Librettist’s Performance Journal: Saturday

Cross-posted from

Saturday, 21 April 2018

A week from today, the Hartford Opera Theater (HOT) and the Hartford Independent Chamber Orchestra (HICO) will present a single performance event called “Speaking her Truth.” All three pieces on the program are by composer Jessica Rudman, and two of them use texts I wrote. This is the first time I’ll get to hear music that sets my texts.

The program begins with Jessica’s micro-opera Trigger, for which she wrote the text. The other two pieces use my text: Four Songs for Lady Macbeth for voice and chamber ensemble, commissioned by Charity Clark; and Marie Curie Learns to Swim, a one-act chamber opera for soprano, mezzo, and baritone, and chamber orchestra. Trigger and Marie Curie will have full stagings; Lady M will be performed without any staging.

For a one-act, Marie Curie is long: 75-80 minutes. Jessica and I have talked very briefly about expanding it into a full length, and where we would break it for an intermission. I wrote it as a one-act because I know how difficult it is to get performances of new full-length operas, but I’m open to expansion if a company commits to doing it. For this performance, though, it’ll be all in one act. The short rehearsal time and amount of material Marie Curie has meant that Jessica and I had to make some late changes for this particular performance, splitting up Marie’s role into two separate characters sung by different singers: Old Marie and Young Marie. Ironically, this is how I had originally written the libretto, but then Jessica suggested that 1. having fewer performers might make the opera more appealing to small companies, and 2. that we could coherently indicate the memory/flashback scenes through language, music, and staging. I think the official version of the piece—the one people can buy or rent for performances—will have both as options, so that other companies can choose how they want to do it. At one time, I even considered having Pierre Curie be mute, with just a brief walk-on as a ghostly memory, but if you have to hire someone to be him, that person may as well sing while they’re there, and Pierre’s role in Marie’s life is too big to silence.

Jessica, who lives in Hartford, has been doing coachings with the performers. The rehearsals are long: today Marie Curie rehearsals went from 10 am-5 pm, and then Lady M went from 6-9. They’re blocking all of Marie Curie and will have worked through the entire piece by the end of tomorrow’s rehearsal. I’m copied on the daily reports from the director. Seeing the details in these makes me realize how much effort is going into this production. I wrote the libretto with the idea that it could be performed with very minimal stage business: I had Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in mind, which you can do in any space with just a ladder and a broom. Marie Curie really only needs some kind of demarcation between the beach and the water, and a thermos, notebook, and towels. (That’s kind of Douglas Adams-like, isn’t it? All you need for an opera is your towel.) Yesterday’s report mentioned the towels, mason jars (as glasses), a lab cart, metal bowls and lab utensils, and the make-up for creating Pierre Curie’s radium burn scar. I’ve seen a couple of pictures from rehearsals: right now the company is working in various spaces and won’t get into the performance venue until Wednesday. But the photos look good.

I’ve always been a writer, although for a very long time I thought writing would be secondary to the other things I wanted to do and be. When I was very young, I wanted an equestrian career while also playing chamber music or in an orchestra and writing on the side. Horses and elite training are expensive, though: cello lessons were cheaper. I then planned on becoming a professional chamber musician, focusing on twentieth-century and new music, and writing as an avocation or part-time thing. But fibromyalgia made it too physically painful to put in the practice time I wanted and needed for my cello career to last very long; and as my hands and arms got worse, I realized that I also wanted to do more analysis and research in music. I became a musicologist, thinking that perhaps I could continue to play a little, but I was used to how I sounded when I could practice six or eight hours a day, and it was psychologically difficult to hear my abilities decline. I stopped playing the cello in the late 1990s and very happily embraced musicology and the writing it entails.

I wanted to do creative writing for a long time before I actually did, but felt self-conscious about it. I was uncomfortable with the standard parameters of fiction. But free verse and stream-of consciousness writing felt right: it was a good fit for the kinds of topics I wanted to write about. I began writing poetry in 2013 and had my first poem accepted for publication almost immediately. I had casually been collecting potential topics for libretti when I read the anecdote of Marie Curie and her daughters going on vacation late in Curie’s life and how she asked them to teach her to swim. I knew right away that this would be a perfect framework for an opera. I read a few opera librettos and talked with my friend and colleague Stephen Meyer, a musicologist who has also written a libretto, and began thinking about how Marie Curie would work: the structure, the characters, the kind of language I wanted to use. Once I had a workable draft, I got in touch with Jessica, whom I’d met at a Society for American Music conference, and we went from there. We reordered some material and at Jessica’s suggestion I revised and added to the text to create what the audience will hear next week.