From the Archives – Playwrights at the Opera: Writing the Libretto
Illustration of proscenium
Illustration: Tom Funk
Jan 10, 2020
This roundtable originally appeared in The Musical Theatre Issue of The Dramatist, May/June 2013.

Since the beginnings of opera, playwrights have been drawn to writing librettosthe plays which are entirely set to music, sung by opera singers, and accompanied by symphony orchestras.

It makes sense that playwrights would want to test their wings in the rarified venue of the opera house. In fact, writing an opera libretto may be closer to writing a play than writing a musical. Musicals stop talking in order to sing, but operas are continuous. In language, librettos are closer to plays than the lyrics to musicals are since librettos are not written in rhymed song form. And unlike in a musical, a playwright doesn’t have to relinquish the juiciest moments of the script to be regurgitated into lyrics in song form.

Of course, librettos have also been written by composers themselves, noted poets, lyricists, novelists, and every now and then a journalist. Here at The Dramatist, we wanted to hear exclusively from playwright-librettists, and learn exactly what all the excitement is about.

The playwrights we spoke to are, in alphabetical order: Deborah Brevoort, Thulani Davis, Donna DiNovelli, David Henry Hwang, William Hoffman, Stephen Karam, Craig Lucas, Terrence McNally, John Patrick Shanley, and Royce Vavrek.

Michael Korie: How many opera librettos have you written, and which was your favorite(s)?

Royce Vavrek: I’ve written three full-length operas, Dog Days with composer David T. Little, Song from the Uproar with Missy Mazzoli and Maren of Vardø with Jeff Myers. One-act operas include Prairie Dogs with Rachel Peters, Angel’s Bone with Du Yun, and Strip Mall with Matt Marks.

Stephen Karam: Only one, Dark Sisters.

John Patrick Shanley: Doubt is my first. I enjoyed it very much.

Deborah Brevoort:  I have written three opera librettos: Altezura with composer Alexandra Vrebalov about Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell; Embedded inspired by Edgar Allan Poe with composer Patrick Soluri; and Steal A Pencil For Me about the Holocaust with composer Gerald Cohen. Embedded is my favorite.

William Hoffman: The Ghosts of Versailles, 1981, Metropolitan Opera (twice), Lyric Opera of Chicago, and other productions. Music by John Corigliano. The Cows of Apollo, Brooklyn Academy of Music, music by Christopher Theofanides. Based on the only extant comedy of Sophocles. It purports how music came into existence (Hermes stole one of Apollo’s sacred cows and turned it into a lyre!) Morning Star, commissioned originally by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, then re-commissioned by the Cincinnati Opera. Music by Ricky Ian Gordon. Based on Sylvia Regan’s play. Set against the backdrop of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, I tend to like the opera I’m in the throes of creating more than all the others. Right now Morning Star is my favorite work. But earlier Ghosts was my favorite.

Thulani Davis: Three: X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, Anthony Davis, composer, 1985; The E. & O. Line, Anne LeBaron, composer, 1989; Amistad, An Opera, Anthony Davis, composer, 1997. And a couple of oratorios. I love the melding of words and music most in Xwords and music perfectly matchedand probably like my own work best in Amistad.

Craig Lucas: With Gerald Busy, one of our operas, Breedlove, tells a straightforward story, historical in nature, and the other, Orpheus in Love, explodes its narrative, backwards and forwards. The Nico Muhly opera, Two Boys, is based loosely on a news item about an internet crime from early 2001 in England, and we’ve been working on it for about five years. The Metropolitan Opera has lavished time and attention and support, as has the English National Opera where it debuted last year.

Donna DiNovelli: I cut my teeth on Florida, a work I wrote with Randall Eng. With Christopher Theofanidis, I wrote Heart of a Soldier for San Francisco Opera based on a nonfiction account of the life of Rick Rescorla. Chris’s beautiful verisimo score is studded with electric guitar wailing over battle scenes in Vietnam and ends when a bagpipe enters the balcony of the opera house.

