And one more thing...

There might be some personal nonsense in here, too...

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Writing a libretto is ... still very hard

Opera happens because a large number of things amazingly fail to go wrong.

Normally that failure starts with the libretto.  But so far this thing is failing failing going wrong.
 And not unspectacularly.

Before the ramble begins, let me put this out there: I'm in the market for a librettist who could share this peculiar vision.  Know anyone?  Or where to start looking?
 I've yet to find a resource for matching composers and librettists for opera.  Hmmmm — an opportunity there?  (Sorry, Craigslist, but there's no way I'm hitching my wagon to your star.)

I planned to plug away on the libretto until the end of summer, and if unsatisfied with the progress at that point reach out for help.  But it's increasingly obvious that I'm only delaying the inevitable.  Though I'm (debatably) capable of editing the minimal dialogue Poe provides in Usher, generating original conversational text suitable for an operatic scene is even more difficult than I had imagined.  My attempts sound contrived and amateurish.
 This isn't much at all like writing fiction.  Forget poetry and lyricism — the conciseness and economy required are excruciating enough.  It's as though there's only room for exposition, not the dialogue to drive it; for action or reaction, but not both.  Harder still is writing in a manner consistent with Poe's own style without turning purple.

Dramatic opera is less a medium for richly detailed stories (or even sensical ones — I'm looking at you, Nabucco!) than for expressing emotion, and the more extreme, the better.  This emphasis on sturm und drang should suit Usher to a tee, considering that so little happens but happens in remarkable and sometimes bombastic ways.  But Poe's storytelling technique is mostly detached.  Despite being part of action, the narrator, well, generally narrates the tale, as if around a campfire or in a diary, describing and summarizing most conversation rather than recording or repeating it.  For example, this paragraph, wherein we learn of Usher's condition:

It was thus that he spoke of the object of my visit, of his earnest desire to see me, and of the solace he expected me to afford him.  He entered, at some length, into what he conceived to be the nature of his malady.  It was, he said, a constitutional and a family evil, and one for which he despaired to find a remedy — a mere nervous affection, he immediately added, which would undoubtedly soon pass.  It displayed itself in a host of unnatural sensations.  Some of these, as he detailed them, interested and bewildered me; although, perhaps, the terms, and the general manner of the narration had their weight.  He suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses; the most insipid food was alone endurable; he could wear only garments of certain texture; the odours of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured by even a faint light; and there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror.

This is well before the "show, don't tell" axiom came to popular consciousness.  A shame, that, because it's obvious Poe wants to show us something — the "earnest desire", the "general manner of the narration", etc.
 It also leaves me a space to fill.  There is dialogue there, somewhere, and I struggle with how to get Usher to say his peace in a conversational context.  Roderick doesn't describe his illness without prompting — it arises naturally as they talk.  But how much of that conversation can I afford to reveal?
 In Scene 2, Edgar sees Roderick for the first time in years, and is startled by his friend's frail aspect and odd manner.  Roderick explains his condition and that of his twin sister Madeline, who makes a brief wordless appearance near the end.  That's not much to accomplish.  But to make that happen logically and reasonably, there "must" also be a greeting of old friends, Edgar's take on Roderick's mien and demeanor (perhaps as an aside/voice over), conversation to drive Roderick's exposition, and Edgar's reactions to that exposition and to Madeline's cameo.  That could be quite a bit of text.

I started by compiling all the dialogue Poe provided for this scene; this was almost none, and belongs solely to Roderick Usher.  I then gathered the narrator's summary of Usher's testimony and wrote it as if spoken by Usher himself, changing pronouns, etc.  The order of some pieces was changed to better shape the scene to end with Madeline Usher's cameo.
 The result is too many words.  In the context of the short story this isn't much, just a few paragraphs.  But for a ten minute opera scene?  To this untrained eye it looks like overkill — and it's only part of one character's contribution.  Edgar doesn't need to say all that much in this scene, not to Usher anyway, but he'll need to share his concerns and drive Roderick's exposition.  More text is obviously needed, but how to do that while keeping the scene to a reasonable length is thus far beyond me.
 So... this is what I've got from Poe at the mo'.  It's most of what Roderick contributes to the scene, sans his initial greeting and any incidental conversation that drives the exposition.  I've not included any of the original words I "crafted", because they're terrible.  Text likely to be cut is [yellow and set in brackets].  The bold text suggests a "proper" aria.


It is a constitutional and [a] family evil, for which I despair to find a remedy —
a mere nervous affection which will undoubtedly soon pass.
It displays itself in a host of unnatural sensations.
The most insipid food is alone endurable;
I can wear only garments of certain texture;
the odours of all flowers are oppressive;
my eyes are tortured by even a faint light;
and there are but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments,
which do not inspire me with horror.

I shall perish, I must perish in this deplorable folly.
Thus, thus, and not otherwise, shall I be lost.
I dread the events of the future, not in themselves, but in their results.
I shudder at the thought of any, even the most trivial, incident,
which may operate upon this intolerable agitation of soul.
I have, indeed, no abhorrence of danger, except in its absolute effect —
in terror.
In this unnerved — in this pitiable condition —
[I feel] [that] the period will [sooner or later] arrive when
I must abandon life and reason together,
in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR.

Much of the peculiar gloom which [thus] afflicts me can be traced
to a more [natural and far more] palpable origin —
to the severe and long-continued illness —
indeed to the [evidently] approaching dissolution —
of my tenderly beloved sister —
my sole companion for long years —
my last and only relative on earth.

The disease [of the lady Madeline] has long baffled [the skill of] her physicians.
A settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person,
and [frequent although transient] affections of a partially cataleptical character,
are the unusual diagnosis.
Hitherto she had steadily borne up against the pressure of her malady,
but, on the closing in of the evening of your arrival [at the house],
she succumbed to the prostrating power of the destroyer;
the glimpse you [have] obtained [of her] [person] will thus probably be your last.

Her decease would leave me, hopeless and frail,
the last of the ancient race of the Ushers.

I see a few more places (unmarked) where text could be further trimmed without undermining the style or meaning, but not enough to substantially reduce the length.  Or maybe there's more opportunity than I realize — and a real librettist would be all over it.
 I admit that a large part of the problem is my insistence on using Poe's words where plausible.  This then begs the question: what defines "plausible"?  I remain committed to presenting Poe as closely as possible to the way Poe presented Poe.  But if that commitment undermines the project, "plausible" is on thin ice.  Why is there no Venn diagram for this?