The art of writing opera is dying because no one knows how to write them.
I am an operatic baritone, and I wrote my first classical composition (an opera) at age 16. I had the idea to write an opera after absorbing and listening to the opera recordings at my local library, reading about orchestration, and studying orchestral operatic scores.
I am here to say that anyone can write an opera. Let me explain this because this sounds rather radical. In order to write an opera, 1). For the text, one needs to understand dialogue and theatre, and 2). For the music, one needs to understand how to notate music, how the human voice works, how the orchestral instruments work, and one needs to have a sense of drama. However, one does not need a Master’s degree in composition to write an opera. My degree is in Voice Performance; composition has nothing to do with it. In fact, I am self-taught, and I took private lessons in composition for only one semester during my college career. The composition teacher accepted me as a private student because I showed more promise than the others who took the General Composition classes.
This is not the definitive way, or the only way to make an opera, but this is how I write operas, and it has worked well for me.
“Libretto” is Italian for “little book.” This term refers to the script of the play. In basic terms, opera is theatre. It is a play that is sung and accompanied with instruments. In order to have the singing, one needs to have words to sing.
Who can write the libretto?
Anyone who has an understanding about dialogue and drama can write the libretto. Usually, someone wrote the libretto for the composer to use. Sometimes, the composer can write the libretto (Wagner wrote all of his own texts).
How many people are required to write a libretto?
As many as it takes. Like I said before, composers sometimes write their own texts. Two people wrote the text for Bizet’s Carmen. So, this one depends on how many people are needed.
What makes a good operatic subject?
The earliest subjects were stories of Greek myths, and then Mozart was practically the first composer to use contemporary material. Composers often worked with novelists and authors when writing the libretti (plural of “libretto”). Verdi’s Rigoletto was based on a work by Victor Hugo. There also were people who were professional librettists, Metastasio in seventeenth-century Italy being the best known example. Sometimes the same story was set by many different composers, most often at the same time if the story was all the rage.
Anything can be turned into an opera. Verdi used several Shakespeare plays as operatic subjects. Little Women, The Great Gatsby, even the life of Lizzie Borden, were turned into operas. Amazingly, the film Dead Man Walking was made into an opera. Even though anything can be used as operatic subjects, not everything will work as good operatic subjects. I suggest that you choose a subject that is able to be adapted for stage (La Wally by Catalani contains a scene where the soprano commits suicide by jumping into an avalanche; that opera is not performed often for that reason), and something that is worth being adapted. I am not aware of many opera companies performing Dead Man Walking, but Verdi’s Shakespearean operas are among the most performed.
Do not choose a subject that is too big to be staged. I wanted to make an opera about Alexander the Great or about Ivan the Terrible, but those stories are so huge with many scene changes that it would be impossible to be staged. At the same time, do not choose a subject that is too short because people are paying big bucks per seat to see an opera. The average opera lasts roughly three hours.
When choosing a subject and adapting it, the librettist must be able to tell the story and say what he wants to have the story say, and the composer must be able to say what he wants to say as well. Opera creation is a collaborative process. If adapting a novel or play, do not adapt the entire work. Use the basic plot elements, and, if time allows, it is all right to use other parts. The source for Richard Strauss’s Salomé was a German translation of the play of the same name by Oscar Wilde. Instead of using the basic plot themes, he set the entire play (the German translation, of course) word for word. Music by its nature adds length to anything. So, in terms of length and time, the opera ended up being nearly three times longer than the original play!
To avoid getting permission for using a pre-existing work and paying royalty fees, choose something written/published before 1915 when copyright laws never existed, or write an original story. However, if you want to use a pre-existing work written/published after 1915, you must obtain the rights to use it, from the publisher and the author.
If you are unaware of how a libretto looks, look through the booklet included with opera recordings. Separate libretti are also available with a translation included.
I must also say that you should choose a story that provokes an emotional reaction. If you choose comedy, make sure that it is absolutely hilarious, making the audience roar with laughter. If you choose drama/tragedy, make sure that the story is completely tragic with no happy endings, and that the audience will weep hard. Music will also enhance the emotions (comedic or tragic), but you should not let the composer make up for it. Mozart collaborated with Lorenzo da Ponte on most of his successes, and da Ponte was amazing at what he created. However, his text for “Don Giovanni” was so weak because nothing much dramatically happened in the plot (it is the story of Don Juan). The only reason why it was popular at all was Mozart’s music saved it. The librettist should make the text as comedic/tragic (depending) as possible, and the composer will do that as well, but leave nothing to chance. Even the best music cannot salvage weak texts.
When writing the text, do not concern yourself with staging. If a character needs to appear above in a window, that is acceptable to note, but your job is not to interpret; that is the stage director’s job. Your job is simply to write, so think about when (not where) people enter and exit.
