So Monday night I sat amid giants & idols like Missy Mazzoli, Beth Morrison, Royce Vavrik and David Devan; producers of contemporary opera in America – women & men spearheading the future of this medium for the rest of the world to follow. If you can imagine what a flea hovering about your head must feel like as you swat it out of the way, well, I was that flea Monday night
sitting in the Peter B. Lewis Theater underdeath the Guggenheim museum – only difference was I wasn’t buzzing around anyone’s head. That would have been weird. I was a well behaved flea who didn’t get in anyone’s ointment or march defyantly around the rim of anyone’s coctkail glass. I’m taking the metaphore too far…I am not a flea, I am a human being and if there is any great difference, truly, between a flea and a human being it’s that I make meaning of things where the flea does not. In fact I am unable to not make things mean things but that’s a story for another day.
So there I was, a virtual flea, listening to giants discuss the creation of a new opera, Breaking the Waves, that premieres at Opera Philadelphia next week. I paid the equvalent of a good seat in the Family Circle at The Metropolitan Opera on a Saturday night to listen to a select number of chamber pieces – performed by the amazing lead cast & musicians – and hear the composer, librettist, conductor and director discuss their process. Why would I do such a thing? Wouldn’t the value have been in networking like crazy and leave with at least one good contact? That is what a flea would have done.
That is not why I was there. At another time I will do that, probably yes, but this was the beginning of a grand adventure that I’ve been working my way towards for the better part of five years.
Attending the Works and Process event made manifest (even for just a tiny fraction of a moment) what I have been saying I want…to be a librettist and be part of the modern opera movement. I did have one interaction with a person-of-note (nobody mentioned here thus far) that didn’t go so well. We chatted a bit and when she asked me what I was doing there I blurted out “I want to be doing what they’re doing!” pointing at the stage filled with empty chairs and music stands. She quickly ended our conversation and I sat in my seat feeling the sting of having been swatted out of the way. I deserved it. Did I show up to this most intimate of opera events unprepared? Well, yes I did. I went in there with one intention; to fully immerse myself in the Society of Amazing Peole who Produce Opera for a Living. SAPPOL – and damit that’s exactly what I did!
Back to giants and idols: Being Jewish, I have learned that idols are bad, bad things to be shunned and avoided at all cost. I can and do ascribe to the principle that bowing down to a piece of brightly painted clay begging for salvation, or a new job, is something rediculus and potentially damaging. But then I went to the dictionary to broaden my meaning of the word.
- Word Origin of idol from Late Latin īdōlum, from Latin: image, from Greek eidōlon, from eidos shape, form – courtesy of dictionary.com
So breaking it down, an idol is basically a mental image or a physical shape or form worth one’s time to comment on. An idol stands out, an idol is attractive, an idol is – ultimately – unrealistic. So if I want to be doing what Royce Vavrik is doing, for example, and doing it in my own way and at my own pace then his status as an idol really morphs more into that of a model, a suggestion of what I could be some day. I admire the work he does as a librettist and I know he puts one foot in front of the other as he walks down the street. He just happens to be WAY further down the street than I am. I feel as though I keep starting even though each foray I take into the world of opera seems to bring me ever closer to the vision I have; perhaps there is nothing but starting from wherever I happen to be right now…hmmmm.
What’s my point here? So inspired as I was after Monday night I went back to investigating Master’s Degree programs in musical theatre. NYU being the logical place to look (‘cause that’s where Royce Vavrik went…probably when he was 25!) I got all excited all over again reading all about the program, how they put composition students together with playwriting students – colleges are starting to catch on about this medium called Opera – and then I read “applicants must be full-time students.” And I stopped. Here I am, 52 years old now, working a full time job ‘cause I have to, ready and so able to take this program on with more gusto and passion then I ever had as a 25 year old and I simply cannot fit my square-self into the NYU round hole: what I am is more of a hexagon, really.
And so, this realization brings me back to the idea I launched at the beginning of this year – to make my own course of study and stick to that course building my vision block by block by block.
The Mott Academy of Writing Librettos fall semester has officially started!
Ps. When I make it across the pond one of these days to visit family in Chichester I will make a point of dropping in on a coffee house near Dorset named Amid Giants & Idols.
