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Librettists on Libretti

The following transcript is from the DG Opera Committee librettists webinar, August 10, 2021, moderated by Deborah Brevoort with Mark Campbell, Stephanie Fleischmann, David Henry Hwang, E.M. Lewis, and Sandra Seaton and has been edited for print.

photo of laptop, notebooks, pen, and coffee for the Librettists on Libretti roundtable

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  Today is a bit of a historical event. It’s the first ever webinar about opera sponsored by the Dramatists Guild, so thank you to the Guild for this. Today’s panel is composed entirely of librettists. To kick off our discussion, let me ask our panelists: why do you write opera? Sandra, what attracts you to the form?

SANDRA SEATON:  Maybe I was attracted to the form before I knew I was attracted to it. When I was a little girl, my grandmother Emma watched me while my mother was teaching in a one-room country school. Grandma would play ragtime piano and sing to me.  She was the end man in her church’s minstrel shows; a woman of that time rarely performed professionally. Grandma Emma and Flournoy Miller, my great uncle who wrote the book for Shuffle Along, were known for creating little skits, songs, and dances together. I was always around people who were doing something connected with words and music. In high school, I started listening to The Met on Saturdays. Opera was a world I felt drawn to—maybe the musical genes or spirits were always there.

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  Ellen and Stephanie and I were part of the American Lyric Theater (ALT) Composer Librettist Development Program. Ellen, what made you apply to that program, but more specifically, what was it about opera that attracted you as a writer?

E.M. LEWIS:  I feel like I’m a most unlikely opera librettist. I’m an Oregon farm girl. I grew up not going to any shows, out here in the country, except the ones that my brother and I were in at our little rural elementary school. But I always loved words and stories. My library card was my most treasured possession. And writing gave me a way to say everything that was in my heart but that I wasn’t allowed to voice. 

When I found playwriting, it felt like I became part of a big, wide world of storytelling. A community! And later, when I found writing with music, it felt like that storytelling world expanded and deepened. Using these new tools, I could achieve even greater emotional resonance. It’s extraordinary. 

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  I’ve always been attracted to the extremes of emotion and behavior. There is something about the operatic voice that lends itself to those big stories, those big feelings. There’s something extreme about it. How about you, Stephanie?

STEPHANIE FLEISCHMANN:  I grew up around classical music, orchestral music—music was in my DNA. As a playwright, I wrote often with music, and I feel like my texts always sang, even when I wasn’t writing for music. So, moving into opera just felt like a natural step. Also, I’ve always been interested in theatrical forms that push the envelope, that are larger than life, or that turn things on their head and are architectonic, layered, not necessarily quotidian, even though I’m also in love with character and story. Somehow all of those things I think are opera. I just felt like I found my stride once I got there.

DAVID HENRY HWANG:  My story’s a bit like Stephanie’s. I grew up with a lot of instrumental music—not as much vocal. My mother was a pianist. I was a violinist. My sister has become a cellist. I was always very comfortable around music. And then when I started writing plays, I was interested in what was called Theatricalism in the 1970s: trying to utilize as many tools of the stage, things that you could do uniquely, more excitingly live than in recorded mediums. A lot of my early works off-Broadway had Chinese opera incorporated into them. When I wrote my first Broadway play M. Butterfly, I ended up listening to so much Puccini that it was like, “Weird, my play is supposed to be critiquing Puccini (at least the libretto), but his music is like, wow, really good!” Very soon after, Philip Glass asked me to work with him on a show and that became my first experience doing opera.

We talk about how the audience suspends their disbelief. In opera, the audience is that much more willing to go along because you’re working in a form that is so non-naturalistic.

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  Yes. It’s hyper-stylized.

MARK CAMPBELL:  I have a musical background as well, I studied piano and later had voice lessons when I was trying to be an actor…but I kind of blame Stephen Sondheim for bringing me into opera, as a lot of people do. I had moderate success, if that, as a musical theatre lyricist, but in 2000, the composer John Musto heard my lyrics and asked me to write a full-length opera for Wolf Trap called Volpone

I used to hate opera. I thought it was a ridiculous art form. But once I started writing it, I saw the potential for how much fun it can be, how interesting it can be, and how the addition of music can empower words so much. Now I’m absolutely in love with it. I can’t go back. I think I’m the only person on this panel who can say this: everything I’ve ever written is meant to be sung. I’ve never written anything that’s meant to be spoken. 

