This summer I’ll be posting some thoughts and observations on what I’ve learned from writing Randall’s Leaf, a 38 minute chamber opera in one act. The first installment takes a look at how the very beginning of the process shaped the final product.
I began the process of writing my first chamber opera, Randall’s Leaf, by writing the libretto. I chose this route for convenience among other reasons, but I wanted to put down some thoughts about how it shaped the project as a whole. In attempting to maintain a constant sense of narrative, I was thinking about how the drama was to unfold visually and musically. One of my struggles was imagining the pace of the words differently in speech and singing. In general, I had an approximate aesthetic or emotion in mind, but it was difficult to remember that I was writing for opera, not a stage play. My libretto is often very conversational and almost always involves multiple characters on stage at once. Rarely are traditional operatic forms, like recitative and aria, referenced and there is certainly never anything as strict as a da capo aria. While this type of libretto often proved difficult to set to music effectively, I think it contributes to the large scale dramatic progression of the composition in a positive way.
Most of the singing lives somewhere between traditional recitative and aria, which means when the music finally opens up, it feels (and sounds, and looks!) like an arrival. The final scene, for example, begins with a brief instrumental interlude followed immediately by the first true aria of the opera: “But this…I remember this slope… I remember this grass!” Randall (baritone) has entered his painting and we finally see this oppressed, depressed man allow himself the luxury of pouring out his intense satisfaction and sheer amazement. In true ‘aria’ fashion, the narrative is allowed to rest, put on pause as the main character sings his heart out. I think that by showing musical restraint and only using this aria effect as a dramatic climax appearing about 28 minutes into a 38 minute work, it provides a meaningful lift from the forward drive of what comes before.
Similarly, in the final scene, Becket (tenor) finally receives his one and only true aria moment. And unlike Randall, this is the first extended period where he gets to sing alone. Becket’s fourth-scene aria serves dramatically as a resolution in the narrative. A brief dialogue between the two provides some necessary explanation, through the only recit-like material in the scene. The music is reduced to an intimate baritone/viola duet which increases in complexity, approaching the climax of a renewed friendship. This climax is expressed to its fullest only after Becket’s aria, when Randall and Becket have a duet (perhaps the closest thing to a real ‘duet,’ as opposed to just simultaneous singing, in the entire chamber opera). Becket’s aria therefore, functions in two ways: it is a musical and dramatic release which concludes Becket’s dynamic shift as a relatable character, while also providing an important impetus for the continued forward motion of the drama. With these two arias strung together, I ran the risk of providing too much ‘release’ and not enough ‘conflict’ to motivate the plot. Dramatically, there is very little left to settle, but more remains to be said, and it must be stated effectively. By capitalizing on the suspense musically and formally, the final dramatic message can be delivered meaningfully. and with the same sense of inevitability as the earlier narrative-driven opera.
Understanding this interaction between dramatic narrative and music was one of the goals I set for myself at the beginning of this project. I’ve found that by creating the libretto myself I was obliged to consider a unique perspective that is easily lost or overlooked. Writing my own libretto also forced me to solve dramatic problems musically, filling in gaps and propelling the story. Reflecting on the project, I’m happy with the way the libretto helped cast the final shape of the music both formally and dramatically, and I would recommend this approach to any composer. When the time comes for my next operatic project I will have finer tools to create another libretto myself. But just as importantly, I am in a position to collaborate effectively with a librettist, something I hope to do a lot of in the future.