David Henry Hwang: I have written eight works with contemporary classical composers. Of these, five could be considered operas, while the remaining three are musical theatre hybrids. My favorites include Ainadamar with Osvaldo Golijov and my first such piece, 1000 Airplanes on the Roof with Philip Glass. According to Opera News, I am the most-produced living American opera librettist, which feels like something of a 19th-century distinction.

Michael Korie: How does writing an opera libretto differ from writing dialogue for a play, or the book and lyrics for a musical?

William Hoffman: Operas follow the same dramatic rules as plays and film scripts. Each scene needs conflict, each scene has to connect to a central theme, the stakes of the opera need to be life and death, and if the work is comic, it has to make me laugh out loud.

John Patrick Shanley: After we were about halfway through creating the opera Doubt, I went to see The Marriage of Figaro and afterwards I called the composer and I said, you know, we really haven’t done enough repetition. Because repetition is where the music gets to develop. By saying the same phrase over and over again you can explore it musically in a way you can’t when the language is always changing.

Royce Vavrek: Each project comes with its own set of specific challenges, whether it is an opera or a musical. I do seem to rhyme more when I write musicals than I do in an opera libretto.

Craig Lucas: Music tends to slow down the momentum of the language, so you can’t cram too many words or syllables in or it starts to create a comic mash. There is always paring away. Sung phrasing alters our hearing, and certain phrases that would play perfectly intelligibly in a play become vaguely double entendre-ish when the sounds are elongated by singing. Also, the composer’s needs become paramount: things have to “sing” to the composer. They have to have a secret music above and beyond the simple way that the language scans (or doesn’t!). Meaning and inference becomes paramount, and so a lot of communication between composer and librettist, back and forth, has to happen. My dialogue relies heavily on the white space; I’m slightly averse to people saying what they mean and meaning what they say, I lose interest without subtext and inference and the tension between what a character knows about themselves and what they deny or are completely unaware of. People reveal themselves in what they do.

Deborah Brevoort: In general, it takes more time to sing an opera aria than a song in a musical, so you can’t have a lot of words or otherwise the opera will take all night. This forced economy makes your libretto highly poetic and theatrical.

Stephen Karam: For me, it’s about letting the music do all of the heavy lifting. In other words, I ask myself constantly: could the music express this? If so, let the music do the storytelling. A line like: “That big, bold, hazy, overwhelmingly gray sky!” canand usually shouldbe: “That sky...” if it will be set to music by a talented composer. The music captures the bigness and the boldness of it.

David Henry Hwang: One of my libretti, Sound and Beauty, with music by Philip Glass, is adapted from two of my one-act plays, which gave me a very clear opportunity to note the differences between these forms. On a technical level, the libretti need to be more concise, since it takes longer to sing “I love you” than to say it in a larger sense, there is an important difference where it comes to issues of artistic control. When I write a play, I hold the primary artistic vision, and all my collaborators ideally support that. With an opera, part of my job as I see it is to create a libretto which is going to help the composer to do his or her best work.

Thulani Davis: One has to have a sense of how one’s rhythms, tonalities and emotional tone set the ground for music the composer has not thought of yet. You want to feed the composer’s imagination and in an array of voices, tones and rhythms. Ideas must be said more simply and one has to look for lyrical moments that can be enlarged and repeated, and become themes in works with a chorus.

Michael Korie: Did you experience a learning curve when you wrote your first opera libretto? What was your preparation?

Thulani Davis: Are you kidding? There is no preparation for making something where every singer can hit every syllable on every note and get your point across at the same time.Yyou have to do it. I grew up listening to opera, but I did look at libretti, which depressed me enormously and seemed bound by a lot of unnecessary stage business, so I put them down. I started trying to write a play in free and standard verse; ditched that. I set out to write a long poem and that is what I still do.

Deborah Brevoort: I participated in the American Lyric Theater’s Composer/Librettist Development Program, an intensive program in opera writing. I studied librettos and scores; did writing assignments with composers; wrote Altezura and then Embedded under the guidance of opera composers, librettists and dramaturgs provided by ALT. This process took about two years.

