Floyd, C.

Carlisle Floyd on Being a Librettist



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.