Joyce Carol Oates: What Inspired My Black Water

Joyce Carol Oates: What Inspired My Black Water [Editor's Note: Joyce Carol Oates is collaborating with John Duffy on Black Water, a opera based on her novel. The work will debut April 24-May 4 at American Music Theatre Festival in Philadelphia. Here is an essay she wrote about the project for Philadelphia Playbill.]

[Editor's Note: Joyce Carol Oates is collaborating with John Duffy on Black Water, a opera based on her novel. The work will debut April 24-May 4 at American Music Theatre Festival in Philadelphia. Here is an essay she wrote about the project for Philadelphia Playbill.]


When the distinguished American composer John Duffy first contacted me, inviting me to collaborate with him on an opera based upon my novel Black Water (1992), to be commissioned by the American Music Theater Festival, I felt daunted by the prospect of writing a libretto; though I've written numerous plays and books of poetry, had never so much as read an opera libretto; the genre was entirely new to me. The challenge, however, was irresistible, as well as the opportunity to work with so gifted and versatile a composer. My first version of the libretto was very short, perhaps 10 pages. Over the years, it evolved to approximately 50 pages. A libretto is a radical distillation of a work that, set to music, as it requires for it's realization, is fundamentally an emotional experience; it is words to be translated into music, and to music to be translated into emotion. This in not, however, to suggest that "ideas" -- indeed, the play and counter play of "ideas" -- don't form the structural basis of the work as well.

Black Water is not about but has obviously been stimulated by a notorious event in American history; it was originally imagined as a dramatic prose poem, written shortly after the "Chappaquiddick incident" of July 1969, for I had been, like may others, mesmerized by the thought of the young woman trapped in a car submerged in water, waiting, and waiting, and waiting to be rescued -- if not by the man who'd been driving the car at the time of the accident, a United States senator, then by emergency workers. But no one came in time, though she waited for hours -- "The black water filled her lungs and she died." Like other women, and perhaps some men, I was shocked by the focus of the press upon the Senator's future in politics after this public tragedy -- would he, could he, run for President? The young woman seemed scarcely to exist; she was newsworthy only to the degree that her life had, unfortunate for her, traversed that of a famous, powerful man from a famous, powerful, American political family. Thinking of her, imagining her, I found myself recalling certain English and Scottish traditional ballads, in which an innocent young girl is enticed into riding off on his horse, with an "elf knight" -- or with the devil, or Death himself, personified as an attractive, seductive man. The seduction and betrayal of innocence by such a personage, significantly embodied by a celebrity-politician, seemed to me distinctly contemporary. And though college-educated young women of our time are hardly "innocent" in the naive, blindly trusting way of their mythic ancestors, they retain still the innocence of their idealism. I see the idealism of Americans -- of both sexes -- continuously betrayed, if not mocked, by the cynicism of our highest-ranking politicians.

Though first imagined in 1969, the novel Black Water was not written until 1990 -- a very long gestation period. Its language is imagined as musical: a clear, rational "daylight" language melding into a hallucinatory, blurred and nightmarish "nocturnal" music as the young woman's consciousness is surrendered to encroaching death. In recasting it as a libretto, I was excited by the possibility of giving life -- literally, giving "voice" -- to numerous characters, including the charismatic Senator, who had to be relatively muted in the novel, which is entirely the young woman's story. The Senator quickly emerged as a human being of intelligent, if perhaps tragic complexity; perhaps cruel, careless, mendacious, but not vicious; not a villain. If he allows his young admirer to drown, it's out of cowardice; the fear of the politician who knows that his career will be destroyed if he suffers "bad press." The tragedy seemed to me universal, and not only personal.

A reviewer called the novel Black Water "the ballad of Chappaquiddick." Ballads are spare, a distilled dramatic poetry that tells a usually straightforward story. By contrast, an opera is musically and emotionally complex, rather more analogous to a novel; in the brilliantly evocative music written by John Duffy for this opera, we are not told of an experience, we are not mere witnesses to its narration, but share in it emotionally. For such is the power of music, which words may aspire to evoke and only sometimes, rarely succeed.

-- By Joyce Carol Oates

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