SCENE I Setting: An outdoor parking lot in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn behind a city hospital complex. It is two fifteen in the morning on a late summer evening. The parking lot … Continue reading Scapegoat: A Fairy Tale Opera in One Act
Weekly Reading Assignment : The origins of opera
The Cambridge book on Opera, chapter 2 covered the first operatic forms. Greek drama. It has been thirty years since I studied any Greek drama and I had to research the origins of strophe and antistophe, ‘cause I couldn’t remember what they meant. Strophe – to turn. Antistrophe – to turn back again as in a reply to stroph. I won’t get all up in this with you as I’m pretty sure if you’re actually reading this you DON’T want me getting all up in this. The operative thing here is that diving into the structure of Greek drama brought me to an unexpected place – PROSODY!
And where has the study of prosody lead me? To the basics of literary structure, of course. And then, just as quickly, to poetry. No surprise, really. My little web log entry tonight is actually a long-winded excuse to inform you (dear reader) that I abandoned my reading of chapter 2 and took a wild ride into the study of iambs and their many cousins: anapest, dactyl, trochee and others. I studied all this in college circa 1982 but today it lives for me as something completely new. Here’s what I did with what I learned.
Iambic dimeter – 2 iambs per line
There is a way
That I can write
Could be by day
Perhaps at night
There is one thing
That I must do
Put pen to pad
How ever bad
And write anew
Iambic trimester – 3 iambs per line
They’re working on the street
Jack-hammers on concrete
Ringing through the night
Who cares what time it is
Iambic tetrameter – 4 iambs per line
She stooped to pick the basket up
Filled with fresh washed cloths, it was
The weight of it surprised her some
As she carried it across the floor
Quite the shock for her to see
Two ears emerge amid the wash
Black and pink those ears appeared
In contrast to her nice black pants
Now covered in fur from waist to hem
The feline gave a quizzical look
Stretched its paw across her bra
To roll its head in its comfy bed
And reach its arm to touch her hand
As if to say “It’s all okay;
I’ll help you with the wash today.”
Iambic pentameter – 5 iambs per line
These walls contain so many stories told
Of love and life of a family growing old
Where once the toddlers played amid their toys
Two men now occupy the space of boys
This home is all that they have ever known
Of school and friends and kissing in the dark
We gave them all that they would need to live
And pushed to make the best of what we had
Today we must stand back and let them go
Into a world that we cannot control
Got that old urge to head back to school!
It’s been a decade since earning an MA in Media Studies where I wrote my thesis on Women and the Medium of Money. True, I am a Financial Analyst today and perhaps that thesis was prophetic but my life has taken on a different focus now: opera.
The first time I took my seat in the Family Circle at the Metropolitan Opera in 2010 was for Don Giovanni. It was Ottavio’s aria, “dalla sua pace la mia dipende” that opened up the depths of possibility to me. See Where Opera Lives for details on that ahah! moment.
I knew – sitting there slack-jawed in the dark – I had to write librettos and I didn’t even know a counter tenor from a treble clef at the time. So I set to learn and this web log is one of those tools I first created to express this need. Well it’s been a few years and the time has come to ratchet up the process.
Fist I explored MFA programs at Hunter, The New School & NYU. There were playwriting programs and creative writing programs but no libretto writing programs. I’m a 52 year old woman; I don’t have time to fuck around any more. So in my particular DIY fashion, I sat down and have fashioned my own course of study and here’s my curriculum for the next year.
The Mott Academy of Writing Librettos
Year 1: Learn the dramaturgy of playwriting & opera. Understand what makes a play work and, specifically, what makes an opera work.
· The Poetics by Aristotle
· The Playwright’s Guidebook by Stuart Spencer
· Opera (the Cambridge Introductions to Music)
· The Cambridge Companion to Opera Studies
Daily Assignment: write every morning – it does not have to be good, it just has to be something you write down, typically 2 pages long. The objective is to establish the habit of writing…every…day. This work is for your eyes only. Don’t share it with anyone. This assignment is to start immediately.
Weekly Writing Assignment: write a micro opera – 3 to 5 pages – every week. Use the assignments provided in Stuart Spencer’s book to help guide you. Your Micro Opera (MO) must be uploaded every Sunday night before midnight onto Opera Abecedarian (yup, onto ‘yr blog!) Your first MO must be uploaded by March 13th and every Sunday night thereafter. It may suck at first – but it will get better.
Weekly Reading Assignment: Read a chapter in two of the four text books cited above. You decide what books to read. Take notes, record observations during your daily assignment if you want something to write about in the morning. This reading is to be finished by every Wednesday night. Thursday you begin reading two new chapters.
