So by now you know that I want to write librettos and I’ve been working at it on my own, in concentrated style, for a bit now. Last night I came to realize that I’m approaching the “horse” – as it were – from the wrong end (aka: ass backwards.) I am not surprised because that is how I seem to approach everything in life that is important to me.
Sitting in a Master Class with David Henry Hwang, author of many notable works of opera & theatre including M Butterfly, I was surprised to learn that he has never approached a composer with an idea for an opera. He has always been the one approached because he believes, and rightly so, that the composer is the one who truly drives an operatic piece. When he has an idea of his own he turns it into a play.
This had a double effect on me: a) I was depressed and b) relieved.
Depressed because I am brimming with ideas that I can totally visualize being sung on a stage and relieved at understanding the way I was going about being a librettist could be accomplished in a different way.
One does not simply
walk up to a composer, hand her a script and say – compose something to this. Most people who have spent a lifetime honing their compositional skills would be justified in telling me to fuck off.
I get it now. In the dance of making this most complex of collaborative art forms come alive it has to start with an idea. A core idea. The librettist constructs good literary bones upon which, if inspired, a composer can take and make her own.
What I create is not mine to keep. What I create I create to give away to lift the creative wings of another. What I create lives on by the grace of others and along the way I relinquish control. It’s just like having a child: and it hurts just as much to let it go.
Writing librettos and working with composers is what I truly want to do with the rest of my life. So my course correct will be this: write plays. Fulfill on the visions I have and make them into something that can come alive on a stage for actors to work with. For purely operatic ideas all I need do at this point is write narrative, to compose my own poetry, to let the Fantazmagorium of wacky passionate ideas rolling around in my beating heart flow out on the page and trust. I must trust the ground I’ve laid out already and the new ground I’m building will bring me face to face with the right people at the right time. I must trust. I must trust, I must write and trust, I must write and trust and share my work.
Progress occurs when preparation meets opportunity
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.
Assignment #6 – Write a scene with 2 people in a room. Happening offstage––outside of the room––is a major moment in history.
Setting – Dressing room of team Peru at Estadio National in Lima, Peru May 24, 1964
Baritone: Hector Chumpitaz (aka: El Capitan de America) – Legendary Peruvian footballer in the prime of his career having just joined the national team
Tenor: Angel Eduardo Pazos – Uruguayan referee & alcoholic who’s been dry for two years
Set up/opening orchestration: Peru is hosting Argentina in an important soccer match, one that Peru is watching to win with great anticipation. In the last two minutes of play referee, Angel Pazos, disallows a Peruvian goal that would have equalized the game. The ref’s actions cause two Peru fans to invade the pitch in an attempt to harm the ref. Police intercept and begin violently beating the pitch invaders, setting dogs on them in front of 53,000 rabid fans causing further reaction from the crowd. Leading in to this scene, police have just release fifteen canisters of tear gas into the seething body of predominantly Peruvian soccer fans. Terrifying panic ensues in the stadium.
Archival images of the Lima event as well as other national soccer stadium tragedies are splashed all around the theatre, audio of panicked crowds intermingle with the orchestration. The audience should be feeling the pressure of panic all around them. The orchestration quiets slowly as the sound of cleated boots walking heavily down an empty hallway in the sports complex rises over the panicked sounds. We hear a door being opened and the lights come up on the team dressing room. Hector stands in the doorway, holding onto the handle in an attempt to steady himself.
though they didn’t let their dogs loose*
they did let them tear his clothes off*
tear his clothes off
tear his flesh off just a bit
and the other one
the other one
beaten by many men with batons
blood on the pitch
blood on the bitch who bit his arm
tore his favorite jersey clean off his body
the people were disturbed*
by the way in which they took the Pitch Invaders away*
dragging them like cadavers
in front of fifty three thousand people
This is why the crowd began to get very upset*
Audio rises over Hector’s voice of a new level of terror and panic echoing off the walls of the stadium. Hector is sitting now at his locker having taken off his shirt. He studies the dramatic red stripe that cuts across the chest of his new Peru kit. Angel enters holding a cup of water.
How about that?! Eh?
How about that?!
Those Pitch Invaders nearly got me
Did you see that
they nearly crushed me for that call?