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  Well, you had Sondheim to blame. I have Gilbert and Sullivan. 

MARK CAMPBELL:  Oh my god, ugh.

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  I know, Mark. We’ve had this conversation. [Laughs] My parents performed in an amateur Gilbert and Sullivan opera company the whole time I was growing up and they couldn’t afford a babysitter, so they sat me in the back of the rehearsal hall, and in the front row for every performance. By the age of seven, I knew every opera by heart. That was my introduction to opera, or, I should say, operetta.

MARK CAMPBELL:  I like how Gilbert and Sullivan are portrayed in Topsy Turvy. It’s great movie about collaboration.

DAVID HENRY HWANG:  I actually did have an experience rather like that, Deb, even though I said I didn’t grow up with much vocal music. My mom was the pianist for a production of Menotti’s operetta, The Medium, in the early days of East West Players in Los Angeles, which is now the nation’s oldest Asian American theatre company. I had the choice of either being babysat by my aunt or going to rehearsal, so I hung out at rehearsals.

SANDRA SEATON:  When I was growing up, opera, a lot of it, was just the popular music of the time. I would sit there every Sunday night on this little stool and listen to Ed Sullivan. He would matter-of-factly, introduce an opera star and they’d sing something grand. Lily Pons or Eileen Farrell, all the big names of that time were always on his show. You just took it for granted. They were a part of Sullivan’s line-up. I think I remember Eileen Farrell singing with Louis Armstrong. It’s so different now. Back then opera was a part of what people listened to—Black, white, singers like Tony Williams [of] The Platters—we all listened. And popular songs were often based on major operatic works.

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  Yeah. It got into our bones. I think it’s interesting none of us started in opera. David, Stephanie, Sandra, Ellen, and I began as playwrights, although I went to musical theatre writing before jumping to opera. So how did you all make the leap? What steps did you take to start working in the opera? Were there any programs that you participated in? What opened the door? Ellen, I know you can tell us a little bit about ALT.

E.M. LEWIS:  Sure! Well, like you say, Deborah, I began my writing career as a playwright. The first time that music insinuated itself into my writing was when I wrote a play called Song of Extinction. It’s about a young composer, and a piece of music he writes weaves its way through the story. I engaged a composer to write a piece of music for it. That collaboration was so exciting that years later, when I found out about American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program that Larry Edelson created, I had to apply. The teachers are amazing: Mark Campbell, Cori Ellison, Mark Adamo, and many others. And the process they teach—helping you understand how to work together with a composer to create a new opera—is tremendously durable and useful. Their support continues, even after you complete the program. I really can’t say enough about it.

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  It’s an extraordinary program. You get one-on-one mentorship. Michael Korie was also on the faculty when I was there. I was in the first cohort before you came in, Mark, because I know you’re now teaching in that program. I encourage everybody out there to take a good look at it. It’s wonderful training and it opens doors. 

DAVID HENRY HWANG:  I’ve worked with Cori [Ellison] recently as a dramaturg on a couple of new operas, so I can really recommend her and the whole system, even though I didn’t come up in it.

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  She’s dramaturging Quamino’s Map, my new opera with Errollyn Wallen for Chicago Opera Theater. She’s amazing. How about you, Stephanie? I know you came through ALT. Were there any other programs you participated in? You have a great career. How did you launch that?

STEPHANIE FLEISCHMANN:  It really was ALT. I mean, I did a number of music theatre pieces, one of which could be described as an opera, but a very experimental one. My story is an odd one. My father ran the LA Philharmonic for many years, and I was always curious, but I wasn’t steeped in opera. The medium can be daunting. If you don’t have a lifetime of immersing yourself in that canon, it is a hard nut to crack. When I felt myself being drawn towards the form, I was curious about ALT—actually, I saw that you were in ALT—I was like, “What is that thing?”

Towards the end of my father’s life, I told him, “I think I want to be an opera librettist.” And he said, “Why would you want to do a thing like that?” And that is a whole other conversation, which has to do with the fact that in opera, the librettist is sometimes considered or seen or perceived as subsidiary to the composer and not necessarily an artist in their own right in the way that they should be considered. I think he was talking about that. 

And then he passed away and I applied to ALT. I had gone to grad school as a playwright, but [this program] was so focused and practical. 

You were working with four composers (I think it’s three now), and the four librettists each had an opportunity to work [with each composer], so you had a range of collaborative experiences as you learned about all the different technical aspects of the form and the beginnings of [the opera] canon. 

