At SUNY, Top Librettists Examine Their Trade

News   At SUNY, Top Librettists Examine Their Trade Looking back over the past week in entertainment, many would agree that the most noteworthy music-related event was the March 26 Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, where composer John Corigliano won an Oscar for Best Original Score for the film "The Red Violin."

Looking back over the past week in entertainment, many would agree that the most noteworthy music-related event was the March 26 Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, where composer John Corigliano won an Oscar for Best Original Score for the film "The Red Violin."

Kudos notwithstanding, Corigliano might be among those who would disagree.

That's because the Oscar-winning composer was one of a handful of influential music people, comprising world-class musical theatre luminaries -- librettists, composers, authors and art patrons -- who gathered at the SUNY Purchase campus north of New York City on March 25, the day before the Oscars, to participate in a special program titled "First the Words, Libretto 2000." Corigliano timed his Oscar travel plans carefully, going directly from the event to the airport -- which allowed him to attend the New York symposium and still arrive on the West Coast in time for the Academy Awards.

The "First the Words" program was produced by Prima le Parole (Italian, "first the words") a new group organized by librettists William M. Hoffman (director of SUNY Purchase's Department of Dramatic Writing) and James Skofield. Prima le Parole's day-long program of seminars and discussion was intended in part to reclaim the librettists' equality in all forms of musical theatre but, above all, to foster a more collaborative relationship between the creators of words and music in the future.

"The purpose was to have a meeting for the first time in 400 years," Hoffman told Playbill On-Line, "and to see which directions opera and musical theatre -- in all their forms-- were going to take." Extolling the underlying cause for supporting living composers, Hoffman and his colleagues rallied under the theme "A New Camerata." In his program materials, Hoffman explained the historic significance of that choice.

"It was only about a month ago that it dawned on us that what we were planning was probably only the second librettists' conference in history," Hoffman's program reads. "The first took place during the final decade of the 1500's, in Florence, Italy when a group of poets, scholars, and musicians known as the Camerata came together to recreate Greek tragedy and instead invented the hybrid collaborative art form, first known as dramma musica -- drama through music, which we now call opera."

Hoffman asserts that while words first dominated opera, with music eventually eclipsing the libretto, a correction in that imbalance is already being realized through "the universal acceptance of supertitles, the use of amplification and the creation of more operas in English."

Audiences, Hoffman insists, care passionately about what singers are saying.

In their attempt to herald a more collaborative nature in all forms of musical theatre, one in which "words and music are totally interdependent, and the librettist and composer are equal collaborators," the Prima le Parole group held discussions on a variety of topics. At SUNY, the seminars were titled: "Why is this the first librettists' symposium in 400 years?"; "Collaborators, Words + Music = Opera" (a workshop); and, finally, "New Forms In Opera and Music Theatre." A keynote speech was delivered by Arnold Weinstein.

In the future, Hoffman says, he sees composers and librettists crossing back and forth with increasing frequency, working in related fields comprising an overarching genre of "musical theatre," which will run the gamut from opera to traditional musical theatre to cabaret.

"We want to further the notion of these musical theatre forms as being intensively collaborative," Hoffman added. "During the last century it got out of whack. We lost the notion of telling a story. The focus shifted to the tunes and the divas and it was said that audiences only came for pretty tunes. But that's just a partial truth. In fact, the audience wants a total theatrical experience, with a story, characters, music and spectacle.

"It's not a matter of words versus music," Hoffman said, "it's words plus music equals musical theatre."

Participating in the SUNY symposium were: composer/librettist Mark Adamo (1998 opera Little Women); Grammy-nominated composer Robert Beaser (opera Food for Love); arts patrons and Carlyle Fund co-founders Susan H. Carlyle, M.D. and Dennis Carlyle, M.D. (funded Meredith Monk's opera ATLAS and Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie's opera Harvey Milk); Academy, Grawemeyer and Grammy award-winning composer John Corigliano (opera The Ghosts of Versailles); librettist and playwright Thulani Davis (librettos for Amistad, X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X and the play Everybody's Ruby); librettist and The New York Times critic Paul Griffiths (opera Marco Polo); composer Adam Guettel (music theatre piece Floyd Collins with librettist Tina Landau); librettist and Tony nominated playwright William M. Hoffman (libretto The Ghosts of Versailles and author of the Tony nominated play As Is); librettist Michael Korie (librettist for operas Harvey Milk, Hopper's Wife and Kabbalah with composer Stewart Wallace); writer Philip Littel (collaborated on The Dangerous Liaisons with Conrad Susa and A Streetcar Named Desire with Andre Previn); librettist-poet J.D. McClatchy (opera Emmeline with composer Tobias Picker, editor of The Yale Review, Chancellor of Academy of American Poets, member American Academy of Arts and Letters 1999); composer and writer Eric Salzman (The True Last Words of Dutch Schultz, La Piere du Loup, Abel Gance a New York and the book "The New Music Theatre"); librettist James Skofield (operas The Dracula Diary, Night Passage with composer Robert Moran); librettist Joan Vail Thorne (opera The Woman at Otowi Crossing with composer Stephen Paulus); director, writer and film-maker Valeria Vasilevski; librettist and Columbia University professor Arnold Weinstein (collaborated on libretto for McTeague with Robert Altman and composer William Bolcom and wrote the libretto for the upcoming Met adaptation of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge); and Music-Theatre Group general director Diane Wondisford (Chair of the American Arts Alliance and vice-president of the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York).

Prima le Parole's next event is a discussion seminar sponsored by the New York City Opera on May 3 at the Cooper Union in Manhattan. The event runs from 11 AM-1 PM. Details are forthcoming and Playbill On-Line will provide ongoing coverage of Prima le Parole as information becomes available. Interested parties can reach Prima le Parole by email at: firstthewords@aol.com.

-- By Murdoch McBride