What a bunch of crazy dicks
short on knowledge
never went to college
drunk on any cheap swill they can find
I don’t mind
it’s all part of the game
glad the police came down hard
to keep the yard from brimming over
Angel walks over to a radio on the wall and turns it on – music of 1964 Peru floats out over the air. As he turns on the radio his hand hits a hip-flask full of whisky that someone had stashed for later. He takes the bottle down and looks at it sitting there in his hand.
Are you ok, Hector?
Hector The police
How about that?! Eh?
How about that?!
The music stops abruptly and a reporter gives the breaking news about the riot at the stadium.
Newscaster Ladies and gentlemen, this is breaking news about a riot that has broken out at Estadio National. Police are trying to contain the unruly mob with tear gas. Please avoid the area around Estadio National for the foreseeable future. Repeat, a riot has broken out at Estadio National. Please avoid the area.
Gun fire outside on the pitch is heard from the dressing room – men are screaming. Angel goes to put the bottle back where he found it but the disturbance scares him and he decides to keep hold of the bottle for now.
The world is broken
there is nothing to be spoken for
There is something terribly wrong here
which I am not able to fix
What’s going on, Eh?
Gun fire on the pitch?!
Son-of-a-bitch I have to get home
to see that my daughter is safe
She loves this game as much as I
though I forbid her from attending
this is no
place for good girls to be banging about
Don’t go out there!
Hector, that’s touching
I’ll be safe now
everyone has already forgotten about my call
that got them on their feet in a squall
Don’t you listen?!
Can you not hear the sound of people dying out there?
Our Peruvian people
I dread to see the sights that await us
when we emerge from this cave of cowards
Cave of cowards?! Speak for yourself El Capitan de America
Where is everyone then? Who else is in here but us, Angel?!
They all must have found a way out, somehow.
Maybe they are all dead
Maybe I should kill myself
Don’t be such a Shakespearian actor
There are other factors at work here
and I’m sure no one is dead!
Breaking News: there is a report coming in from Estadio National of thirty, no, no, excuse me fifty, fifty people dead at Estadio National! This is a horrible…wait, wait, another report…a hundred…an estimated one hundred people have been crushed to death in a stampede at Estadio National. This is terrible ladies and gentlemen, terrible
Ahhh, this is too much
There is nothing to do
no story I can tell to make the people laugh
no soccer ball to kick to make the people cheer and be happy about the day again
There is nothing I can do
There is nothing I can do
Mama, I am so sorry
There is nothing I can do to fix this
When I was three I wanted to be a footballer
I wanted to spend my life on the pitch
honing my foot work
practicing my kicks
Football was my life, my love, my path out of misery
My papa would be proud of me
if I was to be a footballer
Never was I good enough
Close but not quite good enough
so I took the only path that was by me
to be a referee – still I would stay close to the game
but it is not the same
Not the same in any way at all
Never am I happier then when I’m on the pitch
except, perhaps, for when I used to be able to drink a fifth
but that joy was fleeting
As the ball is in play and you chip it across the sky to land in the hands of the keeper
my heart wants to burst with love
The beauty of the rhythm of the game of my life keeps me alive and well and sober
My one regret is when the ball lands in the net
I see the glee on the striker’s face
perceive the pain of the keepers miss
and yet I am not part of that moment
I must endure while the world stops
to celebrate or lament the goal
I am not a part of it – I am separate – other – hated
or worse, ignored completely
A loud crash comes from outside
I am leaving the game, Angel.
El Capitan? No, no, you cannot do this
This I can do!
This you must not do! Peru, Peru needs you now more than ever
Football is dead to me just like those hundred people lying dead in our stadium
Breaking News: ladies and gentlemen, it grieves me mightily to tell you that Peruvian police have confirmed three hundred fifty eight deaths by internal hemorrhaging or asphyxiation in a terrible tragedy at Estadio National in Lima. There is rioting in the streets outside the stadium still – I beg of you to steer clear of Estadio National until order has been restored.
Three hundred fifty eight – gone
because of one lousy call I made
My call – my call made this happen
My call for footboll, the game I love
has brought death and destruction
to the world
The worst stadium disaster in history
is because of me
We don’t know what would have happened*
If the police had removed the Pitch Invaders*
in a peaceful fashion*
But I guess we can’t think about that now*
We have to face what’s out there
Angel Eduardo Pazos, you made the call you made
that is your job
I watched Kilo Lobaton rise his foot*
to block the ball*
and saw it rebound into the goal*
it was a foul*
in my humble opinion
though my opinion does not matter
El Capitain de America your words are sweet and powerful
I am the one on the wrong side of history
You, you are the one who matters now
You must help to heal Peru
You leave the game you kill a whole nation
Do not do that to your country!
