In the lecture “Pictures” written for her 1934 American lecture tour, Gertrude Stein said “Now most of us live in ourselves that is to say in one thing and we have to have a relief from the intensity of that thing and so we like to look at something.” The Steiny Road Poet knows the intensity of living inside her own imagination and with her own concerns and subject matter. How does a poet look and work with a subject that is not hers? The Steiny Road Poet had been wondering about this and wanting to test herself to see if she could work on an opera project whose subject matter she did not initiate.
An opportunity came up suddenly during “Wilder and Wilder,” a conference at The Catholic University of America that focused on playwright Thornton Wilder and involved many musical activities including the Washington, DC premiere of Ned Rorem and J. D. McClatchy’s opera Our Town. The conference also offered world premieres of short operas by CUA students and faculty based on three-minute plays written by Wilder. One of the student composers was Michael Oberhauser whose work caught the ear of the Poet.
HOW DOES THE WRITING OF A LIBRETTO GET WRITTEN?
After exchanging emails with Oberhauser, he asked the Poet if she knew of anyone interested in helping him with a libretto. He had an outline for a libretto involving Robert Schumann, which immediately captivated the Poet. Writing about real artists, of course, appeals to the Steiny Road Poet given her opera with William Banfield Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On and her work-in-progress libretto Raconteurs In Tangier: The Love Story of Jane and Paul Bowles. Although the project is unlikely to get completed by the Poet for a variety of reasons that include the possibility that Oberhauser’s advising committee might tell him to drop this opera in favor of some other project, the work that was completed taught the Poet a lot about the creative process of writing an opera libretto. She would like to share some of those insights.
So how does the librettist begin? This is easy to answer because any project involving known historical characters would involve reading and researching. The Poet started with Googling Robert Schumann on the Internet and then by borrowing a book of published letters written by and to this well known composer. The Poet also discovered, and not without expectation, that Schumann and his celebrated wife Clara Wieck Schumann (she was a renowned pianist) were popular subjects at the University libraries. It was hard to get books about them. The Poet also notes that not long ago, there was an opera about Clara entitled Clara by librettist Kathleen Cahill and composer Robert Convery.
Oberhauser’s story is a modern telling of the supposed love triangle between Robert, Clara and Johannes Brahms. In Oberhauser’s clever story concept, the modern day Robert is a none-to-successful playwright whose wife Claire is a singer with a doting colleague named John who stands in for Brahms. In the shadow world of Robert’s mind exists the historic composer Robert Schumann who is surrounded with his invented muses. The real life composer invented these muses, named Eusebius and Florestan, for his newspaper Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. The muses seemed to represent Schumann’s contemplative side (Eubius) and his emotionally heated side (Florestan).Oberhauser named these muses Melpomene and Polyhymnia.
FIRST RESEARCH AND DIGESTION
So after a period of researching and digesting, the Steiny Road Poet determined a prologue was needed that would create a grounding dramatic tension and move the opera into the first scene where Oberhauser set forth that the modern day Robert and the shadow land Schumann are shown working. Furthermore, the Poet felt strongly that the first words sung should be about the playwright’s and composer’s wives Claire and Clara. Here’s what the Poet wrote.
Prologue: On Waking
Light comes up gradually on a man sleeping restlessly in contemporary platform bed. He wakes.
Claire my star
my bright light
in darkest night
don’t leave me
I love need
you your voice
in my ear
music is all
he cares for
in my ear
my words sing
my words Claire
Claire I’m begging
Light goes black on Robert
Other side of the stage, light comes up gradually on a second man also restless and beginning to stir from sleep. His bed is a high from the floor and in keeping with furniture of the late 1800’s.
don’t leave me
what is mine
love me love
that is mine
let fame fan
our heat Ich
only for you
my love my
NO BEDS, NO GERMAN—CLEARING THE HEARTBURN
Oberhauser liked the prologue but expressed a couple of concerns that included not using beds because he needed to keep the sets as simple as possible to avoid any monetary issues. He also wanted the two men to sing at the same time so that if he didn’t have strong male singers they would cover each other. The Poet answered by suggesting it would be best if Robert could begin his part alone allowing the audience to hear the gist of his words. So Oberhauser started to work with this text and ran into a snag that concerned the short lines not matching up with the style he wanted to work with musically. So the Poet reformatted the lines to make them longer. Here’s what the rewrite looked like.
