Playwrights at the Opera: On Writing the Libretto

A roundtable moderated by Michael Korie with Deborah Brevoort, Thulani Davis, Donna DiNovelli, David Henry Hwang, William Hoffman, Stephen Karam, Craig Lucas, John Patrick Shanley, and Royce Vavrek.

  • Photo from the opera Dog Days
    John Kelly and Lauren Worsham in the world premiere of Dog Days, libretto by Royce Vavrek and music by David T. Little. Photo by James Matthew Daniel.
  • Photo of the set of the opera The Ghosts of Versailles
    The Metropolitan Opera set of The Ghosts of Versailles from Act 2, Sc 5. Libretto by William M. Hoffman, music by John Corigliano
  • Photo from The Santa Fe Opera production of Ainadamar
    Kelley O’Connor and Dawn Upshaw in The Santa Fe Opera production of Ainadamar, libretto by David Henry Hwang, music by Osvaldo Golijov. Photo by Ken Howard.
  • Photo of Tatiana Troyanos as Queen Isabella in The Voyage
    Tatiana Troyanos as Queen Isabella in The Voyage, libretto by David Henry Hwang, music by Philip Glass. Photo by Winnie Klotz.
  • Photo from The Gotham Chamber Opera production of Dark Sisters
    The Gotham Chamber Opera production of Dark Sisters, libretto by Stephen Karam and music by Nico Muhly. Photo by Richard Termine.

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

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Photo of Deborah Brevoort
Deborah Brevoort

writes plays, musicals and opera librettos. She’s best known for her play The Women of Lockerbie, produced all over the world. She has written ten opera librettos commissioned and produced by Glimmerglass, Chicago Opera Theater, Opera Colorado and Ft. Worth, Fargo-Moorhead and Anchorage Operas. She serves as a mentor to the NBO Musical Theatre Initiative in Nairobi, Kenya.

Photo of Thulani Davis
Thulani Davis

is an American playwright, journalist, librettist, novelist, poet, and screenwriter. Her plays include The Souls of Black Folk, Ava & Cat in Mexico, and an adaptation of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, among others. Her operas with composer (and cousin) Anthony Davis include X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X and Amistad.

Photo of Donna Di Novelli by Matthew Murphy
Donna Di Novelli

has a writing career that spans film, opera, music-theater, and stage. Her operas with composer Randall Eng include Florida and Before the Night Sky. Other work includes Oceanic Verses with composer Paola Prestini, and Heart of a Soldier with composer Christopher Theofanidis. She is a member of the Dramatists Guild and Honor Roll!

Photo of William M. Hoffman
William M. Hoffman

was a playwright and librettist who earned a Drama Desk Award and Tony nomination for his 1985 play As Is. His other plays included A Book of Etiquette, The Cherry Orchard Part II, Children’s Crusade, and Luna. With composer John Corigliano, he also wrote The Ghosts of Versailles, which premiered at The Metropolitan Opera in 1991. Mr. Hoffman died in 2017.

David Henry Hwang
David Henry Hwang

’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.

Stephen Karam
Stephen Karam

is the Tony Award-winning author of The Humans, Sons of the Prophet, and Speech & Debate. For his work he’s received two Drama Critics Circle Awards, an OBIE and is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist. He wrote and directed a film version of The Humans for A24 Films, which will be released in 2021.

Michael Korie
Michael Korie

received The Marc Blitzstein Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his lyrics in musicals and librettos in operas. Korie wrote the lyrics to composer Scott Frankel’s music for the Broadway productions of War Paint and Grey Gardens, with books by Doug Wright, and the off-Broadway productions of Far From Heaven and Happiness. For opera he adapted Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath with composer Ricky Ian Gordon. Korie’s original librettos to operas composed by Stewart Wallace include Harvey Milk, a new version of which premiered this season at Opera Theater of Saint Louis.

Photo of Craig Lucas
Craig Lucas

has written thirteen full-length plays, seven musicals, six movies, two operas; directed two movies, one musical, and ten plays; been a Pulitzer finalist, received three Obies, The New York Film Critics Award, the Excellence In Literature Award from the American Academy Of Arts And Letters and three Tony nominations.

Photo of John Patrick Shanley
John Patrick Shanley

is an American playwright, screenwriter, and director. He won the 1988 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for the film Moonstruck. His play, Doubt: A Parable, won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2005 Tony Award for Best Play; he wrote the libretto for an opera adaptation; and directed the film adaptation. He elected to the Council of the Dramatists Guild in 2006.

Photo of Royce Vavrek by Ricardo Beas
Royce Vavrek

is a Canada-born, Brooklyn-based librettist and lyricist who has been called “the indie Hofmannsthal” (The New Yorker) a “Metastasio of the downtown opera scene” (The Washington Post), “an exemplary creator of operatic prose” (The New York Times), and “one of the most celebrated and sought after librettists in the world” (CBC Radio). His opera Angel’s Bone with composer Du Yun was awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Music.