Liberties with the libretto

November 2, 2009

I’ve been listening to a couple of English operas the past few days (and went to see the ROH double bill of L’Heure Espagnol and Gianni Schicchi) and it’s all got me thinking about the libretto of an opera and where it comes from.

The English operas are Vaughan Williams’ Riders to the Sea and (after a lot of recent twitter action about Opera Australia’s production) Britten’s Peter Grimes. Two different approaches to source texts you couldn’t find – Vaughan Williams pretty much sets the text of Synge’s one act play as he found it, whilst Montagu Slater, in his libretto for Grimes, takes a section of a larger poem and turns it into a new work in its own right. Grimes is an out and out sadist in Crabbe’s original poem, yet Slater and Britten blur the edges between what Grimes has done and how he’s treated to the point where a good performance can floor you with the tragedy of it all.

This made me think of Gianni Schicchi, which I saw at Covent Garden the week before last. Here we have a work expertly crafted (by Giovacchino Forzano) from a handful of lines taken from a much larger work (Dante’s Inferno). Forzano takes Schicchi, a minor character given a passing mention, and explores his story in full. We all know there’s great skill in taking a source text ad adapting it so it works dramatically when sung. It’s a completely different thing though to take a fragment of something and work it into a full-scale masterpiece in its own right, creating a dramatic structure and singable text as you go.

All of this has given me a new-found respect for the art of the librettist and convinced me of the worth of reading the source materials an opera came from, not necessarily to enhance my understanding of the opera itself (if the libretto works it should stand alone), but just to see the craft that goes into preparing a text to be sung and acted in the unique form that is opera. I’m sure this is a stage many of you have already been through in your journey through opera but, for a relative newcomer like me, it opened my eyes further and reminded me that one of the reasons I love opera so much is the sheer number of angles you can approach it from.

OK, back to writing content for the website – must add a list of librettists to the ever-growing phase 2 content list!



And so it begins

October 28, 2009

Following on from my first post I’ve now sorted out the structure, layout and overall design for the site. I now need to do 2 ‘simple’ things:

  1. learn enough HTML and CSS to build the thing
  2. write all the content (yikes!)

I’ve decided to do the latter in phases so phase 1 will include 25 composers’ biogs and a selection of their best known works. Once I’ve got that up and running I can add more composers and operas as I go along. Info on singers, composers etc will also be split into phases and there are several other things I’d really like to include which can wait til the new year.

Here’s the list of the first 25 composers. I think it covers the basics but there are bound to be people who think I’ve missed someone vital or included someone I shouldn’t have at this stage! Some (Verdi, Wagner, Mozart etc) are obvious, others may have only written one or two operas but those operas are biggies.

In alphabetical order we have:

  1. Bartok
  2. Beethoven
  3. Bellini
  4. Bizet
  5. Britten
  6. Debussy
  7. Donizetti
  8. Gluck
  9. Gounod
  10. Handel
  11. Humperdinck
  12. Leoncavallo
  13. Mascagni
  14. Monteverdi
  15. Mozart
  16. Mussorgsky
  17. Puccini
  18. Purcell
  19. Rossini
  20. Smetana (probably the most debatable on the list!)
  21. Strauss
  22. Tchaikovsky
  23. Verdi
  24. Wagner
  25. Weber

Feel free to tweet (via the link on the right) if you have any comments on the list. Probably won’t make any difference as I’ve started writing already but you never know, might just make me think!


Bayreuth tickets for 99p

October 26, 2009

Thought that might get your attention (sorry!).

The first opera recording I ever bought was Marek Janowski’s recording of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.  Soon after I found a copy of Ernest Newman’s excellent Wagner Nights in a second hand bookshop and it quickly became my bible for all things Ring-related. A few weeks later the flat I lived in was burgled and my bag (containing the copy of Wagner Nights) was nicked.

Fast forward a few years to the other week when I finally got round to replacing it with a copy off Ebay for 99p. Flicking through I came to the chapter on Die Meistersinger… and found this:

Meistersinger 1957 ticket

Meistersinger 1957 ticket

A couple of days later, in the Parsifal chapter I found this:

Parsifal 1957 ticket

Parsifal 1957 ticket

99p for a great book and two Bayreuth tickets, not bad!


A new blog and a project

October 24, 2009

A few years ago, not long after I discovered the joys of opera, I was siting in the cheap seats at Covent Garden, watching Il Barbiere Di Siviglia. After the end of the first act a bearded gentleman in the next seat half turned to me and said:

Of course, she’s not a great Rosina, great Rosina’s make more of the ‘Ma…’

The ‘Ma…’ he was referring to is the famous ‘but…’ in Rosina’s ‘Una Voce Poco Fa‘ and ‘she’ was Joyce Di Donato, who I happened to think was doing a fine job. Being new to the world of opera, and presuming I couldn’t possibly have an opinion worth having yet, I nodded.

Leaving the opera house later that night I thought two things to myself:

  1. Judging any performance of an operatic leading role on the delivery of one two letter syllable is ridiculous
  2. If I ever saw a Rosina as good again in my life I’d be lucky (I am lucky, I saw Joyce Di Donato again earlier this year!)

This can be the problem with opera; people get a bit overwhelmed by it and presume you need to know the name of the 3rd Norn in every Bayreuth Ring Cycle to have an opinion (or at least know what a Norn is). Thing is, you don’t. Opera is a huge subject and, like anything else, can be more rewarding the more you learn about it, but that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying it on any level and not feeling unworthy to do so.

With that in mind I’m starting a project; – a guide to opera for the overwhelmed.

The site will feature information on operas, composers, singers (and plenty more) along with links to relevant info (although it won’t be one of those sites that’s just a load of links).

The important things to remember are:

  1. I am not an expert on opera and won’t pretend to be. Therefore the site will simply give you useful information so you can increase your knowledge, and hopefully enjoyment, of opera. The more I learn the more the site will grow with me. I’ll gladly voice my opinions on the blog though!
  2. It is my firm belief that anyone with an interest in opera and a brain in their head doesn’t need someone to tell them what they like. Information can help you work out what you might like to listen to and can help you understand it but, primarily, your own opinions are the most important.

OK, first things first, I’m off to learn how to build a website!