How long should the libretto be?
This is probably the least important factor. The music by its very nature will add length, but you should have enough material to last for a couple hours. If you want to know how long most other libretti are, look at the libretti with opera recordings.
I should also mention the language of the libretto. Should the libretto be in a foreign language? I am part of the school of thought that opera should not be sung in English, that opera in English defeats the purpose of opera. I also do not approve of translating foreign-language texts into English because, most often, the translation has nothing to do with the original text. I also believe that the success of a new opera greatly increases if it is not in English. Britten is nearly the only superstar composer of English opera since Henry Purcell five hundred years earlier. The most popular language of opera is Italian, with French and German also in the list. Operas in Russian and Czech have also made it into the repertoire. Spanish opera is also increasing in popularity. I also believe that the choice of language can determine the success of an opera. French opera is not popular outside of France (with the exception being Carmen by Bizet). German is more popular than French, but German does not lend itself well to singing (English being the most difficult to sing). I have studied fifteen languages (I speak five) and I think that any language (other than English) can be used. Sanskrit has even been used, but that opera is not performed too often. If you yourself do not know any foreign languages, but you and the composer have decided to write a foreign-language opera, find someone who can translate the text for you. I prefer to write operas in foreign languages because I believe that operas not in English have a greater chance of being performed more often and will have a longer lasting popularity. A successful first opera means a second opera that will be performed, thus beginning a career in opera composition.
How involved should the composer be with the creation of the libretto?
If the composer is not writing the text, that is decided previously between the librettist and the composer. I prefer to let the librettist work on it before I see it (I write my own texts, but even I did not, I would not want to see it until it was completed). Some composers like to have an equal share in writing the text. Verdi was brutal with his librettists, as evident in his letters. Even while writing the music for the text, he wrote the librettist telling him “to change this part”, or he told the librettist to add more to it, to make the scene more dramatic. Since the project/experience is a collaboration, rules concerning the level of involvement should be established first before work begins. The libretto is also up the whims of the composer - the composer will most likely need to change words, to remove words, depending on the flow of the music. Some composers like to have the music written first before adding in words. I prefer to have the words first because without the words, there would be nothing to set. This knowledge should be mentioned before the creation of the music. Some composers like to include the librettist during the musical creative process (as Verdi did), but some exclude the librettist once the task of the creating the libretto is finished. This should also be discussed before work begins so as to lessen the hurt feelings and to reduce any future misunderstandings since the egos of both the librettist and composer are involved.
One last thing I need to mention is (the most important part!) writing libretti is a thankless job. When discussing who wrote any particular opera, the composer’s name is usually always mentioned. Does anyone remember who wrote the libretto for Tosca? We all know that Puccini wrote the music, but who wrote the libretto? The answer is Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa wrote the libretto, both of them.
Should the librettist be present at rehearsals?
The librettist (if still living) should be present at all rehearsals, but he is not needed in the rehearsal process other than being there to make sure that none of the words are changed, etc.
Opera is considered the greatest art form ever created by mankind because it consists of theatre combined with music and singing. Opera dates back to the ancient Greeks when music was used during the plays performed. A small orchestra of a harp, a flute, and maybe a small drum was used to accompany the drama, and much of the dialogue was indeed sung. Sadly, opera died out as an art form until the Renaissance several thousand years later. Claudio Monteverdi is considered the father of modern opera; some of his original opera scores still exist.
Even though opera is theatre, it is not opera without music or the singing. A friend of mine in college once said opera would be better without the singing (he was greatly biased against opera and that style of singing). Without the singing, it would not be opera. Without the orchestra, the singing would be a capella, and the whole production would greatly be lacking, to put it nicely.
Another major topic - which comes first, the words or the music? This topic alone has been an ongoing debate for centuries. In fact, Capriccio by Richard Strauss spoofs and parodies this very same question. Some composers prefer to write the music first, whilst some prefer to have the words first. I prefer to have the words first because, without the words first, there would be nothing to set. With the music first, the librettist would feel very limited on what to write so as to fit the words to some pre-existing music. I prefer to have the words first because, that way, the libretto can be written to its full potential, and therefore so can the music.
I said that anyone with knowledge about composition can write an opera. However, many composers have no clue about the human voice or the singer temperament; just because someone can write music, play the piano, and understands the orchestra does not mean he can write vocal music. I believe the person who is best qualified to write an opera is an opera singer. A violinist is best qualified to write a violin concerto because he understands how the violin works. This is the same with vocal music.
Now to the process of writing the music! Here is my disclaimer - this is not on how to notate music or how to make melody; this is about the best way to write a successful opera.
Once the librettist has said what he wants to say, and the libretto is completed, the music can now be written. (If you decide to write a foreign-language opera, the composer need not be fluent; he simply needs to know the basics - nouns, verbs, etc. and which syllable is accented.) My composition teacher in college told me that the vocal parts and piano background should be written at the same time. That does not work for me.
