Expansive Poetry & Music Online, Review

opera libretto
(based on the film by F.W. Murnau)

Graywolf Press
Saint Paul, Minnesota
85 pages, US$12.95

Citations may not be used without
permission of Graywolf Press
and Dana Gioia

a brief look at the workings of a libretto by
Arthur Mortensen

Thankfully, opera is not about real life.   The poor artist's attic atelier in the Met's Zefirelli production of La Boheme is larger than the average house in Westchester County.  And I have yet to see real nuns dance naked, or watch a soprano stabbed in a town square while both singing an aria and disputing the conductor's tempo.  Indeed, a librettist with a talent for kitchen sink drama would be a janitor at the Metropolitan Opera House.  As such, going much beyond a "treatment," as filmmakers describe a summary of a screenplay, in a discussion of a libretto's content would be silly.   That this one is based on a silent movie, itself designed after the German Expressionist school of painting, and based on numerous variations of vampire stories, is no exception.   A desperate but ineffectual young man, to support his beautiful but sickly wife, takes a somewhat suspicious job that he hopes will pay their way but which costs him everything.  In his sales call on client Count Orlock (Nosferatu), he is overwhelmed and cannot help when his delicate wife is charmed by  Master Nosferatu into a repellent love.  So, ineffectual husband can do nothing as frail but resourceful wife accepts the grim facts, that her only chance of escape is to charm Nosferatu awake until dawn, which light will kill him, but an escape which will lead to her own death.   So much for the story; it isn't that much different from a victim-of-the-week movie.  That's not a knock on the librettist, but a reminder that in opera (and similarily in verse drama), what separates a soap opera from a work of art is almost always the poetry and especially the music.  Only occasionally, as in Frederick Feirstein's powerful Heroism, a love story set in the horrifying but bravura circumstances of the Jewish ghetto's uprising in Warsaw, does content and setting achieve an importance as great as the music and the poetry.

The real issues in most libretti, if the story is presented just well enough to work onstage, are summed as follows: "can it be sung?"  (The "story...presented well enough to work" is best examined as dramaturgy; this piece is about problems specific to a libretto.)  There are a few simple but inescapable requirements unique to libretti.   One, the prosody has to be "open" enough for the composer to work, and for the singer to phrase.  And two, the poetry has to be uncomplicated enough so that hunting for meaning doesn't occupy the audience's time while the orchestra plays and the singers soar, flutter and dive through their ranges.   John Donne probably couldn't have written a libretto.  About the time you'd figured out the metaphor about the clock, the singer would have jumped off the balcony, the audience would be throwing roses, and the curtain would have dropped.

Reading a libretto, even "hearing it" as one reads, is however a poor substitute for seeing and hearing the opera.  There's no music, unless the reader happens to have a fair talent for spontaneous composition.  As such, a large portion of the final work of art is absent.  It's akin to looking at a black and white sketch of a Renaissance painting.  In fact, it may be worse.  Composers have a way of cutting and splicing lyrics (Handel is a good example) so that performed results bear little resemblance to the libretto.  This is more common in oratorio and in songs than in opera, however.  And it is not an issue with Nosferatu, where composer and librettist have worked closely together.   And, while one can easily imagine staging (there are always Murnau's Expressionist sets to recall, or one's own fantasies), what's left is more an object for analysis, or something to hold in case you get lost during a performance.   As such, one can inquire about those two issues mentioned above.  Does Gioia keep the prosody open enough for the composer to work and the singer to phrase?  And is the poetry plain enough so audiences won't get lost in cogitation of a trope?

A look first, at the recitative.   From scene 1:

        Skuller:      A wealthy nobleman in Hungary --
                          Count Orlock is his name -- has written me.
                          He wants to buy some property in town,
                          A large old house that he can renovate.
                          He needs to get away and find new life.
                          Life is so deadly dull in Hungary.

Skuller is the young man Eric's prospective employer, and in this scene he's trying to close a proposition with Eric to represent him to Count Orlock, as yet unidentified as Nosferatu.    The beat is regular, iambic pentameter, with only one significant variation in the last line of the citation, the trochee at the beginning of "Life is so deadly dull..."   This regularity, and the absence of trope, is well suited to recitative.  The idea is to get the sense of the scene across swiftly and clearly, before the audience loses interest.   (Such an approach is common in verse drama as well; see the smooth, regular blank verse of the courtiers describing how Fortinbras's war with Denmark has been averted in Hamlet.)  The music probably does little more than carry this along.   But, it gets more interesting as Skuller closes his deal, as Gioia splits complete lines between Eric and Skuller, which greatly accelerates their exchanges, and uses repetition to show Skuller forcing his way and to build dramatic tension.

