A Happy Collaboration
British theatre and film director Peter Brook once said that music in Mozart operas ‘is drawn to the surface by the words.’ This was certainly true with The Island of the Ugly Sisters. While the work is, indeed, the result of a happy collaboration between composer and librettist, it began with words.
When I set out in late 2010 to write a libretto for the Opéra de Poche, I was given two criteria: sixty minutes and four voices. Plot, character, setting, themes were up to me. Foremost among the ideas I had in mind was a family story from the mid- nineteenth century about seven ugly women. I finished the first draft in May 2011. The opera was set in eighteenth century rural America. The Prologue and Epilogue were boring. The plot was divided into two acts with a fatal storm as strong curtain in the middle. The lovers were Anna and Hugh. Henry died midway through Act Two.
I am a multi-draft writer. By the time composer joined the project in 2012, the setting had become present day, the Prologue and Epilogue evocatively spooky, the lovers Sophronia and Luke. I was on Draft 14.
Evan brought to Sisters a fine sense of timing and an instinctive understanding of the intricacy of musical progression. He and I began a back-and-forth collaboration, which, for me, was illuminating. Not only was his dramatic judgment sound, but he also patiently answered my questions, explaining how he was isolating themes, establishing characters, spinning out plotlines in notes spread across the score.
Most of his edits were fairly simple. ‘I have a strong musical theme going here and need an additional arioso,’ he would say. Or ‘This would be a perfect place for a sweet interchange between Alice and Henry.’ We trimmed and tightened scenes. Evan taught me that he could recall with leitmotifs recurring
themes I carefully had couched in words.
One request, however, was major. Evan wanted the opera recast as one act with the climactic storm near the end. The musical buildup to that scene, he explained, would make coming back extremely difficult.
So, early one Saturday morning, I cut the libretto into tiny pieces and tossed them, figuratively, into the air. It was nerve-wracking. The story at that point was polished and tight. I did not know if plot and motivation would hold or if the characters would still be intact. Afraid almost to breathe, I moved scenes, reconfigured rhythms, checked and rechecked plotlines and foreshadowing. I deleted several sections I liked, restructured and rewrote others. Miraculously, it worked. One surprising outcome was that Henry no longer died. By Sunday night, we had a one-act opera.
One of Evan’s most fortuitous requests came near the end of the process. He asked me to make clear in the closing moments of Scene 7 that Luke refuses to elope with Sophronia for fear of losing his humanity. ‘Go back to your epigraph,’ he said, ‘the Ben Jonson lines about love and death, and write a new aria.’ So I did. What was originally a solo for Luke became the fire-and-ice quartet. It is my favorite part of the opera.
Now, at Draft 26, with music and words happily one, I thank you, Evan. It has been quite a ride.