David Henry Hwang: My first work with composer Philip Glass, 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, was more of a musical theatre piece. Though not an opera, it got me used to working with music that plays a central, if not primary, role in an evening of theatre. By the time we wrote our full opera The Voyage for the Metropolitan Opera in 1992, I had spent time trying to familiarize myself with the opera repertoire. Of course, working on my play M. Butterfly, which quoted extensively from Puccini’s opera, also acquainted me with the form.

Donna DiNovelli: You can’t write plays if you don’t go to the theatre. You can’t write opera if you don’t spend time absorbing and studying the form. Deconstructing opera is the necessary step to constructing one’s ownand something I enjoy doing, engaging my analytical mind sparks my creative side. My path to opera is littered with musical theater. I wrote my last play in 1995 when I was recruited by the Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program at Tisch and all my thinking and investigating from then on has concerned the combination of words and music. My earliest influencesthose jump-out-of-your-skin moments of excitementwere produced by Trouble in Tahiti and Peter Grimes and English language operas in general; Michael Korie’s Harvey Milk; Wayne Koestenbaum’s Jackie O; Alice Goodman’s The Death of Klinghoffer. I later came to appreciate the librettos of Mark Campbell, J.D. McClatchy, and Mark Adamo, and the use of text by David Lang and Michael Gordon.

Stephen Karam: I listened to and saw as many operas as I could. Librettos are funny things when you look at all of the classics; many of them endure because of the music alone. There are gorgeous scores saddled with terrible, implausible, absurd librettosbut opera really is first and foremost about the music. That said, nothing is better when rich music meets a rich story.

Craig Lucas: My first love, the late actor Peter Evans, introduced me to Benjamin Britten’s operas, and I sank into them. Britten was scrupulously careful about not only the stories he chose but then every single syllable of the language spoken, the shape of scenes, the design. Operas and musicals (and screenplays) are much more overtly structural than plays, which can be slightly baggier, though nowhere near as baggy as novels which can seem like great shuffling fatsos compared to even the most expansive play, say The Iceman Cometh.

John Patrick Shanley: When I saw La Boheme for the first time, I thought, “Oh, I know exactly what this is.” It was in my bones. But I was not part of the tradition of opera-going. Where I came from, no one went to a play. It’s only recently that I actually started to go to see operas. I’m starting to love opera, but I was definitely a neophyte. I’ve been both praised and criticized for my plays when they said, “It’s like an opera!” The workshop of Doubt taught me a lot. I wanted to open it up in a different way than I had for the screenplay, for instance. In an opera, I realized you could hear the feelings and thoughts of the parishioners in the sermon scenes, and in order to do that we really had to do some experimentation on our feet.

Royce Vavrek: I was able to experiment with libretto-writing through my participation in American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program. It began with me writing small projectsan aria, then a duetand culminated in my writing the libretti for two one-act operas. 

Michael Korie: How helpful was the composer about expressing what was needed for the music, and how to write words for opera singers to sing?

Donna DiNovelli: Collaboration with a composer, and ultimately with the music itself, is what transformed me from playwright into librettist. The key to collaboration is beginning at the beginning. An opera isn’t a play set to music. It’s a joint venture where the interplay of music and drama is the basis of the art form. And collaboration is one tough mother. Finding a match of sensibilities, and a match of desire, is paramount. I can’t imagine working with a composer whose music didn’t thrill me or with whom I couldn’t discuss how dramatic function and musical choice connect.

William Hoffman: I need the composer to set limits: they have to let me know what they find settable or un-settable. What is it that they need to accomplish musically, and how my libretto can help them or hinder them. John Corigliano was determined not to write any opera that could be pigeon-holed as neo-classical, in the vein of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, whose libretto by W. H. Auden locked him into a wrong-note harmony province of the 18th century. I was required by John to write a libretto that was not locked into the neo-classical genre. It was an interesting problem for me to solve. Ricky Ian Gordon, similarly, did not want to be locked into a turn-of-the-century America.

John Patrick Shanley: The composer, Douglas Cuomo, wanted to go with the natural flow of the language as it had been in the play and in the film. I ended up stylizing sections of it to make it a sort of hybrid between lyrics and dialogue so that it would lend itself to increased musicalization.