The mentors opened the doors, saying, “Here, this is where you should be.” I can’t really explain it more than that. And the program has grown since then. Now there’s a stipend, so there’s all this incredible support for the artists.

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  And as Ellen said, the support continues even after you’re out of the program. Once you’re in the family, you’re in the family. Right? You’re always there. 

STEPHANIE FLEISCHMANN:  Yes, and if you don’t totally mess up, you get commissioned, and that is your first step as a professional librettist. It makes a world of difference that ALT invests in you in that way.

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  Yes. I got my first commission that way. Ellen, you did too with your Sherlock Holmes piece. Sandra, you came through a different program: the American Opera Initiative [AOI]. Talk to us a little bit about that.

SANDRA SEATON:  Composer Carlos Simon and I applied individually to AOI. Separate applications were required for librettist and composer. We had talked previously about doing an opera based on my play The Bridge Party, so we applied, hoping to be able to work together on it. It turned out that The Bridge Party project was larger than the scope of the commission, so we ended up creating Night Trip. I had the chance to work with a wonderful team: Kelley Rourke, Laura Kaminsky, Rob Ainsley, and of course Francesca Zambello, the visionary. I had never written an opera before. (I had written a song cycle From The Diary of Sally Hemings with William Bolcom.) Kelley Rourke’s dramaturgy for Night Trip, the questions she raised, always suggesting, never insisting, made all the difference. It was great to work on an actual opera from the ground up. See it take shape.  

MARK CAMPBELL:  When I started writing librettos, there were no training programs out there at all. The music schools and conservatories didn’t really see opera as a viable career. They pretty much looked down on opera as a popular art form. So, I just studied Sondheim. Everything I ever learned about writing opera, I learned from listening to Sondheim.

Christina Scheppelmann established the American Opera Initiative, and I was a founding mentor of that program. I’ve worked at American Lyric Theater as a librettist mentor for seven or so years and also for the American Opera Projects’ Composers and The Voice program about the same time. These programs are all fantastic and don’t compete with each other, as they all come at the craft from a different angle. Libretto-writing is an extremely specialized art form, and a good playwright does not necessarily make a good librettist. When we look back at this age of blossoming American opera, we will examine how important these programs were in training our composers and librettists.

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  Yes, and let’s also mention Ben Krywosz at Nautilus Music-Theater.

MARK CAMPBELL:  One of the best!

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  Yeah, he’s amazing. He runs the Composer-Librettist Studio at New Dramatists every year, so everyone out there should put this on your list as well, because it’s a terrific opportunity to start getting some training. Ben runs this program at other locations around the country, too, in addition to NYC. You can find more info on the Nautilus website.

DAVID HENRY HWANG:  I’m curious, Mark, because when I first started writing opera, there was no training either. Are we contemporaneous? When did you write your first opera?

MARK CAMPBELL:  I wrote a one-act opera in 1996 called A Letter to East 11th Street, and it was a very personal response to all my friends who were dying of AIDS. But my first full-length opera was Volpone in 2002.

DAVID HENRY HWANG:  Okay, so I’m a little earlier than that, because Philip Glass had seen some of my early shows at The Public and invited me to collaborate, which was amazing. I made a mental note that if I ever got to be a successful middle-aged artist, I too would try to work with younger artists because there’s a whole different energy. And I think I’ve tried to do that as I have now become a rather old artist. 

The first thing Phillip and I wrote was a musical theatre piece rather than an opera. It was called 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, co-commissioned by Vienna, Berlin, and do you remember in Philadelphia there was the musical theatre festival?

MARK CAMPBELL:  Yeah, that Hal Prince started.

DAVID HENRY HWANG:  It was basically a monologue against Philip’s score that was played by his ensemble, and then there was also a visual libretto—a 3D series of images that were created by the artist Jerome Sirlin. Since we got along well on that, he had a commission from The Met, so I was like, “You looking for a librettist?” It was called The Voyage and opened in ‘92 at The Met. At that point, there just weren’t too many people who had histories of writing libretti, so I ended up being asked to do others.

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  Let me stay with you for a second, David. What did you have to learn in order to write an effective libretto? I mean, it was like somebody threw you into the deep end of the pool and said, “Swim. Figure it out.” What I’m trying to get at here is the difference between playwriting and libretto writing.

