Phantoms of the Opera

They're rarely at the top of the bill, but a few contemporary poets find themselves in-demand librettists.
"When Emily Dickinson wrote that her art was 'full as opera,' she was defying its solitude. She meant that poetry, however private, could be as enthralling as any troupe of singers. As a librettist, though, Dickinson might have had it both ways: before opera has any fullness at all, it starts with a poet’s libretto, which inspires the score with plot, lyrical dialogue, and the elegant verses of arias." Jeremy Axelrod on poet-librettists.


Phantoms of the Opera Original artwork by Paul Killebrew.

When Emily Dickinson wrote that her art was “full as opera,” she was defying its solitude. She meant that poetry, however private, could be as enthralling as any troupe of singers. As a librettist, though, Dickinson might have had it both ways: before opera has any fullness at all, it starts with a poet’s libretto, which inspires the score with plot, lyrical dialogue, and the elegant verses of arias. Rarely can poets hear such a public, full-bodied performance of their words, and rarely must they tailor them to meet so many formal constraints. The task of writing opera libretti has long fallen to poets because traditional operas are, in many sections, written in verse; but more broadly crucial is a poet’s grasp of cadence and phrasing—a knack for shaping opera’s supersize sentimentality into bold, thrifty lines that composers can weld to melodies. The challenge has appealed to a number of accomplished contemporary poets—among them J.D. McClatchy, David Yezzi, Kate Gale, and Daniel Mark Epstein—who are also adept librettists.

Poet-Librettist Cheat Sheet

Kenward Elmslie:
Lizzie Borden

Daniel Mark Epstein:
Jefferson & Poe

Annie Finch: “Encyclopedia of Scotland” 

Kate Gale:
Río De Sangre

Dana Gioia:

Ernest Hilbert:
Last of Manhattan

Douglas Kearney:

David Mason:
The Scarlet Letter

J.D. McClatchy:
Our Town

Eileen Myles:

Daniel Nester & Daniel Sonenberg:
The Summer King

Anna Rabinowitz:

David Yezzi:
Firebird Motel

McClatchy, whose sixth collection of poetry, Mercury Dressing, was published this February, is known in the poetry world as a master of formal verse and as the editor of the Yale Review. Poetry readers may be surprised to learn, however, that he is also one of the world’s preeminent librettists.

McClatchy has provided the words for composer Bruce Saylor’s Orpheus Descending, Tobias Picker’s Emmeline, Lorin Maazel’s 1984, Elliot Goldenthal’s Grendel, and nine other operas. His libretti are regularly produced at the world’s crown-jewel opera houses, including New York’s Metropolitan and Milan’s La Scala. McClatchy will also complete several new libretti for production in 2010 and 2011, including an adaptation of Al Gore’s global-warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth into a thrilling rescue story, which La Scala commissioned to celebrate, somehow, the 150th anniversary of Italy’s unification.

Like many poets, McClatchy landed his first commission with a bit of serendipity. In 1987, the composer William Schuman asked Richard Wilbur to write a libretto for his next project, A Question of Taste, adapted from a Roald Dahl story. Wilbur, overscheduled at the time, suggested that Schuman call McClatchy instead. But while a libretto calls on a poet’s gifts, it uses those gifts differently. To master the libretto form, McClatchy first had to adjust his priorities. “Poetry—or at least the kind of poetry I write—solicits a density of texture and a range of allusion and nuance that are largely useless in a libretto,” McClatchy says. “Of course I try for as much pathos or wit or elegance as possible in a libretto, but I am also keenly aware that the words have to be sung and understood, both very difficult operations in a large opera house. So I have to strive for a kind of clarity, a kind of ‘build,’ and an economy that would almost be handicaps in the writing of a poem.”