Craig Lucas: Both Gerald Busby and Nico Muhly love the social aspect of the opera world; they are both avid foodies so their approach to the music is somewhat kitchen-inflected: “We’ll take some of this and some of that, whatever we’ve got, and we’ll whip up something.” I’m sure both of them have had moments when they’d absolutely love to murder me, but they have both been kind and forgiving and we have worked and worked and worked until the narratives and the words are artful and simple and clear.

Thulani Davis: Anthony Davis was very helpful and taught me a lot about singers. The singers taught me as well. He didn’t tell me what he needed. We discussed moods, pace, etc; he told me what he heard and I did the same. I told him the opening of X had to be tense, suggested things I’d heard him do on piano that fit what I was trying to describe, and then said the soprano should come in and cut across the tension underneath. It seemed the way we would meet Malcolm’s mother. That’s what he composed. He told me where he wanted instrumental scenes and was excellent at thinking through the sequence of scenes, lots of visual elements, and how to include improvisation. He saw the right ending for X and I got my way for the ending of Amistad.

Royce Vavrek: I usually have a pretty good idea of the composer’s musical language before writing text for them, and most of the composers have seen and heard how my words work with music. Normally we’ll talk a lot about the piece and how the words and music will function for the specific project before either of us begin work.

Stephen Karam: Nico Muhly was incredibly helpful. We did a lot of back and forth discussion regarding music-time and space. Sometimes Nico would take a lengthy passage and ask for it to be cut in half. Sometimes I handed him a line like: “Look what I did.” And it became an aria! We had ongoing discussions about music-time and how long we thought certain parts of the story should take.

David Henry Hwang: Whenever I start work on an opera, I spend a good deal of time with the composers trying to understand what will help them to do their best work. So it’s not just a question of how to write words; rather, I try to find out what’s going to push their buttons, so to speak. For instance, I learned that Osvaldo Golijov likes passionate words and scenes with lots of guts and blood; Unsuk Chin, on the other hand, wants the words to be almost like wallpaper, so her music stands out and carries the piece forward. It’s very important to me that the composer expresses his or her wants and needs for the libretto.

Deborah Brevoort: I have written a number of musicals and have a good sense of what is sing-able and what isn’t so I didn’t need to have that conversation. As for other musical issues, occasionally the composer would ask me to rewrite a line by adding a syllable or two, or ending a line with a “A-sound” or an “O” but that was about it. I was never consulted on musical issues.

Michael Korie: What do playwrights writing a libretto need to be conscious of knowing that it is going to be sung?

John Patrick Shanley: To think about that idea of how can a script develop musically, how can a series of lines of dialogue transposed into this form allow the composer to develop them? In pop music, there are very definite repetitive structures that are used to create a worm in the brain and create something memorable. But in opera, there is more open rein given to exploring something in a much longer melodic and orchestral line. So you don’t want to write a pop lyric masquerading as an opera. You want to write passionate material that revisits its base as it escalates so that you can get somewhere. In terms of language, whether you’re going up a flight of stairs or going down a flight of stairs, you want to really feel the progression of the language.

Michael Korie: What about the drama or story you chose convinced you it should be an opera?

Craig Lucas: Frankly, in all three instances, it was the composer’s music that excited me. I love the parts of the psyche and spirit that can be accessed by music. So, once I knew I wanted to work with a particular composer, the story always came from them.

David Henry Hwang: Basically, a good opera story embraces heightened reality. The audience will suspend its disbelief for most narrative genres, but is particularly willing to do so in opera, since the aesthetic premise itself is already so non-naturalistic, i.e. people in real life do not go around singing all the time. That’s why many opera plots could be considered “over the top,” but with the addition of music, beautifully render intense emotions such as love, hate, grief, and revenge.

Donna DiNovelli: The inexpressible in each story requireddemandedmusic: when words alone fail and the void can only be filled by an operatic voice going beyond letter and thought. Think on how the word “misterioso” is set in La Traviata. Vowels of pleasure. What the heart understands beyond the mind’s logic. That’s opera’s gift.

Deborah Brevoort: All of the stories dealt with big, primal emotions, high-stake dramatic situations, and epic events: war, terrorism, the Holocaust. These subjects require a heightened treatment that is suited to opera where everything is enlarged.

