The Role of a Librettist

Playwright Terrence McNally’s passionate association with opera is well known through his heralded trilogy of plays Master Class, The Lisbon Traviata, and Golden Age, as well as from his broadcasts for the Metropolitan Opera, and from his own libretto to the hugely successful Dead Man Walking, one of the most frequently produced new American operas. Here he shares his observations on writing librettos and the process of collaborating with a composer. This article originally appeared as a sidebar in The Musical Theatre Issue of The Dramatist, May/June 2013.

Production photo from Dead Man Walking - the opera
Joyce DiDonato and Philip Cutlip in Dead Man Walking, libretto by Terrence McNally, music by Jake Heggie. Photo: Felix Sanchez/Houston Grand Opera

I've loved opera since I was in the sixth grade and our wacko nun brought in a phonograph and some Puccini love duets. I was hooked in about fifteen seconds. I’m sure it is opera that led me to writing plays, which accounts for my fondness for long speeches, duets, trios, and quarters—all spoken, of course. I never found it odd or unbelievable that someone could drink poison or be stabbed and sing for fifteen minutes. It was just another way to try to express “Big Themes” and “Huge Emotions.” For me, good theatre is poetic, a created reality. Opera understands this from the get-go.

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Photo of Terrence McNally by Michael Nagle
Terrence McNally

joined the Dramatists Guild in 1963, was elected to Council in 1970, and served as vice-president from 1981 to 2001. In 2018, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, received the Dramatists Guild Career Achievement Award in 2010, and inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1996. He won four Tony Awards for his plays Master Class and Love! Valour! Compassion! and his books for the musicals Ragtime and Kiss of the Spider Woman. Other plays include Mothers and Sons; Deuce; Some Men; Dedication, or The Stuff of Dreams; The Stendhal SyndromeCorpus Christi; A Perfect GaneshLips Together, Teeth ApartThe Lisbon TraviataFrankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune; and the book for the musicals The Visit; Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life; The Full Monty; A Man of No Importance; and The Rink. For San Francisco Opera he wrote the libretto for an opera based on Sister Helen Prejean’s Dead Man Walking with music by Jake Heggie. Mr. McNally wrote a number of TV scripts, including Andre’s Mother, for which he won an Emmy.