How should a successful playwright approach his first opera libretto, especially when the music will be provided by a younger, less famous composer? To judge by comments from the three novice librettists of the one-act pieces that make up Central Park (playing most of this month at Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, New York, and slated for New York City Opera in November, with a PBS telecast to follow), the word is: know your place.
That is no small deal for Central Park‘s multi prize-winning librettists Wendy Wasserstein, A.R. Gurney, and Terrence McNally. After all, the libretto is traditionally a mere scenario, a platform for he composer whose music, by operatic definition, must forge the drama. The scenario may be just utilitarian or it may have its own theatrically poetic qualities. But the great craftsmanship found in, say, Lorenzo da Ponte’s text for Mozart’s Figaro, or in Arrigo Boito’s libretto for Verdi’s Otello, still cedes dramatic priority to Mozart’s unique ability to project hundreds of character facets within a single scene, or to Verdi’s soul-shaking juxtapositions of heartbreak, irony, and the savagery of nature and one man’s mind.
At this point, all three Central Park librettists seem happy with their new jobs’ limitations, and before going into specifics of attitude, it might be useful to draw you a cursory Central Park map. Wasserstein (The Heidi Chronicles, The Sisters Rosenzweig), for instance, located her little story at Bethesda Fountain the day after Rosh Hashanah, a time when Jews gather to cast bread on the waters, symbolizing regrets for the past year’s sins and misdeeds. The ceremony is called tashlich and isn’t as familiar as the more intensely penitential Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service. But Deborah Drat tell, the young composer working with Wasserstein, has long steeped her music in a close comprehension of Jewish heritage (including last summer’s gripping Lilith at Glimmerglass). The new Drattell-Wasserstein opera, “The Festival of Regrets,” mixes pathos and gentle comedy among family members and lovers.
“Strawberry Fields” (composer Michael Torke, librettist Gurney, famous for The Dining Room and Sylvia) takes place in the shadow of the Dakota, with tangential references to two of the building’s most celebrated ghosts, Leonard Bernstein and John Lennon. But the drama deals with the last hours of an old lady who hallucinates that she’s not on a park bench but at the opera. Once again, gentle comedy and tactful pathos rule the stage.
In “The Food of Love” (music by Robert Beaser, text by McNally) a homeless woman at the Central Park Zoo tries vainly to give her baby away so it will survive, but the final sounds are the animals’ echoing her lullaby and the wail of an approaching siren.
So how did our three playwrights explore their separate turfs? Wasser stein says she began with two story ideas: this one and a “farce about the Central Park crowd that watched the first moon landing on a giant TV screen 30 years ago.” She goes on: “Having chosen the tashlich event, we talked a lot before writing. As a playwright, I realized during early rehearsals that we needed a rabbi and his congregation, with his declamations and their responses, so I rewrote for that. You also have to keep in mind that the voice will be the thing. I knew it would all be sung, which led me to a certain spareness and made me meander much less.” (Possible scoop: Drattell and Wasserstein are talking about a Rosenzweig opera.)
McNally, author of Lips Together, Teeth Apart and scads of other plays, is now represented on Broadway by the book (but not the lyrics) of Rag time. He emphasizes that “The Food of Love” is a theater piece: “In an opera, you’re hearing music, and the librettist has to surrender control. I otherwise don’t see any conflict in writing words for themselves and going with the music. The words in op era have to be in the music.”
According to Gurney, it was McNally who suggested the Central Park theme for the trilogy. “An early idea was three one-act mysteries in the tradition of O. Henry or Roald Dahl. Paul [Kellogg, City Opera’s general director and Glimmerglass’s artistic director] put us together with the composers—first draft, second draft, and so on.”
Gurney then zeroed in on the playwright-versus-librettist fence. “In writing plays, I was always conscious of verbal rhythms among characters and built structures according to that.” Did libretto writing constrict him? “I used to write singable words for college shows. Like a good actor in a difficult scene, I liked the more difficult words.”
Yet there are important differences between writing an opera and a play. “The technique in drama,” says Gurney, “builds words toward a comic or whatever climax, with the words’ own rhythm. Music changes it all. Laughs must not interfere with the music.”
Would Gurney try opera again? “If Michael asked me to do another, I’d jump on it.”