

What was your process in working with Afarin Mansouri?

This prompt was really challenging, as this was not my background and I didn’t want to offend. We had a number of discussions about what might be the right language—what might this character’s religious beliefs be? I spent the afternoon reading as many testimonials I could find of people who had fled Iran to escape persecution. I wanted to understand why would someone do this, and what would they have to do in order to flee? Part of the challenge of LIBLAB is to make big decisions quickly. You need to be able to get a lot done in a short amount of time.

I decided that our main character was going to be writing a letter to his beloved. Most of this would be English, but decided to use the word “beloved” in Farsi.

All evening, the composer and I went back and forth, emailing. I essentially came up with a ritual where our main character was trying to write a letter. After writing each phrase, he would rip the paper and burn it; it was one moment of one person reflecting on his love and moving forward. The composer brought Persian music (including a Persian drum) to this scene, and so much of the story was told through the texture of the music.

What was your key takeaway from LIBLAB?
The first thing is I want to write another libretto. I think I understand the form and how it’s changing, and how I can do a better job next time. The dramaturg that Tapestry Opera hired for the LIBLAB workshop told me to stand up for myself, and to stand up for my ideas. Trust my instincts. The other takeaway is just realizing how much new work is out there, and being excited at how opera is changing and evolving. There’s so much that’s new. We sometimes lose sight of that when we only think about the classics.

D'ana Lombard as Eva in An American Dream. Philip newton photo