Quarterly Read (QR): Choose a libretto to read. It can be from any era and genre you like. First time around read it straight – with no music – and make your notes. Next read it through while listening to the score. It is best, at first, to pick librettos of operas you do not know as a familiar score will influence your straight reading of a text. This is to be an intensive two-to-three-hour exercise scheduled every 3 months. Make a setting where you will be able to read through the libretto and write down observations without any interruption. Take a break then listen to the score while reading along with the libretto. Post your QR on ‘yr blog. You must do this once a quarter. When you do it is entirely up to you. QR’s will start 2Q16.
· What was the difference in your experience of the story from the straight read to the scored read?
· What questions did you have about the libretto during the straight read and how did the scored read answer or complicate your questions? Why?
· How did the libretto stand on its own?
· How did the libretto support the score?
· How did the score support the libretto?
I think that is enough for one year. Keep your word, do the assignments and challenge yourself.
IT’S MONDAYby M Mott Newirth Duet for a soprano or tenor – Li and a contralto or baritone – Lu. Scene opens in a bedroom at the edge of dawn. There are … Continue reading It’s Monday (a little libretto)
So I outed myself tonight at Le Poisson Rouge – a better place there could not have been for me to do so. A dear friend brought me to see … Continue reading I Am a Fledgling Librettist
…we got way more out of seeing a production that cost hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars less to produce than what the Met probably paid to mount “Barber”.
The spectacle isn’t always the thing – it’s the connection that is the thing that will make opera work for me – every time.
I had the pleasure of seeing On Site Opera’s Pygmalion at the Trimco Mannequin Showroom on West 25th St. I was sitting among – I would estimate – 75 people for the show that ran under an hour. In my short opera life I have only experienced grand opera in its fullest measure at The Met. I like that too but this was a vibe I could not have anticipated. I can only describe it as…well…personal.
I was an arms reach away from the performers – I could see the sweat on their faces – I could watch them working as they sang and drew bow over string – I observed their bodes rise and fall with breath – heard the clear, pure tones emerging instantaneously from their mouths and instruments washing over me in their freshly made sound waves. It was, ok I’ll admit, not breathtaking but it was sweet and charming and delightful and completely engaging.
I am used to and expect high theatrics from the Met. I go to get sucked into their vortex of awesomeness which sometimes is there and sometimes is not. I am not complaining about the Met. I love the Met & I want it to survive. I am also thrilled to discover an alternative to opera that allows me to be a participant, a witness, an up close and personal element to the performance. As the artists move, I move and I want more.
There’s a profound line between thinking about doing something and actually doing it. There’s an even greater gap between doing something for the first time and actually “getting” what you are doing. It was a hell of a process simply going from the idea of attending the opera to physically putting my butt in the chair for our inaugural season subscription at the Met. Everything I went through to get to that point; the flurry of excitement, the phone calls, the planning, the fretting could not prepare me for the watershed, “Ah ha!” realization about the world that was waiting for me in Don Giovanni.
Imagine, if you will, Mozart’s overture beginning with the amazing chord that strikes fear into any listening heart. Now imagine this Opera Abecedarian – green as a length of sod freshly rolled out at the Bryant Park lawn with little signs stating “please stay off while the new grass is establishing roots” – sitting there ready to be opera’ed.
I was holding a great deal of reservation about my subscription. Had I been rash and impulsive? Was I taking my family on a crazy cultural ride to nowhere? I was excited and yet, truly feared boredom. Casting aside my doubt I surrendered to the music. As Act 1 progressed it was going well. I understood the story. The Don was pretty hot with his shirt falling off his shoulder; who cares that he was trying to rape that woman*, the music was pretty. So maybe this opera thing was going to work out. It would make a nice occasional family event – something I could post on Facebook. I felt smug as the story progressed through the Catalogue Aria and into the choral section with the vivid pastoral setting with a lot of business going on. Then everyone cleared the stage and Ramon Vargas, as Don Ottavio, was alone in the spotlight performing Dala Sua Pace. The world slowed down as I fell into empathy for this silly, somber man expressing love for the distant Donna Anna.
What stops my world from spinning; what slaps me hard across the face in the midst of this aria is the sudden and complete understanding that opera lives in the spaces between our relationship with other people and things. Opera gives voice and depth to the commentary we all have running through our head and in doing so, SHUTS THE COMMENTARY UP!