Royce Vavrek: I love singular characters with interesting perspectives, and I appreciate a certain velocity in the way the story moves forward. I tend to fall in love with stories very easily, and often will find myself half-way through a novel consumed with ideas for adapting it for the opera.

Stephen Karam: There is a memoir of one of Brigham Young’s wives called WIFE NO. 19. Reading it and others, it was clear that these women, having lived such house-ridden, emotionally shut-down livesthe moment they voiced their feelings for the first time publicly, it was an explosion of ideas and emotions. They were practically singing already.

Thulani Davis: If I like a story, I try to figure out what form best opens up its potential.

Michael Korie: Did you write the libretto first and then give it to the composer, or did you work simultaneously, back and forth? How many changes did you make?

David Henry Hwang: In all my opera collaborations to date, I have written the words first, then the composer has set them to music. Some composers wish to get more involved in the details of the libretto, others are interested in the overall structure but less so the words themselves. As a rule, opera composers don’t rewrite the way we are used to doing with plays or musicals. In part, this is because operas don’t get previews. In my opinion, this is a problem with opera development; there’s not enough time for rewriting based on what one learns from an audience. An exception to the generalization that opera composers don’t rewrite, was Osvaldo Golijov. On the opening night of Ainadamar at Santa Fe Opera, I had given Osvaldo three possible last lines for Dawn Upshaw to sing; as the lights went up on the performance, I still didn’t know which one he had chosen!

Royce Vavrek: I always try to have a complete libretto finished before the composer starts writing. There are almost always changes/additions/cuts that need to be made once the composer digs in, but I find it wise to have the whole libretto completed before the composition begins.

William Hoffman: All of my opera work went back and forth to the composer. I can’t imagine writing an opera that didn’t involve a lot of input from the composer. Operas are the most collaborative of art forms.

Deborah Brevoort: The back and forth part of the process happened after I had working drafts. In one opera, Steal A Pencil For Me, I developed the outline for the opera in close collaboration with the composer. I gave him the first act of the libretto and made changes to it before going on to the second act. After the complete libretto was finished, I continued to make numerous changes as he wrote the music.

Craig Lucas: The words came first, though often, once music had been composed, words would change and I would try to find something to fit the scansion. But both composers have their own unique solutions to that, and I try to never interfere.

Stephen Karam: The libretto came first and was agreed upon before even one note of music was written.

Thulani Davis: I write first. We go back and forth. It was very thrilling to have Anthony phone and excitedly say he’d had an idea and play something on the piano. Lots of changes. I purposely overwrote and let Anthony cut to what he liked best. He often just trimmed or pulled certain passages for a chorus in addition to what I may have indicated.

John Patrick Shanley: I gave the composer a portion of the libretto, and he scored it and then came over to my apartment and would plink out note by note every beat of the composition. Then we’d stop and talk about it and I’d raise whatever issues I had with that particular piece of plinking. It took a couple of months to arrive at a common language.

Michael Korie: Did you ever arrive at a point where you and your composer had a vastly different approach to a certain scene or moment? How did you work through that difference?

Thulani Davis: We heard different things sometimes and we did some yelling.

Deborah Brevoort: Truthfully? The composers usually get their way. Musical needs trump dramatic concerns. I think in their heart of hearts opera composers are not really collaborative beings. They tend to go off and work by themselves. The libretto is viewed as a vehicle for their musical composition—not as an artistic creation in its own right that has equal standing with the music. It is very different than musical theatre, where decisions are mutually agreed-upon and each element in the work is equally important.

Craig Lucas: I find it necessary to enter into the composer’s vision, so I would never dig my heels in or stay so attached to my own version of something if the composer wasn’t happy. Opera is a composer’s medium. Musicals, too. They don’t call them Books-icals or Lyrics-icals, they’re both based on music, and that’s why I think ideas that come from composers are best, and as much as I will try to fight for narrative coherence, my solutions are not that important to me; music often unlocks things.

Royce Vavrek: We always discuss the idea before the composition begins, even if just in broad strokes, so we’re on the same page. 

Stephen Karam: Our disagreements were always in the spirit of making the opera better. We never reached an impasse. We had a good marriage.