Prologue: On Waking
Light comes up gradually on a man restlessly dozing over a manuscript on his desk. His clothing suggests contemporary wearing apparel. He wakes.
Claire, my star, my bright light in darkest night,
don’t leave me. I love—need you—your voice
in my ear not his. Music is all he cares for—
Diva sing in my ear, my ear, not his.
My words, sing my words, Claire.
Claire, I’m begging, love me
Light goes black on Robert
Other side of the stage, light comes up gradually on a second man also restlessly dozing but over a musical score. His costume suggests the late 1800’s. He wakes.
Clara, Liebling, don’t leave me. Love me
with your perfect fingers playing
what is mine, not his. Touch me,
love me, love the music
that is mine. Let fame fan
our heat. Ich liebe dich.
Only for you, my love,
my music. Clara!
The reformatting that made the lines longer helped Oberhauser to move forward though ultimately the lines became short again. Also, several new concerns arose which resulted in cutting out some text. For example, Robert’s line "Music is all he cares for" caused Oberhauser to worry that this would be linked to Schumann and not Claire’s colleague John who hadn’t been introduced yet. Also Oberhauser wanted Schumann’s German to be limited as a matter of preference. What he did was reformat the two sets of text so that he could show them alternating or singing together. Here’s his revision:
Claire, my star,
don’t leave me. don’t leave me.
I love—need you—your voice
in my ear, not his.
Your fingers playing
What is mine,
—Not his. not his.
Diva, sing in my ear, my ear not his.
Claire, I’m begging,
love me love me.
Only for you, my love, my music.
WHAT SHALL I CALL HER?
In the meantime, the Poet worked on scene 1. In this scene, Oberhauser had Robert working on his play while Schumann works on pieces from the celebrated song cycle Liederkreis, Op. 39. The challenge was how to make the creative work of the two characters fit together so that a duet would make sense. Earlier, the Poet had suggested that the subject of Robert’s play should be related to Schumann’s ill-received opera Genoveva. The logic was to use a subject organic to the overall work of Schumann. Oberhauser liked this idea.
[Dim lighting barely reveals Robert seated at his desk. He is combing his fingers through his hair as he speaks and flips through a dictionary of names. The light on Robert grows brighter as he speaks.]
What shall I call her
this faithful wife, the one
her husband, a soldier,
entrusted to his younger
brother. How could
the soldier know
that his brother coveted
Let’s see, Genoveva?
Too old a name!
[He shakes his head no.]
Genevieve? Too French!
[He shakes his head no.]
Ginger, hmm, as in Virginia—
the suggestion of a virgin!
[Light goes black on Robert.]
MUDDLING THE MUSES
For Schumann’s creative work, the Poet targeted “Waldensgesprach,” the second song in Schumann’s Liederkreis. The scenario of this song involves a man encountering an attractive young woman riding a horse. She turns out to be the dangerous witch Lorelei.
One problem that the Poet had was understanding the role of the muses. In Oberhauser’s outline, he showed Melpomene and Polyhymnia following John in scene 3. What the scenic outline didn’t convey was that Oberhauser meant to use the muses in a Faustian setup such that when Robert asks for their help in scene 5, he gets that help at the cost of his sanity. Not understanding this Faustian situation, the Poet put the muses in Scene 1 and further complicated who they were and what they were called.
[Same dim lighting barely revealing Schubert who is standing and thumbing through a thin book of poetry. Close behind him are his muses Melpomene (Mel) and Polyhymnia (Polly) but Schumann calls Mel Florestan and Polly Eusebius. They remain silent but they move in response to him. Lights grows brighter.]
Yes, oh here it is—
his poem about the young woman
riding her horse through the forest.
Such a sight Eichendorff beholds:
Horse and virgin richly adorned
but who is she, this splendid maiden
alone in the forest?
[Schumann hums to himself.]