It’s Zen! It’s here and now, man! One pure thought can endure and unfold profoundly before hundreds of people if handled with care by the librettist, composer, orchestra and vocalist all working in concert. Fuckin’ Awesome!
I felt that I was being gifted with another human’s experience, multi-dimensionally. I could see and hear and practically touch the living desire of Don Ottavio and I experienced the depth of his pain and longing. I could taste it, I could feel it in my gut. We went way past empathy to psychic, full body link. Any bullshit chatter I had going on in my head was silent and I’m sure I sat there slack-jawed hanging on Vargas’ every note. This was the magic of opera. It shut me up when I wasn’t even saying anything.
Zen is hard. It’s not every time attending the opera that I get it. There’s still struggle. Preparation is key for I believe it is incumbent upon the audience to bring as much to the evening (or matinee) as the artists are expected to bring. What we bring is our understanding, our money and our listening. What we offer is our willingness to let go of what we understand. We give ourselves generously to the company so they may bring us to a place we cannot take ourselves to. They feed us their world and we love them for it.
Opera lives in the space between our relationships with other people and things.
Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
*I abhor even the idea of anyone sexually overpowering another. Rape is not something I take lightly.
I am three and a half years old, in opera years; a veritable toddler.
Knowing what I know of actual three and a half year old’s, having raised two of them, I know that toddlers are cute, innocent, reckless, manipulative and at certain times of the day impossible to handle (nothing that a bowl of Cheerio’s and a glass of wine can’t handle.) Mostly a toddler is capable of starry-eyed wonder and this best describes me when I attend an opera. I sit there up in the Family Circle of the Metropolitan Opera with my body squeezed into a seat I swear was designed for steerage on a United Airlines flight from Newark to Cleveland and I wait for my lollypop like a good girl. Even when I get bored and restless (and I do, yes, I do) I leave the opera house anticipating my next return. I’m beginning to wonder if I’m a toddler or a puppy ‘cause puppies put up with a lot more discomfort than any toddler I’ve ever known. So, I sit, as I should, and try not to whine waiting to lap up the delicious mixture of music, song, story and sight about to be offered to me and I like it. I really like it. Even if I don’t always understand it, I like it. I want more and I rarely criticize the hand that feeds me because I have an enormous amount of respect for the hand!
I’m committed to learning opera and knowing the people who make opera happen. Public radio station, WQXR, launched Operavore right as I was getting into the art form and I reference the news and information on opera every day. I read and click and read some more. Fred Plotkin is like Uncle Opera to me now and Margaret Juntwait is my regularly scheduled Saturday afternoon play date. During the week I absorb the Operavore web log articles and then get to the dreaded comments section…I really should know better than to read them. I can’t believe the nasty, hateful, divisive comments many people post about something they love so much. It’s as if their opinions are more precious than the art. The snarky remarks about this performer or that director or the whole “opera’s dead” thing designed to write off an entire industry is, in my humble opinion, dog poop. Sure, you can say; “Well she doesn’t know anything. She didn’t even see Luciano Pavarotti in the Park!” (Actually, I did, before there was grass on the great lawn) but that’s for another time. I understand opera is filled with divas, but the audience need not be one of them.
My point is…I wish everyone would stuff their opinions in their back pocket and beaded hand bags and simply experience the opera in the here and now. Just once I wish everyone arrived as if it was their first time; a house full of opera virgins all dressed up and eagerly anticipating that initial taste of passion and abandon. Imagine what the performers would do if they knew everyone paying to be there was hanging on their every note in starry-eyed wonder. The pressure would still be on and I believe would drive an artist on to new heights: the pressure to provide the very foundation of love for this art form. Can we organize that – just for one time?
Yeah, I didn’t think so. So just do me this one favor then, stop hating on the people who produce opera. Honor them, support them, give constructive criticism (by all means) and give them the means to keep creating. Quit griping at the wind and polluting the sweet air for those of us who are currently breathing it in. I’m enjoying myself over here and you don’t want to make a toddler cry (or a puppy whimper.) Teach me, guide me, help open my ears and heart to the depths of the possibilities waiting for me in any given opera. Every time I attend the opera there’s a chance for transformation. Every recording I listen to and every libretto I study furthers my love and understanding of this complex and holographic expression of the human experience. Share with me your stories; the moments of awe and life altering arias that took your breath away and returned you to your seat a different person. Remember the glories of the past and look to the future for fresh stories to share. As a new comer to opera – that is the audience I want to be sitting in.
Now, time for my nap.