DAVID HENRY HWANG:  I tried to read a lot of librettos and became aware of the degree to which they have to be super concise. Plays are concise, but libretti have to be that much more so because it takes longer to sing “I love you” than to say “I love you.” Also, there’s some degree of meter and how the lines need to, ideally, end with a long vowel. As I wrote the libretto, I made up a little melody in my head, I think because I’d been a jazz musician.

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  Ellen, when you made the transition from playwriting to libretto writing, was there a specific skill that you struggled with or that you had to learn?

E.M. LEWIS:  Communication is key. Make sure you’re on the same page at every moment of the development process. Talk about who the characters are who you’re writing about and what the story is that you’re telling. Also... be ready to be flexible, to either lead or follow in the dance of the creative process with your composer. If there’s a blank page in front of us, I’m glad to lead for a while and lay some story down on it, but I’m also happy to follow my composer and see where their artistry is taking us together. It’s never my story, when I’m working on an opera. It’s always our story. It has to be.

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  I love that, “the dance of it.” It really is a dance, and we’re going to talk about collaboration with composers, but let’s stick with the libretto question before we move on to that. Stephanie, do you have any thoughts about this? 

STEPHANIE FLEISCHMANN:  I had never written an outline in my life before I became a librettist. So first of all, a treatment and then an outline, and really being okay with thinking a story through and having to articulate the shape of each moment so that your composer knows where it’s going and what you’re trying for, even if it may shift as you write. It may not exactly end up as what you say you’re going to do, but you are trying to remain true to that. And that’s been really exciting because I think it’s pushed me in certain ways and actually strengthened my work to have to do that. 

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  Yeah. If someone told me that I would be writing to an outline ten years ago, I would not have believed them. I don’t know about you, but I spend more time on the outline than I do on the libretto. 

MARK CAMPBELL:  That’s my fault. I established that process in every program I teach. I very much believe in “premise, outline, outline, outline, outline…” until the libretto writes itself. So, blame me. I’m sorry.

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  I’ll spend three months on an outline and three weeks on a libretto. I don’t know if this is true for you, but the outline is where the closest collaboration happens. It is created beat by beat in collaboration with the composer. And then, when the outline is done, I go away and write the libretto. Obviously, there’s some back and forth that happens, but the outlining is where the real collaboration takes place. The most important lesson I learned as a playwright trying to write my first libretto came from a funny moment I’ll never forget with Michael Korie, who was assigned by ALT to be the artistic advisor for my first commissioned opera, Embedded with Patrick Soluri. I was teaching all day at NYU or Columbia and then would become a student at night, when I would take my latest draft to Michael for notes. He kept handing it back to me saying “It’s not an opera. It’s a musical.” Finally, he threw up his hands and said, “Will you stop working so hard?!” 

I realized in that moment that I had been thinking and writing like a playwright, not like a librettist. In a play, the dialogue has to carry character, story, action, everything. If you’re the bookwriter for a musical, same thing. You’re the one doing the heavy lifting. But in an opera, the librettist has to create the skeleton that will enable the music to do the heavy lifting. I had to learn to stop working so hard, to stop driving the bus. I’ll never forget that moment. I think that’s where I finally “got it.” 

Because I know you both teach this, Mark or David, what would you add about the difference between playwriting and libretto writing and what makes it successful?

DAVID HENRY HWANG:  When I think about all these different scriptwriting forms, including screenwriting, the question for me is, what carries the information? These are broad generalizations, but in playwriting, the words carry the information for the most part. In movies, the visuals carry the information. And I think in opera, the music carries a lot of the information. This is another way of reinforcing what you just said, Deb, which is not working so hard, although it is hard not to work hard. 

Leave room for the soprano to hit the high D, and that’s the emotion. There’s so much emotional content that in a play might be expressed in a monologue. Similarly, in a musical, the story determines how the piece moves forward, whereas in an opera, I think the music largely drives the forward motion. So, it’s a different negotiation.

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  Right. You know, I love motifs. I remember on my second opera, Steal a Pencil for Me, with Gerald Cohen, he came up with a motif that enabled me to cut three pages from the libretto. Three whole pages because that motif, with such beautiful economy, created all the story we needed. There were no words that could do it better or more powerfully. 

MARK CAMPBELL:  I think libretto writing is more like screenwriting than it is playwriting because brevity with words is so important. You have to allow for music, but not just for the temporal amount of music, the time of music, but also for the emotion of music. 

One of the best things a librettist can learn to do is to step aside. Let the music take over. By the way, that’s why the audience is there. They’re there for the story that you helped craft and you were the architect for, but they’re there really for the music. You have to allow that music to happen. 

