Floyd, C.

Carlisle Floyd on Being a Librettist

Carlisle Floyd

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Quick — who wrote the words to Verdi’s La Travi­ata? To Donizetti’s Lucia? To Puccini’s Tosca? “Libret­tists have always been the num­ber two man, and the lion’s share of the atten­tion is always going to go to the com­poser,” says Carlisle Floyd. And Floyd is in an espe­cially author­i­ta­tive posi­tion to talk about the mat­ter since he is not only a pop­u­lar Amer­i­can com­poser, but he is also his own librettist.

A com­poser writ­ing his own libretto is an extremely rare event in the world of opera. Richard Wag­ner always did it (and accord­ing to some peo­ple did him­self no great ser­vice in the process). But far more fre­quently the process of cre­at­ing an opera is a col­lab­o­ra­tion between a per­son in charge of the music and one in charge of the words. ”Writ­ing a libretto is an under­ap­pre­ci­ated art and it shouldn’t be, because it’s extremely dif­fi­cult,” explains Floyd. “Every­thing really starts with the libretto — and in a sense, ends with it.

Com­pres­sion is the soul of the libretto writer; that’s your over­rid­ing con­cern. I think we’re all star­tled when we see the size of the libretto com­pared with the length of the opera. It’s amaz­ing what you can do without!”

When Floyd was first work­ing on Of Mice and Men, he included a scene that he later cut, though not with­out first doing a lot of soul search­ing. “I had made a whole scene in the whore house and cre­ated a big role for the madam. It worked very well as a scene, but it really wasn’t nec­es­sary to tell the story. When it was sug­gested the opera could do with­out the scene, of course, I protested vehe­mently,” he recalls with a laugh. “But you just can’t squirm away from the fact that if it’s not nec­es­sary to tell the story, then it best be left undone. It’s a case of the brain and the heart bat­tling each other. It’s a bru­tal busi­ness, sometimes.”

It can also be a bru­tal busi­ness to read the let­ters com­posers send their libret­tists, try­ing to get exactly the right words for a char­ac­ter to sing, or the right pac­ing for a scene. In fact Verdi once threat­ened to emas­cu­late a libret­tist unless the man gave the com­poser what he wanted.

I remem­ber Dou­glas Moore [com­poser of The Bal­lad of Baby Doe] say­ing to me, ‘Carlisle, I really envy you, you never have to quar­rel with your libret­tist.’ Basi­cally that’s right, but where Carlisle Floyd the com­poser quar­rels with Carlisle Floyd the libret­tist is when I haven’t pro­vided enough text, and musi­cally it requires more words. The prob­lem is that I’m very, very care­ful at being as pre­cise as pos­si­ble when I’m writ­ing the libretto, in the choice of words, and inter­nal rhythm — all those things. But when I have to stop writ­ing music to come up with more text, I’m always exas­per­ated with myself and I’m not nearly as selec­tive about the text I choose at that point as I am when I’m writ­ing the libretto to begin with. I’m much less hard on myself at that point, because I want to get back to the music.

Peo­ple are always amazed that I don’t write music when I’m writ­ing words,” Floyd con­tin­ues. “I’m not even hear­ing any music. But if you stopped me at any given place I would prob­a­bly be able to tell you what the color of the music would be. But at the same time, I know what I have to sup­ply myself with as a composer.”

Writ­ing his own libretto “just seemed like a nat­ural thing to do” when the 21-year-old com­poser decided to under­take his first opera, Slow Dusk. Part of the rea­son was that he had excelled in cre­ative writ­ing in col­lege, so words were hardly a for­eign means of expres­sion for him. “I adapted a short story of mine that I’d writ­ten in a cre­ative writ­ing sem­i­nar, so writ­ing the libretto just didn’t seem that big a stretch to me. Maybe it should have,” he adds with a laugh. “I got a lot of com­men­da­tion and encour­age­ment so there was noth­ing to deter me, I sup­pose, from writ­ing my own libretto again.”

So what it is about a sub­ject that makes Carlisle Floyd the libret­tist sit up and take notice? “It’s two things: rich char­ac­ters and very dra­matic sit­u­a­tions or inci­dents. Cri­sis is the nat­ural habi­tat of opera. It’s not day-to-day events, it’s extra­or­di­nary events. If a novel or a play doesn’t seem to have those, you’re prob­a­bly bet­ter off leav­ing it alone. I remem­ber some­one say­ing that opera was the nat­ural habi­tat for feel­ing, for emo­tion. That’s absolutely right.

There are a lot of things you can do in a play, a lot of sub­ject mat­ter you can treat, that I don’t think are appro­pri­ate for opera at all. Any­thing that has to do with philo­soph­i­cal, intel­lec­tual dis­putes you just can’t do on the opera stage. Any­thing that’s highly inter­nal­ized or requires a great deal of ver­biage unac­com­pa­nied by action you can’t do.”

Through­out his long career, Floyd has writ­ten orig­i­nal libret­tos and has also cre­ated libret­tos based on lit­er­ary mas­ter­pieces such a John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Emily Bronte’s Wuther­ing Heights, and Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. Per­haps sur­pris­ingly, he says deal­ing with another author’s work is often eas­ier than fash­ion­ing a libretto from his own. “Using an exist­ing work, you never lose your objec­tiv­ity. There’s an emo­tional dis­tance built into that, whereas doing your own work dri­ves you mad, because you can’t be quite as emo­tion­ally detached from it.”

And how does Floyd the libret­tist decide where to put an aria, or a musi­cal ensem­ble for Floyd the com­poser to write? “Well, the dif­fi­cult thing is get­ting to it, because you just can’t do it arbi­trar­ily,” he explains. “Some­one once said that in opera seria the recita­tive loads the gun and the aria fires it. Load­ing the gun is the prob­lem so that fir­ing the gun seems absolutely nat­ural. You have to look through the mate­r­ial and find those scenes where there are pos­si­ble mono­logues or solil­o­quies, moments of lyric expan­sion. You’ve got to have an emo­tional crys­tal­liza­tion at that time, so you can afford to take the time [for the aria].

The point is that as a libret­tist the com­poser part of you is always breath­ing down your neck. You’re always ask­ing, is this too talky, is the action car­ry­ing the sto­ry­line? The for­ward move­ment must con­tinue. Good cur­tains don’t just arrive; they have to be built to. You’re always work­ing with struc­ture and shape in a libretto. Then the music and the libretto become prop­erly wed­ded. You can’t impose a musi­cal struc­ture on a libretto — or vice versa.”

But when there’s a dis­agree­ment between Carlisle Floyd the libret­tist and Carlisle Floyd the com­poser — who wins? “The com­poser, always,” he says with a laugh. “He’s a real tyrant!”

This arti­cle first appeared in the Hous­ton Grand Opera Play­bill.

Photo of Carlisle Floyd by Jim Caldwell.