David Henry Hwang: As I’ve said before, it is my belief that part of my job as a librettist is to serve the composer. Therefore, if I have a disagreement with the composer, I will make my case as strongly as possible, but in the end, will defer to his/her decision. This is not unlike writing for movies, where, in the end, I will generally defer to the director.

Michael Korie: What was your favorite moment in the completed opera where you felt you accomplished something you couldn’t have without music?

Stephen Karam: Two favorites: Nico did an astonishing thing at the end of Act I; he wrote a beautiful sextet that captured the individual pain and prayers of each woman, climaxing into a huge wave of aching music. You understood the desires of six different women all at once. In Act II, on national television, one of the characters suffers a panic attack. The way he achieved her racing pulse, anxiety, her distorted vision—all with just the orchestra—it was thrilling.

Deborah Brevoort: The most powerful moment for me was hearing the orchestrations in Embedded. I had an epiphany: I suddenly understood how the orchestra works dramatically in an opera. It is more than just an accompaniment it has a dramatic function and it carries theme. 

Craig Lucas: My favorite moment is always when the orchestra arrives. When I hear that sound I simply cannot believe that I have had anything to do with what’s on the stage, it is so magical and completely transformative to me. 

Royce Vavrek: The aria Mirror, Mirror in Dog Days comes to mind. In the scene, the protagonist Lisa, starving and emaciated, looks into a mirror and sings what’s almost a love song to herself and her model-like body. David T. Little’s music creates a whole internal world of excitement, delusion, loneliness and extreme sadness that my words could really only begin to suggest.

Donna DiNovelli: I always feel I’ve accomplished something I couldn’t have without music. When I think of specific moments, I think of Christopher Theofanidis’ setting of the word ‘stay’ sung by Melody Moore as Susan Rescorla. A word we hear a young boy sing to the G.I.’s in World War II is transformed by the end of the opera to a woman’s plea to her husband who is about to perish in the World Trade Center. Four letters on my part, but with Chris’s musicthe heart of Heart of a Soldier

Thulani Davis: Hearing the words sung is an unbelievable experience. I sit in dress rehearsal, where only those of us who have worked on it hear it and cry a lot. Opera allows me to give communities voice in my stories like the role of a Greek Chorus. I don’t really write solely about individuals.

David Henry Hwang: I agree with Shaffer in Amadeus that one of the amazing things about opera is the ability to have many voices speaking at the same time. I think, for instance, of the final trio, “Doy mi Sangre,” in Ainadamar, where an intensely driving percussive section of music suddenly gives way to this blend of heavenly female voices, which transports us immediately to a place of transcendence and grace, in a way only music can.

Michael Korie: Compared to your creative involvement in the production of your plays, how involved were you in all aspects of the production of your operafor example, casting, staging, making changes?

Deborah Brevoort: Playwrights often wait until they get in the room with actors before making their final revisions. But you can’t do that in opera. The production with the orchestra, singers, scores is so huge, complicated and expensive that by the time you get to rehearsals it is financially prohibitive to make any changes. Occasionally during rehearsals, I could get a word changed in the libretto here and there, but that was it.

Craig Lucas: You gotta pick your battles in life. In another life, maybe I’ll be reborn as a composer and I’ll get more artistic control over an opera.

Thulani Davis: Mainstream opera houses are not really geared to create from scratch. As someone told me, “We usually get the opera in a kit, so to speak.” I told her, “This time you are making the kit.” A chorus master in Chicago once asked me why I came for all four weeks of rehearsal and said the last librettist only came to correct diction two days prior. I said, “That’s too late.” I first flew to Chicago, solely to let the chorus ask about diction (American vowels or European, e.g.) six months before rehearsal.

Donna DiNovelli: Because my background is musical theatre, I’m always ready to rewrite in rehearsal. I thrive on it. Composers? Not so much. With orchestration attached, I find in all cases there is an early end to rewrites. One exception occurred when we were about to premiere Heart of a Soldier and our beloved maestro, Patrick Summers, suggested we write a brand-new aria for our lead, Thomas Hampson. I think it was four days before opening. It became one of the most successful moments of the opera.