These are writerly challenges, McClatchy notes, but they orbit the needs of the score: “I have to think musically,” he says, “and this is the difference between a poet and a librettist. I think of voices interacting, not just of characters interacting.” Thinking musically starts before even the first note is written, and it extends far beyond the style of the lines. A librettist must have in mind how each scene will give structure to the score. Where poets write with an ear to how language sounds, librettists write with an ear to how their language will sound—when it is accompanied by an orchestra, or repeated by the chorus, or doubled in a duet. Once the score is near completion, however, the librettist’s work of anticipating composition shifts wholesale into reshaping the libretto around what has actually been composed. Invention, at this point, is a distant second to collaboration. “The composer revises and advises,” McClatchy says, “you unstitch and restitch, and without the closest attention to small matters of text and timing, any project is doomed.”

Each line, McClatchy adds, has to fit its character as naturally as it fits the score. “You try to weave together the imagery of the world in which the person lives—to imagine a stage picture, to imagine a character, and to fashion a piece of poetry that will sound like something that came from her,” he says. When he wrote the libretto for Tobias Picker’s Emmeline (2004), McClatchy chose lines that would reflect Emmeline’s life in a puritanical 19th-century mill town. Sent to work at a Maine cotton mill just before her 14th birthday, Emmeline is pursued—and later impregnated—by Maguire, the mill owner’s married son, who beckons her from outside her bedroom window:

He’s there almost every night.
His voice almost sounds like the night,
The night out there, like a great machine,
Weaving the dark, near to far,
Grinding the day into stars.
He’s there most every night,
He’s out there in the dark,
Like a light, like a fire,
There in the dark.
How can I answer the dark?
Why am I not afraid?
It’s easier just to obey.
What am I to answer,
What does he want me to say?

Emmeline’s language, even at its most evocative, never floats beyond her life in the severe mill town: to her the night is a constellatory cotton mill, and the voice of her caller has less a seductive quality than a looming, authoritarian magnitude, vast and “out there,” waiting to be feared or obeyed—just as a very young woman might hear power, as much as romance, in the overtures of an older man.

McClatchy did not formally study libretti until he taught a course on the subject at Yale; his knowledge of theater was based mainly in watching and listening. By contrast, David Yezzi wrote his own first libretto with years on the stage to guide him. Now executive editor of The New Criterion, Yezzi worked at Parnassus: Poetry in Review and spent four years as director of the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center. He has written three acclaimed books of poetry, most recently Azores. Before all that, however, Yezzi spent his initial years out of college acting in New York City, where he co-founded the theater company Thick Description. Years later, Thick Description commissioned Yezzi’s libretto for the chamber opera Firebird Motel, and director Tony Kelly, a fellow company founder, helped conceive the opera’s scenario. 

Writing for composer David Conte, Yezzi set Firebird Motel in the bleak Mojave Desert, where a hooker and a motel night clerk—their lives no less bleak—squirm under the thumb of a brutal policeman. “Having a background in theater was very helpful to me in terms of thinking of a story that could be staged,” says Yezzi, who is now adapting a libretto from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Love of the Last Tycoon for San Francisco’s West Bay Opera company. “If anything, there’s too much action in Firebird Motel,” Yezzi says, “and it’s kind of overweighted with melodrama. But so are a lot of the great operas, so I thought, ‘Why not pull out all the stops and have it be a kind of life-or-death situation with ghosts and violence and a kind of gritty tone to a lot of it?’ Because I just thought that would be more interesting on stage.”

Not everyone survives Yezzi’s grim opera, and for a while it looks like the hardiest thing in Firebird Motel will be regret. Even death fails to stifle the laments of Julie, a local murder victim whose ghost can be heard singing out in the desert (that is, when Ivan, the night clerk who loved her, tunes his car radio just right):

The night I was shot
I remember the stars,
the sounds from the highway
of west-streaming cars.

It happened so fast.
When I heard the shot,
I thought he’d missed me,
then I felt hot

and numb all over,
the stars went black.
I saw the sky
as I lay on my back.

It felt like falling.
It felt like flying.
Then I looked down on him,
As I was dying.

The feat of these lines is that they haven’t sacrificed emotion to simplicity. The language may seem spare by itself, but its final poignancy lies in Julie’s musical presence on stage. Here Yezzi deftly carries out a key task of the librettist: to write lines that are most moving when someone is singing them.