Do not do that to your country!
Do not do that to your country!
I beg you – for love of the game
do not leave us now, dear Hector
Angel weeps at Hector’s feet as Hector sets his jaw and rises to put his jersey back on. He walks out of the dressing room leaving Angel alone with the bottle of whisky. Once alone Angel opens the bottle and greedily, tragically chugs the liqueur down.
As the Under Armor ad featuring Michael Phelps says at the tag line…
It’s what you do in the dark that puts you in the light
So no, I’m no Michael Phelps but the message I take away from this gorgeous piece of video work is: just keep going. 4 weeks ago I put myself into a playwriting class with Gotham Writers Workshop. It’s good to be self motivated which I have been. It’s also good to realize you’ve taken yourself as far as you can alone and it’s time to engage with the world. Once a week I gather with a six fellow playwrights and we work together. It’s a diverse group with a range of experience and a consistent level of commitment. I really enjoy them and appreciate the critique and imagination each of them have. Below is a sample of the work we do in class and as part of our homework exercises. More pieces to follow as I find the time to get back to uploading stuff I want to share onto my web log.
If Lucretia Mott was alive today she’d be very cross with me. She’d be standing firm, eyeing me straight on whilst giving me a strong piece of her mind…something about perseverance, commitment, honesty to my own self. Truth! Truth to one’s own God-given Inner Light and how I have been squandering my energies. I’ve been dark. For a month this blog has been dark. Nothing posted, no excuses, no explanations…just…nothing. Yeah, sometimes nothing happens.If you are reading this then I commend you whole-heartedly and promise to post things worthy of your exquisite time in the days ahead. Thank you for giving me a bit of space to process here.
I live one foot in the digital world and the other in the analog world. I keep a paper date-book and on the cover of my paper-date book – which, yes, adds weight to my bag – are three quotes:
· First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do – Epictetus
· Nothing can be created out of nothing – Lucretia Mott
· We can know only that we know nothing. That is…human wisdom – Tolstoy
Epictetus, Lucretia Mott and Tolstoy; that is quite a literary cocktail. I may add
· We chase the melodies that seem to find us /until they’re finished songs and start to play – Lin-Manuel Miranda (from his moving acceptance sonnet from last night’s Tony Awards)
The lesson here is to take life, whatever comes at you, and make art! I started this blog as a way to gather my thoughts about opera (a new art form to me at the time.) Now I am taking it as a tool to push myself to learn, grow and produce librettos. I fell off. Today I get back on and I have a few revisions to make to my syllabus.
It is still imperative that I write every day. It’s not so important that I post something every week simply because “every week” becomes about just posting shit and not about producing something worth reading. I don’t want to waste your time. The new requirement is that I post something I’ll be happy about you reading. Hopefully that will make you happy too.
I’ve got three stories in development
The Light Within – on the life and times of Lucretia Mott: Quaker pacifist, warrior against slavery, poverty, war and the oppression of women, not to mention her own inner daemons – based on the book “Valiant Friend” by Margaret Hope Bacon
Goatscape – a fairy-tail about a police officer, a homeless vet, a hospital janitor and a goat on-the-lam in Bed-Stuy in the middle of the night
Soferet – a drama about a woman becoming a Jewish scribe in the early 1980’s and the effect she has on the Orthodox community she must count on to help her in her journey
Once – long ago – I was a bookbinder. I made books for a living. It wasn’t much of a living so I moved on to other more profitable pursuits but the art of book-making has never left me. I make books, I can’t stop myself from doing so. Since I don’t have a bindery any more I do scrappy little projects that keep my hands and my heart at peace. As I was thinking about writing librettos I realized that a component of these works are the source elements I use to create the story. Naturally I look to making a book.
Here are two books I’ve made specifically for the early stages of writing – brainstorming, character development etc. It all goes down in these lo-fi memory storage units and they are part of my story. So I may not have been writing but I have been creating and here is the beginning of these two tales