David Henry Hwang: One difficult aspect of being a librettist is that most opera companies are not used to dealing with living composers or librettists. If they choose to commission a new opera or do a contemporary work, they can usually wrap their heads around the idea that their composer is alive, but usually forget that there is a living librettist as well! So, the librettist needs to push to make certain he or she is not forgotten, or even has a ticket for opening night!

John Patrick Shanley: Well, in casting, zero. I don’t know much about the pool of talent in opera, and I would defer to others on that. I had a great deal to do with the conception of the piece in terms of staging. I went a long way in conceiving the whole thing. But then, you bring in a director. There were a tremendous number of transitions, a lot of scenes, and Kevin Newberry did a wonderful job. In opera, to my amazement, the director doesn’t cast it. The artistic director casts it. I’d never run into that before.

Stephen Karam: The producers kept me unusually involved. I was at all the casting sessions, design meetings, etc. It was actually very similar to building a new play.

Michael Korie: Do you have any advice to offer playwrights writing librettos?

Stephen Karam: My advice is get a good lawyer. It’s murky water, and a lawyer will protect your interests. [Editor’s Note: If you are a member of the Guild, we will review your unsigned contracts. Contact our Business Affairs Department.]

William Hoffman: Librettists need to ask for an equal share in the profits of the opera and equal billing. Asking for equal treatment is an unusual requirement these days but if we don’t go for that as our goal, we will never achieve it.

Deborah Brevoort: It’s the Wild West out there for opera librettists in terms of contracts. Many of the things you would normally get as a lyricist and book writer on a musical, you won’t get in operalike your name listed in the program or posterunless you demand it. Issues to watch out for: copyright vs. work for hire, royalties, percentage splits for future revenues, and billing.

Royce Vavrek: I think it’s a good idea to have a collaboration agreement in place any time you are marrying your voice with someone else’s.

Donna DiNovelli: I found it changes from composer to composer. There are some collaborations where composers set a 50/50 split on commission and royalties; and others where a 30/70 is expected – and everything in between.

Thulani Davis: Share copyright. Do not do it as a “for hire” job. Work out a fair way to share percentages of all fees involved but only as a copyright holder do you maintain a continued connection to the life of the work.

Michael Korie: Finally, would you do it again?

William Hoffman: Only if the piece on which the opera was based were spectacularly interesting, the deal was 50/50, and only if I loved the composer’s work prior work. This rules out most of the proposals that cross my desk.

Stephen Karam: Absolutely. Nico wrote the incidental music for Sons Of The Prophet, so we’ve already collaborated again...but we both hope another opera is in our near future.

Thulani Davis: One more time, I think. Theatre is an easier medium. Opera is like navigating an iceberg, [it’s] very huge.

Craig Lucas: I would prefer to work away from New York, but that has more to do with the critical atmosphere here—so much position-taking, so much “All Good, All Terrible.” It’s dull dull dull. Look at the operas we are getting to see at The Met, look at all the new directors, the European productions, the younger audiences, the international screenings, the enthusiasm, the music. Peter Gelb has been a hero in those regards, and as for all of those vicious websites, which I do not visit, and all of those angry, angry opera “fans,” I’d rather drink my own urine than have anything to do with that. I thought theatre was antagonistic but theatre is a Zen monastery compared to opera in New York. Yikes!

David Henry Hwang: I am. I just agreed to write Alice Through the Looking Glass with Unsuk Chin as a sequel to our Alice in Wonderland

John Patrick Shanley: I would certainly do an opera of Moonstruck. And I would do something original.

Deborah Brevoort: Yes! My next project is already in the works, an Alaskan version of Die Fledermaus for the Anchorage Opera’s 2014 season. Opera gives you the opportunity to work on a large scale—something that is virtually impossible in the theatre where plays with more than five characters can’t get produced.

Royce Vavrek: I absolutely love the world of contemporary opera, and can’t wait to create it again and again and again.

Donna DiNovelli: For me, being a librettist is about playing with the possibilities the conventions offer, and whether I am fulfilling or subverting them, hoping the composer will take my humble words and turn them into mysterious, heart-piercing beauty.


WATCH: #CreditTheLibrettist

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