Sometimes when I teach, I will get a play, and I have to go back to the student and say, “This is a play, not a libretto. Study your librettos to learn how you can ‘libretto-ize’ this.” There are certain techniques to do that, and we teach them at American Lyric Theater and the American Opera Projects

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  Let’s talk about composers. Stephanie, you’ve had collaborations with so many different composers. What makes for a good collaboration?

STEPHANIE FLEISCHMANN:  I think it’s key to really steep yourself in that composer’s music, so you have a sense of how they structure an idea and what their aesthetics are. You’re going to approach the libretto differently for that composer than you would another composer, just because of the kind of music they write. Whether long lines or staccato, rhythmically driven textures, their music is going to change the way you approach your text. 

Never work with a composer whose music you don’t love, because you’re going to be living with that, and it’s going to feel like it’s coming from you, even though it’s their music. They really are your partner.
I’m still learning, but I think being honest about who you are and what you need is so important. It’s very easy to be enamored with each other in the beginning and kind of fly into something without actually figuring out how to say, “This is how I like to work, and this is who I am.”

The dreaming up of the opera is exciting, and a fun process with another person, and then writing the libretto is a beautiful thing. Then when you give it to the composer and they start to have their own response to it, it’s beautiful, too, but every composer is so different in terms of their relationship with the language. One composer I’m working with, David Hanlon, is such a creature of the theatre that the conversation is always just about story and drama, what’s happening in that moment, and how we can make that clearer?

But other composers are more obsessive about every word and have their own understanding of language and a thought process that they feel compelled to impose on the text. Sometimes you are asked to kind of mirror their relationship to language and their way of thinking, and that is still, for me, sometimes a struggle. I admit it.

Also, you need to be very responsive to what is it that you’re making, once the music and the text merge. With one composer, I’m discovering that even though we are very close to having it all there, because his music is more twelve tone, I need to pare back even more because of the way the music repeats itself. And that’s something I could only learn in a workshop, hearing the merging of the music and text out loud. 

So there are these different stages of the process, and you’re always learning. You’re always learning about yourself and the other person as you go. That’s for starters.

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  Mark, you’ve written something like 39 librettos and counting, with many different composers. What insights do you have about the collaborative process?

MARK CAMPBELL:  I’ve ranted too much about this before, but I think a good collaboration is based on respect, and that often when the composer understands the importance of our role in the storytelling. Many composers come out of the conservatory system, and they haven’t been trained to collaborate. Again, that’s one reason for these training programs. They’re training composers how to collaborate.

In opera, the librettist is giving composers the story. Something a lot of people don’t understand about opera is that we don’t come in and fill in words to the music that they’ve written. We usually come up with the script first, and then we go back and forth and make changes. But it starts with the librettist, and we often are the first ones to create those elevated moments in opera. 

Honesty is the greatest way you can show respect to your collaborator. I really love it when a composer simply and directly says, “This isn’t quite working for me.” The thing that they should never do is say, “Here…these words are better.” Composers should just point out something that isn’t quite working for them, and I’ll fix it. That’s my job. 

A good collaboration is golden. It’s wonderful when you hear what the composer has found in your words and it’s ten times what you ever imagined. That’s one of the reasons I keep writing opera.

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  I want to jump to some larger questions because we’re getting to the end of our discussion. Sandra, I know you’re currently at work on a chorale piece about the Tulsa Massacre. Would you tell us a little bit about that piece, and also address your interest in operas that embrace or address social and/or political issues? 

SANDRA SEATON:  Bringing in social and political issues is one of the exciting things happening today. Opera has a great opportunity to include voices that have either been silenced or ignored. I was approached by the composer, Marques L.A. Garret, to write a libretto for a choral work about the Tulsa Race Massacre that we call Dreamland: Tulsa 1921. Sean Baugh, artistic director for The Turtle Creek Chorale and a Tulsa native, told me that he never heard a word about the massacre as a student in the Tulsa schools. I spent quite a bit of time researching and reading books about the era and probably thinking about my own family coming from the Black middle class, a small town in the segregated South. We had our own world, “behind the veil.”

On May 31st, 1921, in the backdrop of annual celebrations like graduations and proms, a white mob, enraged by news of an assault by a young Black man, destroyed Greenwood’s homes and businesses, leaving a prosperous African American community burned beyond recognition. In eighteen hours more than 800 Black Tulsans were seriously injured and as many as 300 died. Imagining what it would have been like for my own community to be destroyed must have been in the back of my mind. The writing experience was incredibly intense for me. 

