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What's Opera, Doc? Part 5: Collaborations

By Alex Richards.

It's got a Barber, so the opera must be...

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

There is a common misconception in popular understanding of opera (when it considers opera at all, that is). Something fundamental that underlies the very terminology that is used even in common parlance amongst classical music afficionados. It’s the way how the composer is treated as if they are the only person responsible for the work from start to finish. There are a few exceptions to this – usually when a creative collaboration is long-lasting enough to become iconic in its own right – but for the most part, we refer to Puccini’s Tosca or Rossini’s Barber of Seville as if the composer has invented the entire work from whole cloth and the performers are simply a necessary means of transferring it from the mind of one individual to the world.

There are a few reasons for this. The first is that the music is genuinely the biggest matter differentiating an opera (or latter a musical) from other stage works, and so the composer is usually the most significant creative force behind the work – the person who differentiates how the story has been told this time.

The second is simple convenience – Mozart’s Don Giovanni is a much easier way of referring to that work than: The Mozart – Da Ponte Giovanni as devised for the Tenor Luigi Bassi and divers other soloists, and the orchestra and chorus of the Prague Italian Opera of the National Theatre of Bohemia in 1787 with additional arias added for the tenor Francesco Morella and the soprano Caterina Cavalieri in 1788, but without the cuts made for that production.

The Mozart – Da Ponte Giovanni as devised for the Tenor Luigi Bassi and divers other soloists, and the orchestra and chorus of the Prague Italian Opera of the National Theatre of Bohemia in 1787 with additional arias added for the tenor Francesco Morella and the soprano Caterina Cavalieri in 1788, but without the cuts made for that production, as depicted by Leandro Ciuffo.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The third reason is that prior to the advent of recorded sound, only the music and lyrics (or libretto) of an opera could be said to be continuous across all productions. An individual performance may be praised as innovative, may even influence future productions, but unless someone actually present was involved in a subsequent production, this influence was always second-hand at best.

And the fourth reason is Richard Wagner. Wagner was the only composer to reach the heights of what in film is called the auteur, nor was he the first, but his life, work, and mythologisation fell at precisely the right point to be captured by early film as the ‘default’ option for a generation of creators who were still living in the immediate aftermath. Wagner – through his conception of what he borrowed the term Gesamtkunstwerk or ‘total art work’ for – strove for absolute control over every element of production – the music, the libretto, the costuming, the scenery, even extending to building at vast expense his own theatre to ensure that he did not have to compromise even with minor details like: ‘how big the orchestra pit is’ or ‘do we actually have a trapdoor at that location on stage?’

Gesamtkunstwerk. Or, if you prefer, Control Freak.

Richard Wagner.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Leaving him to one side, as the Mozart example above suggests, an opera is a complex beast which usually has a large team behind both its creation and any subsequent productions of it, and it’s to those often overlooked individuals that this article series will be turning, starting with the person most likely to actually get credit.

The Librettist

Most operas are not original plots. They start with a work of literature, a pre-existing play, a historical event, or a mythological tale. Similarly, a great number of composers are not writers – their talent lies in setting dialogue and poetry to the melody and accompaniment that will create the desired mood. Into this gap steps the librettist – the person who converts a text into a stage work, adds suitable songs or monologues, and on occasion develops an entire work from the original concept into something that can be put on stage.

The process was almost always a collaborative one – sometimes, as with Giuseppe Verdi and Arrigo Boito on Otello, a contractual arrangement for a collaboration would be suggested by an outside party, bringing two disparate individuals together. At other times, a librettist might make it known they were working on a draft piece in hopes of attracting the interest of a composer – which may be the origin of Rossini’s Barber of Seville considering that Cesare Sterbini was an amateur librettist, albeit one who had collaborated with him before. There were occasions where a composer would come across a pre-existing play or text and contract someone to convert it – this appears to be the case with Beethoven’s Fidelio which was originally a French libretto by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly and was translated into German and refined by, successively, Joseph Sonnleithner, Stephan von Breuning, and Georg Friedrich Treitschke over its very long compositional history. And sometimes a librettist would simply come across a pre-existing play or novel and convert it into an opera before approaching theatre directors to try and get it produced – a practice particularly seen in 19th Century France.

Once composer and librettist were introduced, what tended to follow was a back and forth of matters – there would be requests for changes – cutting some lines here, adding a bit there, emphasising a mood here or giving more dialogue to work with. Composers such as Rosinni and Mozart tended to work in quick energetic bursts, probably spending time sitting in the same room as the librettist to immediately get the changes made. Others spent extended periods agonising over the piece, slowly gestating over the work and only occasionally meeting with their artistic partner – Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal tended to communicate via letter more than anything else. This would extend through to rehearsals, opening night, subsequent nights and even later revivals depending on how many changes were found to be needed once the work was actually seen on stage.

As with many creative partnerships, the librettist-composer pairing could be ephemeral or lasting. Lorenzo Da Ponte tended to spend a few years working with a composer before one or the other moved on (or, in the case of Mozart, passed on). Giuseppe Giacosa was the man Puccini tended to bring in to provide final polish to libretti by others – most notably Luigi Illica, who himself tended to push his work more widely.

The most famous of these partnerships is almost certainly the collaboration between William S Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan – a pairing which was so successful, long-lasting, and famous in contemporary culture that you would be forgiven for thinking that “Gilbert an’ Sullivan” was a single person. Indeed, this somewhat unwarranted synonymity (both Gilbert and Sullivan achieved some success working with others over the course of their career) was both the makings of their financial success, and the ultimate downfall of the collaboration. Simply put, Sullivan came to resent his inability to move on to more ‘serious’ works when his financial health was so closely tied to comic operas, Gilbert’s at times abrasive personality came to the fore, and by the time of The Gondoliers, their collaboration had become one of professional requirement rather than true creative intent. The consequent financial – and then legal – dispute over Richard D’Oyly Carte’s handling of various theatrical expenses between the two was simply the final nail in the coffin of a relationship that had already become strained, and would never truly recover.

But it is Paris that we can find the truest example of a librettist who became a significant figure in their own right. Eugène Scribe started writing plays in 1810, and from 1815 until his death in 1861 saw increasing success in both opera and traditional stage plays, achieving a truly phenomenal output. To over 130 solo works for the stage are added numerous collaborations – sometimes with as many as three named collaborators in what can only be viewed as the forerunner of the Hollywood writing rooms. The total number of works is placed somewhere between 300 and 500, and includes 39 libretti for operas by Daniel Auber alone – a significantly more successful relationship than that of Gilbert and Sullivan, and yet still only representing a third of his total operatic works. It’s no surprise then that the Palais Garnier – famed home of the Paris Opéra – sits surrounded by streets named after four composers – Auber, Gluck, Halévy, and Meyerbeer – one major patron – Jacques Rouché – and Scribe as sole librettist.

Eugène Scribe. Possibly the greatest librettist of them all.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

To Be Continued...

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Alex Richards is the author of Tippcanoe and Wallace Too, from SLP.


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