By contrast, poetry is crafted to work against silence. “Poems are written to be sonically and emotionally complete unto themselves,” says Yezzi, noting that for this reason they are difficult to pair with music unless written for it in the first place. “Singing is like a direct access to emotion,” Yezzi explains. “You don’t need to build up a complex machinery of nuanced expression. You can kind of go right for it. All of a poem’s interests and complexities can be steamrolled by music, or they can be pushed over the top and made to seem ludicrous, because what was meant to be a kind of ruminative, quiet internal expression has become an outburst.” 

Experience in the theater also brought a libretto assignment to Daniel Mark Epstein, a widely published poet, biographer, and dramatist. Epstein’s libretto for Jefferson and Poe (2005), a chamber opera composed by Damon Ferrante, started with an original play of the same title, which Epstein wrote back in the late 1980s. After reading a biography of Thomas Jefferson, Epstein noticed that Jefferson and Edgar Allan Poe had lived near each other while Poe was studying at the University of Virginia; they could even have met. Imagining that meeting, Epstein wrote a play that Ferrante thought would be perfect for opera, though this meant Epstein would have to painstakingly whittle down his script. “In the play there are large sections of dialogue devoted to exposition and Shavian-style dialectic. There's no room for any of that in an opera. One must quickly cut to the chase, the emotional crux of things.”

Like any seasoned poet, Epstein relied on his command of language to distill Jefferson and Poe into the lyrics and arias of a libretto. More unusual, perhaps, is the variety of Epstein’s experience with portraying character. Epstein, who has completed over a dozen plays and published five books of poetry, has also written several celebrated biographies, including Whitman and Lincoln and The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage. “Creating character onstage in an opera differs from both stage drama and biography—at least in my case—in its freedom from the facts,” Epstein says. “The biographer gives life to historical figures through the magic of language, and by the artistic choice of data, but the serious biographer cannot invent anything. The writer of dramatic histories is loosely bound by historical data but is allowed to take liberties with the facts. Opera is supposed to indulge in wild surmises.”

Placing famous personalities in a fanciful scenario, Epstein reflects, was easier to pull off in a light opera. “I’m not sure if Jefferson and Poe would have succeeded as a ‘tragic’ opera,” he says. “It works because of its combination of romance and humor. In the opera Jefferson and Poe become representations of the Age of Reason and the Age of Romance. While they are empathetic characters, as allegorical figures they are amusing.”

Epstein’s libretto was in a sense doubly adapted, since it remained faithful both to his play and to the basic shape of history. By contrast, Kate Gale, the founder and managing editor of Southern California’s Red Hen Press, adapted a libretto that was so free from history—and even from Earth—as to have its own constraints: Paradises Lost, which chronicles a two-century space voyage to the planet Shindychew and unfolds entirely within a spaceship. The opera started with Ursula K. Le Guin’s science fiction novella of the same title, which Gale and composer Stephen Taylor adapted to a libretto in 2005. “Opera has a swashbuckling atmosphere to it. There’s life, death, swords in the torso, neckties dripping with blood, that sort of thing. But because Paradises Lost takes place on a fairly quiet, utopian spaceship, the opera is dependent on language and atmosphere for tension until the very end, when there is a fight in the spaceship and someone gets killed,” says Gale, who is also the editor of the Los Angeles Review, a former president of PEN USA, and the author of five books of poetry and two novels.

Composer Don Davis invited Gale to write her first libretto for Rio de Sangre, an opera about bloody cycles of political corruption in a fictional region of Latin America. Since then, Gale has also adapted libretti from T.C. Boyle’s novel Inner Circle and Octavia Butler’s Kindred. This year, she is scheduled to write a libretto for Veronika Krausas, a composer teaching at the University of Southern California. “Poetry is about every word being right,” says Gale, comparing poetic language to a high-wire act. “But the language of a libretto is more like a roller-coaster. The purpose is a great ride and the music is everything. It helps that the composer is working with you on editing. Writing a libretto feels like a communal act. Writing a poem is a lonely business best enjoyed by people who drink alone.”