In order to show the humanity of these people, I came up with a form I call a Ploratoria: a combination of a play and an oratorio. There are little scenes and songs, and after the initial shock, the “what in the world is this?” Marques has taken to it. I’m hoping for a small stage for scenes, off to one side, that will alternate with the choir. I wanted to set this up as more than just a massacre. This is about lives lost. But what’s lost? What’s the cost? This is about showing this beautiful community. About portraying people as more than victims. 

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  Ellen, I know you as the playwright of Song of Extinction and the extraordinary The Gun Show. Your second opera after ALT was Town Hall, where you and Theo Popov dramatized a town hall meeting about the healthcare crisis. Do you have any insights for us about the intersection of the opera world with social and political events? What was your experience there?

E.M. LEWIS:  Theo and I were commissioned to write Town Hall by Craig Kier at University of Maryland’s Maryland Opera Studio. Every year they commission a new one-act opera for their incoming class. It’s a very fast process, and it’s always about a contemporary topic. 

In my plays, I frequently grapple with sociopolitical issues. And when Theo and I were applying for this commission, I was facing a bit of a health crisis just as the Republicans were trying to destroy the Affordable Care Act. The conjunction of what was happening in the world politically and my deep existential terror seemed like something that we could write an opera about. If you can find the intersection of what’s happening in the world and stories with personal resonance that you’re absolutely passionate about telling, that’s a perfect storm for an opera.

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  And what was the audience response? Because it was produced right in the middle of all of that, right?

E.M. LEWIS:  It was! Our development discussions crackled, and you could feel real tension in the audience during the performances. We set the story in a town hall meeting that’s taking place in a small town, somewhere in America, where folks have varying politics, personalities, and perspectives. The central characters are a conservative senator who is trying to demolish the Affordable Care Act and a woman in the midst of a healthcare crisis who basically takes the town hall hostage. She tells the senator that she’ll die if he takes her health care away. And suddenly, the characters playing her neighbors, and also the audience, find themselves in the middle of the argument. The political question has become a personal question, about someone they know and care about. It was a truly exciting project to work on.

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  That’s great. Amy, will you feed us some questions from the audience?

AMY VONMACEK:  We’ve had a lot of questions about transitioning from playwriting to libretto writing. Specifically, can you talk about turning a play into an opera?

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  David, would you talk to us about M. Butterfly?

DAVID HENRY HWANG:  I’ve actually done it twice. I took two short plays of mine called The House of Sleeping Beauties and The Sound of a Voice and made them into a chamber opera in the ‘90s. That was with Philip [Glass]. Now I’m working with the composer Huang Ruo on an opera version of my play, M. Butterfly. Of course, there’s a lot of consolidation, so you have to shrink the text. I would say the libretti are maybe a third as long as the plays, just in terms of words. The other big task is it can’t just be dialogue the whole time. Where do the choruses come in? Where do the arias come in? If there’s a monologue in the play, merely shrinking it down doesn’t make it an aria yet. An aria is not just a sung monologue. It has its own form. 
So, the challenge has always been to provide everything that an opera needs musically based on the bones of this play I’ve written.

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  I had some experience with this with The Knock, my opera written with Aleksandra Vrebalov that is now being filmed as a live-action movie at Glimmerglass. The entire opera is taken from one moment in a play that I wrote about military wives called The Comfort Team for Virginia Stage. In that play, there is a scene where a military officer delivers a death notification, which is called “a knock.” The entire opera is just the scene about the knock. I couldn’t have done the whole play as an opera. It would have been eight hours long.

SANDRA SEATON:  There’s this whole thing of repetition in opera. The music is there, so it works in a way that’s different than a monologue in a play. It’s been said that audiences want to leave humming a tune or remembering particular phrases. And of course, there are some words that work in dialogue but sound really ugly when sung. They just don’t “sing right.” So a libretto is not like a play or a poem either.  It’s more than poetry. Not every poem can be or should be set to music.

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  All right, we have another question. How do you find a composer to work with and how does that change your process? So, anybody want to jump in on that? How have you found your composers? David was lucky, he answered the phone, Philip Glass was on the other end of it. But have you ever gone looking for a composer and if so, how did you find them?

