On opera

This week I’ve been on planet opera.
It’s a pretty wild place, let me tell you.

The idea was simple – gather together in one room a whole bunch of aspiring librettists, and throw at them the combined wisdom, imagination, experience, suffering, creativity, skill and humour of some of the finest minds (and voices) in the business. For a week.


I applied because my brain exploded at the idea of creating an opera as well as a novel based on the life of Mademoiselle de Maupin. And because with all my current research into Baroque and Sappho leading to Tosca and gender performance archetypes and how they play out in opera, literature and life, something big is slowly taking shape in my mind, fragments are connecting or sparking or swirling. Hopefully it’s the rest of my PhD. Dunno yet.

And because, clearly, I haven’t got enough going on.

Just a few of the things I learned, some of which apply to any written work, some of which we all know but it doesn’t hurt to have them beaten into our skulls one more time:

  • There doesn’t need to be a narrative (arguably, there should not be a formal narrative)
  • Sounds of words may matter as much as meaning
  • Leave room for the audience – and the music – to do the work
  • Distill. Write essence only. Then distill again.

So I won’t tell you what happened. Just what it means for me today, knowing this will change over time.

Been thinking lately about fragments, about glimpses of lives and fragments of memory, and how to capture that in prose – specifically, in Tragédie – how to convey confusion, and memories being sometimes out of reach, sometimes conflicting. That’s not a lack of narrative, just a different way of writing it and reading it, but rethinking the meaning of narrative helped that project enormously. Or will, when I have time to reflect.

I also realised, though, that the idea of squeezing La Maupin’s life as a biographical narrative, into an opera was absurd. She may have died at 33 but she had more adventures than The Three Musketeers put together, and my version of her is also a recitative on guilt, sin, redemption and celebrity. So I’m left wondering what to do with that idea. And that’s good.

The concept I was left with was a meditation on opera, on gender, on performance of opera and gender in life and on stage, and on celebrity. A riff on Baroque, on costume and how it defines us. On sex and sin. With a little Lully and Purcell thrown in. And swordfighting. Or the sounds of swordfighting.

Sure. Still a bit of distilling to do.

Some soundbites from various presenters over the week:

  • People aren’t interested in stories. They want experiences.
  • Shakespeare’s ghosts are silent for a reason.
  • Opera is slow – it’s a meditation.
  • It’s also a blunt instrument.
  • It’s never going to be what you [the writer] imagined.
  • Write simple stories.
  • Contemporary opera done well can be very powerful in conveying the big ideas.
  • Music takes the ideas to the heart and bypasses the head.
  • Let the audience members make up their own minds.
  • If the composer isn’t weeping while she writes, nobody else will feel it either.
  • Intuition is quicker than the brain at figuring things out.
  • Each scene has its own self-contained logic and idea that contribute to the overall.
  • A breath can convey as much as a word.

Also, as with most forms of writing, it’s almost impossible to get work produced. But that’s never stopped me before.

I could go on, but I won’t.

Respect to Chambermade Opera and the VWC, the fine people at CAL who funded the workshop, the twelve bewildered composers who came to listen to our pitches, and our cast of gurus: Deborah Cheetham, Moya Henderson, Judith Rodriguez, Alison Croggan, Ida Dueland Hansen, Stephen Armstong, Margaret Cameron, David Young, Caroline Lee, and Deborah Kayser who sang our homework. (See! Read that list and weep with envy.)

Will now attempt to float back to earth.


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