Four eons ago, a writer and a composer huddled over a table in the vestibule of Armacost Library at the University of Redlands, two cups of chai steaming in their hands, a collection of papers with typed print and handwritten notes scattered between them: the birth of an opera.
Okay, maybe that was four years ago.
And if you haven’t guessed by now, those two collaborators were Holly and I, on the brink of finishing our respective programs of creative writing and music composition, ready to plunge into a whirlwind of new post-undergraduate adventures. I’d wanted to work with Holly ever since meeting her a few semesters earlier in a fiction workshop, and our musical drama Lepidoptera grew out of our shared passion for storytelling.
The re-spinning of two ancient folktales, Lepidoptera is the story of a young noblewoman who must hide her love of the natural world from society’s condemning gaze. When a betrothal announcement unravels her web of secrets and threatens her only friendship, she struggles to restore the fragile balance of her public and private identities.
Holly finished the beautiful fifteen-page libretto by the end of our senior year, but it wasn’t until I was partway through my Master’s degree at the University of Michigan that I was really able to dig into the musical side of our drama. I am forever grateful to my undergraduate professor, Anthony Suter, for believing in me and encouraging me to embark on that journey to begin with; and to my graduate professor, Kristin Kuster, for also not only believing in me but for offering unwavering guidance as I pursued this project for my thesis. And for the occasional cookie lesson, which helped keep me sane as I batted away questions like what on earth was I thinking and how am I ever going to finish this on time?!
Not to spoil the ending, but I DID finish on time for the non-staged premiere. (More importantly, on time for the rehearsals for the non-staged premiere.) The year-and-a-half-ish I spent on Lepidoptera was a whirlwind of activity and I’m not going to bore you with all the fine details, but I do want to highlight some of the elements of uniting text and music, and the particular joy of collaborating with a flexible writer who’s willing to revise (thank you Holly!).
Perhaps this is obvious, but in any alliance of text and music, the music should always (ALWAYS!) serve the text. If you don’t belong to that school of thought, I’m honestly baffled as to why you’re bothering to work with text at all. I’m a stickler for text setting, and the ebb and flow of the provided words intimately affect the rhythmic profiles and melodic contours of my music. The musical setting should not only support the emotional space of the text but also represent it clearly, particularly when the lyrics are in your native language. One of the notes I have scribbled on the front page of my libretto copy, probably an early nugget of insight from one of my professors, captures this succinctly: Does the music serve to clarify the text and drama?
One of the major differences between an art song and an opera–even a one act chamber opera–is the scale or scope of the piece. For an art song, you may have anywhere between a few lines to a few stanzas of text as the foundation. For this chamber opera, I had fifteen pages of script, with the only predetermined structure present as a division between “Scene 1” and “Scene 2”. How could I even begin to tackle this story which, despite our best efforts to keep it concise, suddenly seemed so monumental in size?
Before I set any notes to the page (ignoring the fragment I sketched at the end of undergrad), I had to determine the natural division points of the text, to break down the story into manageable sections–essentially, crafting an opera from a deliberate series of “art songs”. Another reminder penned at the head of my notes: try to have a global plan of variety, structure, and proportion that gives weight to the important moments and drama. And a helpful question posed by one of my professors: Where are the arias?
To me, important turning points in the story as well as more poetic and symbolic language signaled the opportunities for arias. I particularly treasure the evocative imagery in this passage, which became the first aria for the protagonist (The Lady), How can I say goodbye?
He knows beauty / in a spider web, / the cricket’s chanted prayers.
Will my husband see / as Dragonfly does?
Or will I walk pebble paths / in loneliness?
How can I say goodbye?
My friend accepts me / as a woman whose hands / have known the earth.
In these woods, / with Dragonfly, / I don’t need to be / a butterfly.
I aimed to support this enchanting language with the gentle cycle of piano chords and swells of the winds and strings, which crescendo into a passionate repeat of the titular phrase.
There are times when the musical environment you’ve crafted in response to the text necessitate some minor revisions to the script–and it’s times like these I was very grateful to be collaborating with an open-minded writer! Oftentimes it was as simple as forming a contraction or dropping a plural or possessive ‘s’. In other instances, the removal of a word or reworking of a phrase smoothed out rhythmic issues in the music.
For example, in The Nobleman’s first aria, after seeking Holly’s approval we condensed the line “Do you not wish our journey to go on?” to “Don’t you wish our journey to go on?” The line “Imagine our pleasure every evening, amidst the cricket’s songs” was revised to “Imagine our pleasure every evening; the cricket songs.” While this changed the meaning slightly, it allowed for a better flow of the melody and still captured the essence of the text. “Cricket’s songs” versus “cricket songs” is also a prime example of the difference between spoken and sung text. In normal speech we would probably slur through the back-to-back esses anyway, but in singing it’s important to make the distinction–and in this case, the tempo of the music made it unrealistic for the consecutive “t,” “s,” and “s” to each be clearly articulated. “Cricket songs,” then, not only represented a similar meaning but also provided a more natural musical phrase.
Another fun (and sometimes challenging!) aspect of setting text is the opportunity to manipulate deliberate repetitions of certain phrases, recalling earlier fragments for dramatic purposes–when that is neither specified in the libretto nor likely to occur in plain speech. For The Nobleman’s last aria, Most can live a sham, the text I chose to found the piece on is straightforward enough:
Most can live a sham…
But I will not.
I will not!
I do not care
about the costs!
There is but one woman,
one honest lady,
whom I know and love.
I will scour the woods.
I will find her.
But in the libretto version, those first three lines are separated by interjections from The Lady and The Mother. I decided to keep The Mother’s text all in the end of the overlapping dialogue at the end of the preceding song, and instead wove in The Lady’s lines after The Nobleman’s first verse. I even borrowed the phrase “There is much life, if one looks closely” from If one looks closely, as the anguished protagonist tries to convince her only friend of her true identity without her Mother finding out. (Yes, The Lady’s public persona is “the Butterfly” and her friend from the woods is the scornful Nobleman to whom her parents have engaged her.) You can listen to the two songs in sequence to hear the build-up of the interwoven dialogue lines into the Nobleman’s emotionally charged aria, or skip right to Most can live a sham:
The premiere performance of Lepidoptera would not have been possible without the dedication and virtuosity of the musicians: Amy Petrongelli (The Lady), Anthony LaFrinier (The Nobleman), Tessa Romano (The Mother), Hannah Weiss (flutes), Jason Paige (clarinets), Jennifer Ellis (harp), Annie Jeng (piano), Chris Sies and Dylan Greene (percussion), Adrianne Pope (viola), Emily Camras (cello), and Ben Willis (bass), under the baton of Jonathan Caldwell. I am also grateful to Lizzie Williams for her lighting design, Nelson Gast for the audio recording, J. D Biskner for the video recording, and Tanner Porter for the phenomenal poster/cover artwork.
And, of course, it would not have been possible without the support of my professors–and Holly, who dreamed this piece into creation with me. Thank you.
And thank YOU, devoted Triptych reader, for joining me down memory lane. If you have a story about a collaborative experience, we’d love to hear it! Share it in the comments below or send us an email. Catch you next week, when our artist Candice will reveal a sneak peek of what she’s cooking up for our next triptych!