A tragic turn for librettos


We all know reading is declining and we all know that video and the Internet have a lot to do with the reasons why. So too does the closing of bookstores, along with the downsizing of publishers, magazines and newspapers. Obviously, if you give people less to read, they will read less. Now the literary predicament has hit opera, where we are also faced with more screens and less access to printed text.

Let’s return, for a moment, to another time, when automobiles had proper fins and the newspaper arrived in the evening. If you wanted to listen to an opera recording, say, you put the record on the turntable. Included in the boxed set of LPs would be a large libretto. You listened while following the text, letting your imagination carry you away while creating the perfect “Norma” in your noggin. When attending live opera, you read up on the opera at least a little. If you were serious, you studied the libretto before you went.

The world has changed. Today, we slip the disc into the DVD player, then turn on the TV and adjust the video and audio settings. Next, we attend to the amplifier, making sure that it’s properly connected to the player and that all the various speakers are in proper alignment. Then we’re faced with the menu on the disc, from which we can choose the audio format (Honey, are you in the mood for PCM Stereo, DD 5.1 or DTS 5.1 tonight?), and finally, exhausted, we watch the opera.

The DVD, the most common format for new opera releases, will not include a libretto and, in some cases, even a synopsis, since subtitles are supplied. Some opera CDs no longer come with librettos. Downloading services such as iTunes are not in the text business.

And who bothers to read the libretto before, say, going to “Carmen” at the Music Center? Los Angeles Opera, like all companies, still provides the synopsis in the program, but the supertitles are good enough for most people. Selling the libretto for the evening’s performance in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion lobby is not exactly what keeps the Opera Shop in business. With many new operas -- such as with David Henry Hwang’s libretto to Howard Shore’s “The Fly” -- the text is never published.


There are benefits to the dearth of printed words

Breaking the link between listener and language has caused a radical reshaping of our relationship to the art form. Without grounding in the language of opera, we tend to approach it more as a narrative experience than a poetic one. Contemporary operagoers expect from the lyric stage the same sort of immediate experience they have at the theater and cinema.

That means that staging has gotten a lot better over the last few decades. Opera, after all, is drama. And I’m not sure anyone’s time is best spent poring over the original French lines of a 19th century historical oddity such as Meyerbeer’s “L’Africaine,” in which the librettist confused India with Africa.

But once you accept opera as an essentially fanciful art form, “L’Africaine” can seem a wondrously exotic work, no matter what the setting. Indeed, old opera is often kept alive by stage directors purposefully changing an opera’s original time and place in hopes of discovering something new and original in the story.

Opera isn’t, however, an efficient way to tell a tale, not when characters automatically stop the action to go on and on about what they’re really thinking or feeling. Time needn’t be real time. Music also allows the opposite, namely hyper-reality, on stage. We can experience the inner emotions of several characters simultaneously. Everyone can speak at once.

As an added complication in modern opera performances of classic works, a director is now allowed a dialogue with history. Mozart stagings, for instance, regularly examine 18th century social, political and sexual issues in the context of our own time and needs. There is a lot, these days on the lyric stage, to occupy eyes, ears and mind.

Without access to the original text, an audience must take everyone -- composer, singers, stage director -- at their word, and quite a lot of richness is lost. But the downside to this studious model is that by being so well prepared we can easily get so wrapped up with interpretations that we lose the urgency of the moment. We know what to expect, and we sink under the weight of those expectations.

When it comes to standard-repertory 18th and 19th century opera, the Inter- net is our friend. Most librettos are easi- ly found for downloading and printing. The Stanford University Library has a handy page of online sources with hyperlinks ( librettim.html). And here’s a find: EMI Classics offers PDF files of several librettos and translations on its website ( But with new or obscure operas, which are starting to come out on DVD with gratifying regularity, you must expect to forgo having a libretto.

For Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s “Simplicius Simplicissimus,” filmed at the Stuttgart Opera last year, the Arthaus Musik video has a brief spoken introduction, placing the work historically. Hartmann wrote the opera, based on a 17th century German novel about the Thirty Years’ War, in 1934 and 1935 in Munich while the Nazis were coming to power, composer bearing witness to the horror around him.

The opera opens with the chilling statistic that before the Thirty Years’ War, Germany had a population of 12 million. After it, there were 4 million. Eight million perished. The excellent performance in a stark, Brechtian staging is all the more gripping when you don’t know what comes next.

But then what? This is a work worth getting to know. The score is bold, full of sly references to Bach, Berg, Stravinsky and Kurt Weill. But without even the most basic synopsis, let alone the libretto, one must return to the production again and again, with the likelihood of these potent visual images becoming permanently attached to the music.

Harrison Birtwistle’s “The Minotaur” has been released on DVD from Opus Arte just months after its world premiere by the Royal Opera in London. Birtwistle is Britain’s most highly regarded opera composer, but his musical style is tough-love Modernism, and his operas often have texts to match. American companies won’t touch them. So this video is very welcome. The lack of a libretto is not.

The mythological plot is intricate and the DVD includes a seven-minute spoken synopsis as a supplement. It lost me almost immediately. Fortunately, a synopsis exists on the , which helped untangle this somber tale of Ariadne, Theseus and the beast from the sea, told in high literary style in 13 scenes with toccata interludes. The staging is stodgy, and the opera takes time to learn. A libretto is essential, and the one option is to order David Harsent’s libretto from the publisher Boosey & Hawkes for $16.

Anyone interested in Los Angeles Opera is likely to be interested in the delightful Medici Arts DVD of Unsuk Chin’s “Alice in Wonderland,” which was commissioned by the company but left to the Bavarian State Opera to premiere last year. The visually dazzling production is by Achim Freyer, who will direct L.A.'s “Ring,” which begins next year. Kent Nagano conducts a superb performance. The video direction is vivid. And you probably don’t need a copy of Hwang’s libretto to follow even so way-out a version of “Alice” as this, so don’t let that keep you from picking up copies of this opera as a great gift of fabulous holiday fare. But without the libretto you will have no way of knowing that Freyer threw out all of Hwang’s pedestrian staging directions and colorfully reinvented the whole concept.

You most certainly don’t need a copy of Peter Sellars’ libretto to “Doctor Atomic” to be drawn into the video version of John Adams’ opera just out on DVD, also from Opus Arte. Sellars takes care of that himself, with exceptionally compelling video direction. But the libretto happens to be a brilliant work in its own right, employing historical source material alongside poetry by John Donne and Muriel Rukeyser. A lot is to be gained from reading it, and luckily it happens to be available online.

The battle between text and music is long-standing on the lyric stage, and it is rare when composers and librettists don’t eventually come into conflict. Great librettos have inspired great operas or they have overpowered lesser music. Poor librettos have been transformed by great music into stage-worthiness and, other times, have brought the whole enterprise down. The drama of words versus music excited Richard Strauss enough to make it the theme of his last opera, “Capriccio.”

In the end, music has proved more important than words in the operatic scheme of things. But the libretto as chopped liver is certainly going too far.