Even though a libretto is written to be “communal” with the stage and score, it is mostly sidelined by the powerful music it frames. “I would say that 70 percent of what makes an opera riveting is music, 20 percent is story, and maybe 10 percent is words,” says Yezzi. His estimation is common to librettists, who are each, as McClatchy is fond of saying, a “handmaiden” to the opera. As Epstein puts it, “The librettist is always aware that the opera is music first and foremost. A good libretto should be simple and natural. Like the perfect waiter, it should be invisible, never interfering with the music or the story.” 

Invisible is the right word, for librettists rarely enjoy the prominent billing of composers. Outside of opera circles, Lorenzo Da Ponte is hardly mentioned, despite his brilliant libretti for three of Mozart’s finer operas. And though La bohème is Puccini’s deepest foothold in contemporary American culture, few remember its librettist duo, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, who also gave Puccini Tosca and Madame Butterfly. Only a fanatic might recall which famous political philosophers—Voltaire and Rousseau—dabbled in libretti. Libretti in the 20th century tend to have a “higher literary quality,” McClatchy notes, and many of their authors are household names (well, in literary households) —W.H. Auden, Gertrude Stein, E.M. Forster, Thornton Wilder, James Laughlin, Italo Calvino, and James Fenton—though all are remembered best for their poetry, plays, and novels. Here in the 21st century, McClatchy received no mention on the CD cover of Emmeline.

For today’s poet-librettist, though, the core attraction lies in the medium itself, and in the riveting collaboration that brings it to life. “I have never been moved as much by any piece of writing as I have by opera,” McClatchy remarks, and if you poll the dazzled crowds leaving the Metropolitan some night, you may find many who agree.



Originally Published: April 17th, 2009

Jeremy Axelrod is a writer living in New York. He has written articles for Parnassus, the New York Sun, Commentary Magazine, and other publications. His poetry has appeared in Parnassus and the Yale Review. He is also the assistant editor of Contemporary Poetry Review. He lives in the East Village.

  1. April 12, 2009
     Ron Silliman

    How did Axelrod miss Charles Bernstein's operas? Shadowtime, with score by Brian Ferneyhough, Blind Witness News with score by Ben Yarmolinsky and Café Buffe with score by Dean Drummond.

  2. April 13, 2009
     Rob Stanton

    Paul Muldoon has written some great libretti for Daron Hagen, especially Shining Brow (about Frank Lloyd Wright), which stands up really well 'on the page'. I would second the mention of Charles Bernstein too: Shadowtime is a real one-off.

  3. April 14, 2009
     janet wolkoff

    Jeremy Axelrod has elucidated the
    essential connection between poetry and
    music .A very informative article on the
    contemporary operas and librettos.

  4. April 15, 2009
     Daisy Fried

    The poet Nathalie Anderson (author of Following Fred Astaire and Crawlers) has written librettos for three operas, most recently A Scandal in Bohemia, superbly adapted from the Sherlock Holmes story, which premiered this spring at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia.

  5. April 15, 2009

    i suppose most people just are not as well informed as the great Ron Silliman

  6. April 21, 2009

    I agree with janet wolkoff.

    I guess he missed Bernstein (the alpha and omega of poetic public relations) because Axelrod's beneath you, Lord Silliman. C=I=R=C=L=E=J=E=R=K.

  7. April 29, 2009
     Smith, Warsaw

    No greater faith hath man than to play clarinet in a marching band.

    Librettists are right up there.

    How often does opera really allow us, or want us, to make out the words?

  8. May 1, 2009

    It fascinates me that Sandy McClatchy should have so much written about him when Paul Muldoon has written so many librettos! (I think as many as Sandy!) I commend Jeremy Axelrod to Muldoon's poetry (poetry editor at the New Yorker, at least as important as President of the Academy, don't you think?).