SANDRA SEATON:  When Bill Bolcom introduced me to Carlos Simon, he started a wonderful collaboration. Bill called me one day, said, “You know, I think you two should meet. I love Carlos’s work and this guy’s going places.” And that’s how I was able to connect with Carlos. The collaboration has been beautiful.  Without much conversation, my words and his music seem to always mesh. It’s been great.

E.M. LEWIS:  I was lucky enough to be connected to both Evan Meier and Theo Popov, my first two composers, through ALT. Evan and I went through the CLDP together, and ALT commissioned us to write our first opera, called Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Fallen Giant, which I’m very proud of. Theo and I have something new in the works as well. When I moved back to Oregon, I reached out to a local composers’ group, to see if I could find some kindred spirits here, and that has resulted in several collaborations with Stacey Philipps. We’ve written a choral piece that was done by several local high schools, we’ve just finished writing a short musical, and we’re also developing some opera ideas! Don’t be afraid to reach out to composers in your area, to try and find someone to work with. The main thing is to find someone whose music surprises and delights you, whose storytelling sense meshes with yours, and who you love working with.

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  I go on the OPERA America website and find the composers receiving grants for that year. Then I search for them on YouTube and listen to their music. I also ask others in the field for recommendations. I would encourage you to find a composer whose music you like, give them a call, meet for coffee, and come with a few ideas in your back pocket to start the conversation.

MARK CAMPBELL:  Since we haven’t talked about OPERA America, and a lot of people here many not know, it is the service organization for composers, librettists, and opera companies around the country. They maintain a list of current opera composers and librettists. It’s a great resource.

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  Yes, it’s a wonderful organization and I think you can get an individual membership for free right now. They have a patron who’s underwriting artist memberships because of the pandemic. They have forums and social gatherings. The opera world is smaller than the theatre world. You should start going to those events. You meet really interesting people and, just like in theatre, your career is based on the relationships you build. You can start making relationships through OPERA America. 

We have another question: “What role does a librettist have in getting an opera staged?” I can answer this one.  I initiate a lot of projects with composers, but in terms of getting the commissions and productions from opera companies, I’ve only gotten one, which was my opera at Glimmerglass. How about you all? Do you initiate projects? What role have you had in getting them staged? My experience has been that the composer leads in this area.

SANDRA SEATON. I can’t say enough great things about groups like AOI and OPERA America. I was turned down for an OPERA America grant, but one of the reviewers liked the project and reached out on behalf of his own opera company. It’s important to keep submitting. 

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  Here’s another question: “What is the best way to grow and maintain your network?” I think generosity is key. If you want to work in the opera, you need to go to the opera. When your pals or colleagues have readings, you need to show up. ALT does concerts with excerpts of new work. Go to those concerts. Meet people. Be supportive of your fellow artists. I have found that more opportunities come to me—both as a playwright and as a librettist—from other artists who open the doors, make the introductions, and show up to my readings because I’ve done the same for them. Being a generous, kind person in the community is the thing that fosters good relationships and creates opportunities. So that’s my advice. Anybody else?

MARK CAMPBELL:  Michael Korie, in his brilliant generosity, established the Dramatists Guild Opera Committee. Up until a few years ago, the Dramatists Guild really had nothing to do with opera. Michael Korie saw there was a need for us to look at our librettists, composers, and the opera model—especially at librettists who weren’t often getting credited for our work. We were not having a strong enough say in artistic decisions. He identified this group and I’m lucky enough to co-chair the Opera Committee. And that has helped us maintain a network. 

I think that that’s a great initiative. I’m very thankful for the Dramatists Guild for doing that. And, as we mentioned, OPERA America is also a great way to grow and maintain a network. 

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  There are a couple of questions here about where to get money to develop or workshop your opera. But I think these questions are really about the issue of writing on spec. Do you do it? If so, how do you move your project forward? 

For folks listening in, almost all operas are written on commission. It’s exceedingly difficult if you write an opera on spec, and it’s discouraged. I have done it once. I will not do it again. Did anybody here start writing on spec? How did you move it forward? Stephanie, I see you nodding your head yes.

STEPHANIE FLEISCHMANN:  First, as a librettist, I would never write a text without having a composer in partnership. I would never say to a composer, “I’ve written this. Would you please set it?” I would only generate an idea with a composer. I’m working on two projects that have received OPERA America Female Composers Discovery Grants. These fund workshops but are not a commission. So… I believe enough in both the composer and the subject matter that it is worth it for me to invest in that. But the work suffers. Since it’s not commissioned, that has to go to the bottom of my list, and it waits until I have the time.