How could the man
talking to this beauty know
the danger? How could he
know she was Lorelei,
Working out the duet gave the Poet a lot of pleasure. Originally she had used the word “bride” (now changed to “virgin”) in Schumann’s rendering of his “Waldensgesprach,” which Oberhauser explained was a bad translation of the German word “Braut.” He said “Braut” was more a folk term meaning “maiden.” The English translation that the Poet had used employed the word “bride,” but if one consults some of the German-English dictionaries on the Internet such translations as “hottie” now are offered. Using the word “virgin” worked much better with Robert’s story. Here’s the aria.
What shall I call her
Lorelei, the witch.
—this faithful wife
in danger? In danger,
this man saw
Her husband’s brother calling her
beautiful. a beautiful virgin
I call him lecher.
Yes, Virginia, sweet The hour, late;
and pure Ginger— the forest, cold.
no horns for a cuckold The hunting horn
unless your husband believes haunting the trees.
gossip planted by your pursuer Flee, she warned
but could he? but could he?
FIRST A CLOUD, THEN A QUICK SHOWER
This conversation with the composer (and, by the way, most of the exchanges of ideas were in emails) then moved to a couple of other concerns about arias further into the story. Oberhauser had already written the words and music for what he called the “Inspiration Aria” which would be delivered by Claire’s colleague John. What he was hoping was that I might be able to change one or two words to lend my style, but not interfere with an aria that he had worked hard on and was satisfied with. Here is Oberhauser’s “Inspiration Aria.”
There is nothing so beautiful,
Nothing so wonderful,
As that moment you realize that what you’re doing is good-
It is beautiful,
It is wonderful,
It will touch someone’s life,
It’s all worth it.
Dripped onto the paper-
Notes on the staff like drops on the window.
Heaven opened above me.
The angels sang my songs.
But one can only handle so much.
The constant flow of music through me
Tore at me like a flood.
Poured onto the paper-
Notes on the staff like flies on a carcass.
The flood left me dry.
I withered in the sun.
Well, the Poet read this aria numerous times and could see no way that anyone would believe this fit with her work. So she went for this strategy, she would preserve the syllabic count and try to keep some of Oberhauser’s language. She showed this first draft to her New York theater director Nancy Rhodes who was so delighted with it that she suggested that once Oberhauser had revised the aria with the new version, she would be pleased to present it in one of her opera salons.
First a cloud, then a quick shower—
ideas bloom! Wonderful!
At that moment, my lyrical life spills energetically
into a green world.
Hear the harmony.
It will touch someone’s life.
I am in love.
She inspires me.
pour across my paper—
notes on the staff like rain on the window.
Heaven opened above me.
Now angels sing my songs.
But the body, such a weak vessel,
fails to contain this flood of music.
Help me before I drown.
My love is a storm;
her gaze, lightning!
Put me in a bright room
with paper and pens, sheltered from weather.
Safe and dry, I’ll die.
My love is a storm.
So this is the sum of the work that was completed.
LIVING OUTSIDE THE FRAME
Gertrude Stein said, also in her lecture on painting, “the first hope of a painter who really feels hopeful about painting is the hope that the painting will move, that it will live outside its frame.” The Steiny Road Poet learned that given a topic of interest to her, she had few problems writing for someone else’s master plan and quite enjoyed the give and take. She discovered that this kind of project produced a much more concentrated language than what her Stein and Bowles libretti produced. She also learned that while one cannot teach how to write an artful line, it is possible to coach someone with talent to initiate and carry out the writing of a libretto. So if this work on Schumann is to move and live outside its frame, it can only be through sharing it with another so that this other can understand how to paint a portrait for an opera composer.
Finally she knows that collaborations are difficult and that even with the best intentions, collaborators in the world of opera are more likely to fail than to succeed. Forging a good working relationship and having a written collaboration agreement are essential to a successful opera project. How one goes the distance to make that relationship strong requires time, energy, and emotional connection. Here the Steiny Road Poet removes her hat in reverence to the God or gods of creation.
Gertrude Stein Photo - Yale Collection of American Literature,
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.