“…you need to leave room for other dimensions of sound.” Celebrating National Opera Week with David Mason

In honor of National Opera Week (Oct. 27 – Nov. 5), E. C. Schirmer explores the creative process behind writing and producing new opera. Join us as we commemorate the creativity, diligence, and hard work of the composers, librettists, and producers who bring those operas to life.

David Mason

David Mason is an award-winning poet and novelist. His poetry, prose, and translations have appeared in such periodicals as The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, Poetry, Agenda, The New Criterion, The Yale Review, The American Scholar, and others. He has also written the libretti for composer Lori Laitman’s opera of The Scarlet Letter, which premiered at Opera Colorado in 2016, and her oratorio, Vedem, which premiered in Seattle in 2012He recently won the Thatcher Hoffman Smith Creativity in Motion Prize for the development of a new libretto based upon Ludlow. His one-act opera with composer Tom CipulloAfter Life, premiered in Seattle and San Francisco in 2015 and is available on CD from Naxos. It won the 2017 Dominick Argento Prize for Best Chamber Opera from the National Opera Association. A former Fulbright Fellow to Greece, Mason served as Poet Laureate of Colorado from 2010 to 2014, and teaches at Colorado College.

What is your all-time favorite opera?
Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (since I can’t really choose)

What was the first opera you ever saw live?
Das Rheingold (Seattle Opera, long ago)

If you could choose one artist to perform one of your operas, who would it be?
I’m grateful to so many singers I cannot choose.

Who is your opera role model?
W. H. Auden (as librettist)

If you could have dinner with any composer, opera or otherwise, who would it be?
Beethoven. I’m nearly deaf, so we could shout at each other. 

Writing a libretto is a very different task than writing a play. What are the biggest differences and similarities?
The chief difference is between singing and speaking. In both art forms you want to create scenes that reveal character and intensify the drama—scenes in which something is truly at stake. Writing for the composer, however, you need to leave room for other dimensions of sound. You can be lyrical, but ought to try to be relatively spare as well, containing the impulse to go on long verbal riffs—though such things can be done well to comic effect. You also need to give the composer gifts and opportunities that a playwright won’t need to consider—perhaps a chance for a trio or a quartet or a lullaby or a mad song or simply a great aria. You need to think about choral opportunities that a playwright won’t generally have. A playwright ought, I believe, to think musically as well—about pacing and timing and pauses and the rest, but the librettist is even more collaborative in this process. And you need to be ready to revise if something you’ve done isn’t inspiring the composer. A playwright will want to attract a director’s vision and the ambitions of actors with strong roles, and librettists have to think in this way too. But the first job of the librettist is to please the composer and give him or her material that will inspire great music.

How does your libretto change once you begin working with the music?
This depends entirely on the composer. Lori Laitman is so used to working with words that she generally feels it is her own duty to make her music work with the text. Only rarely with Lori have I had to change a word or a verse to suit a musical opportunity. In the case of our oratorio, Vedem, we discovered that we had mispronounced the Czech title, and a melody had to be altered. For the professional premiere of The Scarlet Letter, conductor Ari Pelto felt that the ending I had written went on too long and muddied the emotional impact. It might have worked better on film than on a big stage. In any case, Lori went to work with Ari and they trimmed the ending back, and the result was even more powerful. With Tom Cipullo, working on After Life, he asked me whether a young male character, a Holocaust victim, could become a young female. I readily agreed to the easy change, and the result was an astonishing soprano role. We’re collaborating on a new piece in which I had a character called “Death,” and Tom admitted that he found it hard to imagine Death as a character, so I’m thinking hard about names, gender, etc., to give him maximum inspiration.

Does the music follow the words, or do the words follow the music?
Though quite a few people have set poems of mine to music, I’ve only written opera with two composers, and in these cases the libretti have come first. Both Lori Laitman and Tom Cipullo know that I am absolutely devoted to their work and will make any changes they require. They only have to ask. So far, the results have been amazing.

Are you able to really enjoy a performance of your own opera, or are you mentally editing from you seat?
I really do enjoy watching performances of operas for which I have written the libretti, mainly because the performances come so many years after the writing that I can hardly remember I was the author. It really does feel as if I’m watching something new, wholly made by other people, and I love seeing what talented stage directors and musicians do with the work. Sometimes I catch a line I’d like to alter, but we’ve usually worked it through so much by curtain time that it’s all up to the musicians. I have been extremely lucky in the artists who have sung my words, and for a lowly poet the experience is pure intoxication.

For more information about David Mason and his catalogue, click here.

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