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.