I write the music and score in three parts. First, I write the vocal parts first, the whole text, and I indicate any pauses that I want. If I want to use certain chords, I will indicate them. Writing the vocal parts first allows me to do my absolute best with the vocal parts. I then write the piano background, and, when completed, I arrange that for orchestra. For me, the vocal parts take the shortest amount of time (the sung parts of my first opera only took me two months to write), and the orchestrations take the longest. Even though the vocal parts are the most important, they are the easiest for me. I figure that since doing both at the same time as doing them separately, I write them separately.
What is a proper style? How should an opera sound?
This is up to the composer; every composer has a style, and that style should be used. My style is “Mozart meets Verdi.” It is very classical, and yet very dramatic and massive in power. My style frustrated my composition professor because his style was very much avante-garde, and it clashed with my style, but I learned a lot from him, on how not to be afraid of chromaticism, etc. So, this brings up the question of how tonal should the music be. That is also up to the composer. I suggest that you look at the styles of all the popular operas, at the styles of all the operas that are most performed, and think about why they are so popular. Ask yourself why Verdi is so often performed and why composers such as Philip Glass are not. The general operatic audience wants to hear music that sounds good to the ear. I suggest that you not experiment with tonality; this is what Wagner did, and two groups of people developed - one who thought he was the worst composer who ever lived, and the other who thought that he was the greatest.
There are two schools of thought concerning Wagner and his music - that he was a genius and wrote unending melodies; that he had no sense of melody and his never-ending sung dialogue is completely boring. I am of the latter; I believe Wagner’s later music (his Ring cycle and later operas) are absolutely boring. However, he began a new phase in operatic music and operatic writing, first by the break-down of tonality (which eventually led to serialism) and, since he despised the word “opera,” he wrote what he called “Gesamtkunstwerk,” meaning “complete art work.” He wrote huge operas, unbreaking in action, the singing is massive, and the orchestra has nearly tripled in volume. He broke away from the number system (where the first aria is labelled “number one” in the table of contents, etc.; classical operas used this system, as did Verdi) by making non-stop operas; there also are no arias in the traditional sense. I prefer using the number method because it gives reference points for the performers, and it allows for set pieces.
Set pieces are separate sections, such as dances, songs, or arias. Singers love having arias, they love having their own “solo moments,” and way to ensure that is to utilise the number system. Verdi made that his singers used their full ranges and talents. Some composers have specific people in mind when they write a particular character. I personally do not know anyone, but I write my vocal parts using the full potential range and abilities for anyone of that particular voice type, such as sixteenth-note runs up to a high C, for example. Everything is possible in opera.
Melody is also very important. The singers like things to sing, not just arias, but melodious pieces. This is why many believe Wagner’s music is the boring stuff in the world because nothing happens in the music. Another example is Pelléas et Mélisande by Debussy. In my opinion, the vocal music of that opera is nothing more than three hours of recitative. Not exactly exciting. Audience members are not paying hundreds of dollars per ticket simply to listen to recitative! They want to hear high notes, vocal fireworks; they want to get their money’s worth! That will greatly ensure and increase the chance of longer-lasting popularity of the opera.
What is the role of the orchestra?
Traditionally, the orchestra has simply accompanied the singers. Just look at the scores of Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi. Wagner changed that by making the orchestra another character in the plot, as if the orchestra is somewhat competing with the singers on the stage. As a singer, it is very difficult to sing through and over a seventy-person orchestra blaring at full volume in a house that seats three thousand people. So, I advise not to drown out the singers. I am a huge fan of power and volume, but the whole point of opera is the singing, and the singers need to be heard.
How long does it take to write an opera?
As long as it takes. The length of time depends on the ability of the person. Verdi churned out an opera each year, which is amazingly fast. Wagner spent four years writing each opera in his Ring cycle. Rossini spent only thirteen days writing "Barbiere di Siviglia."
THE WORLD PREMIÈRE
Your opera is now completed. The next step is getting it performed. This step is not so easy because opera companies mostly want to stick performing the standards, and most people do not trust new music. I would say contact any opera company and tell them that you are a composer and you wrote an opera and that you want to have it performed. Knowing someone in the management of the company greatly helps. If you do not know anyone, do not worry; rejection is part of the process, and it shows us how much we want it. Also remember - Verdi’s first opera almost never happened. If it had never happened, Puccini also probably would never have happened.
What if my opera is a failure?
Carmen (Bizet died three months after the first performance), La Traviata (this opera never had a second performance in Verdi’s lifetime), and Madama Butterfly all were complete flops, but they are among the world’s most performed and most beloved operas. On the flip side, your opera just may be a huge success. You never know until you try.