But for another project, In a Grove, on which I’m working with Christopher Cerrone, we formed a partnership, and dreamed up our idea together. The source material is a very short story—so it’s a short libretto—and I wrote the first drafts before we had a commissioner. It took us about five years and a lot of work to get a commissioner and a premiere, which is happening next year. But when you believe in something, I think it’s worth it. 

I think there’s a problem in the field in that, as you articulated, opera doesn’t have a lot of space for those creator-generated or creator-initiated projects. The Aperture program, care of West Edge Opera, supports this kind of work. They asked people to pitch their projects and, ultimately, sustained a development process with eight projects. But there were 60 teams, including twenty finalists, who initially pitched their projects. 

There’s a lot of foment right now in terms of artists having ideas and needing to figure out a way to get them [actualized]. I’m not at the place in my career where I can just say, “I must be commissioned.” I try, but then a collaborator [will have] a really moving idea, and I’m willing to take the dive.

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  Here’s a question about the form. “I find something like Sweeney Todd, my favorite musical,” (mine too) “to straddle the line between musical theatre and opera. What do you find to be the main difference that makes something an opera versus a musical?” 

DAVID HENRY HWANG:  In a musical, the story drives the work to move through time and in an opera, I think the music does, primarily. There are times when we repeat lines in an aria or leave space for an orchestral section or an instrumental section. A director can add visuals to create the illusion of story, but basically the narrative is not moving the project though time at that moment. And I think that is a distinction. Does the story or the music drive the show?

DEBORAH BREVOORT: “Please speak about the development of character in opera libretti and pacing.” Any insights about that?

SANDRA SEATON:  Development of character? To start, in both operas and plays, I spend pages writing, saying whatever comes to mind, as if I’m the character. I have that character talk to me, and I step into that character’s world. I don’t believe there’s any difference in the way characters are developed in the two forms. Once you step into their world, you allow the characters to surprise you and do their own thing. There are things that go on in that world that you know about only because you’re there at that time. I think that’s a general method of character development that works across genres.

MARK CAMPBELL:  I think with character development, all the same rules apply as in playwriting, you just have less time. Also, the music is going to be doing stuff that you can’t do with words, so always be aware of that. 

Also, pacing is one of the most important aspects of opera. When we workshop operas, one of the things we really pay attention to is pacing. Is the tension of the story being maintained, etc.?

So, I think there are differences, but basically, they’re the same rules. 

DEBORAH BREVOORT:  We are out of time. I want to thank you all for a wonderful conversation. 

Related articles:
Playwrights at the Opera: On Writing the Libretto, The Role of the Librettist


’s work includes M. Butterfly, Chinglish, Yellow Face, Aida, Flower Drum Song, and Soft Power. Tony Award (three nominations), three OBIE Awards, Grammy Award (two nominations), three-time Pulitzer finalist. Opera libretti include five shows with Philip Glass, Ainadamar with Osvaldo Golijov, and the upcoming M. Butterfly opera with Huang Ruo.


is an award-winning playwright and opera librettist whose work has been produced around the world. Opera libretti include Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Fallen Giant (music by Evan Meier), and Town Hall (music by Theo Popov). Lewis is a member of OPERA America and the Dramatists Guild. She is currently the Mellon Foundation Playwright-in-Residence at Artists Repertory Theater. She lives and writes on her family’s farm in Oregon.

Mark Campbell
Mark Campbell

s Pulitzer and Grammy Award-winning work includes 39 opera librettos, lyrics for seven musicals, and text for six song cycles and three oratorios. He recently created the first prize in the history of opera designated specifically for opera librettists: the Campbell Opera Librettist Prize.


is a playwright and librettist. Her recent works include the opera Night Trip and The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson (starring Denyce Graves), both with composer Carlos Simon; Call Me By My Name, her performance piece about Henrietta Lacks; and Dreamland: Tulsa 1921her choral work about the Tulsa Race Massacre with composer Marques L.A. Garret.


’s opera libretti include Poppaea (with Michael Hersch), In a Grove (with Chris Cerrone), Volcano, The Still Life of Emily Dickinson (with Anna Clyne), The Pigeon Keeper (with David Hanlon), The Other City (with Jeremy Howard Beck) and Dido (with Melinda Wagner). Previous works: The Long Walk (Beck), After the Storm (Hanlon), The Property (Marhulets).