        Skuller:  Sell him the house, and you keep half the profit.
                     The Count is eager to do business.
       Eric:     But it's a ruin.
       Skuller:                       Repairs are easily made.
       Eric:  You'll renovate?
       Skuller:                      And give you half the profit.
       Eric:  He doesn't care?
       Skuller:                        You'll earn five thousand marks.
       Eric:  I need to think this over.
       Skuller:                                    Five thousand marks.
       Eric:  But is it right?
       Skuller:                      You must think of your wife.
       Eric:  Ellen.
       Skuller:       So beautiful, so delicate.
       Eric:  Ellen.
       Skuller:       ...so frail.  She has no one but you.
       Eric:  Five thousand marks?
       Skuller:                                A man must think of others.

In the first pair of  partial lines, there's a switch into triple meter on the third foot "ruin.//Repairs are easily made."   The opportunities for phrasing are obvious.  So too in the rapid (and carefully controlled by containment within the five-beat lines) exchanges.  In the second pair of part-lines the beat returns to strict iambic, but with a feminine ending on "profit," another chance for evocative musical phrasing, and a delay to set the next line, "He doesn't care..." etc., itself in strict iambic leading to Skuller's strongest statement of his money pitch.    The next line, "I need to think this over.//Five thousand marks" has an extra syllable, giving Eric time to think it over, and drawing the hard repetition of "five thousand marks" to fill the line.  Skuller, apparently sensing that the boy's moral sense is stronger than his desire for profit, shifts emphasis in the next line after "But is it right?"  This could be stressed several ways, depending on both the composer and the singer.  The trochee "Ellen" in the next line offers another phrasing opportunity, a pause before Skuller presses with "So beautiful, so delicate...."  And again in the next "Ellen" line.  The beat ends, at least in this writer's estimation, with "Five thousand marks?  A man must think of others," again strong iambic with a feminine ending, a strong finish, but leaving a gateway to the next beat within the scene..

As you would expect, the prosody of the arias is quite different.   While the recitative is carrying the story line, conveying information we have to know but little else, an aria is about a feeling, a mood, and most of an aria's effect on an audience is found in the singer's phrasing and in the composer's melody, harmony and tempi.  People go to operas to hear the arias.  Continuing with scene i, Eric sings about his distressed feelings and hopes about the offer, and what he might do:

    Eric:    What do I want?
                I ache with desire.
                I twist in its thorns.
                I turn in its fire.
                I hunger; I thirst.
                But all that I want
                Are the ordinary things
                That every day brings
                To anyone else.
                I don't crave money
                Or power or fame.
                I only long
                To be at ease
                In my own life --
                To wake at night
                And never feel
                The future pressing....

Depending on the singer or the composer, the opening two lines could be either in trochaic or iambic feet, or start with a trochee and end with an iamb.  The next seven lines use a combination of either an iamb and an anapest or a trochee and an anapest (this can shift in performance as well, depending on how the singer feels or what the audience is responding to).  The second of this series is broken with a caesura, an opening for a pause or for the singer to sustain or explore more melody on the one syllable.  The next three lines are enjambed, but the "things//brings" rhyme introduces a new possibility, as do the periodic near or close rhymes throughout the aria.  (It is worth noting what should be obvious, that the stress of spoken poetry will probably be duration in the musical performance of the same lyric -- more akin to Latin prosody than English, and extremely important to the musical values in performance.) Point?

The composer Alva Henderson surely appreciated the opportunities offered for melody and variations in tempo by this prosodic technique; it invites interesting melody, rhythm, phrasing and counterpoint. Notice too that the diction in both the recitative and the aria are extraordinarily plain; the audience won't lose its concentration on the singing and the moment while fishing for a meaning.   While if you submitted poetry like this (unadorned by music) most editors would probably turn it down, as a lyric it's accomplished, and for what should be obvious reasons.  A libretto's poetry require a refined sense of what to exclude; that sense arises from strong feelings for and good knowledge of music, which Gioia clearly has.  This becomes even more significant in multi-part singing, as Skuller and Eric's duet, concluding scene i of Act I.

    Skuller:    Do you love your wife enough to make
                    Difficult choices for her sake?

    Eric:       Yes, I love Ellen. I'd undertake
                   Any sort of labor for her sake.
                   But facing this journey, I feel lost.

    Skuller:   A man must be strong whatever the cost.

    Eric:       It's not about money,  you understand.

    Skuller:  But fear of a future we haven't planned.

    Eric:      I don't crave money.
    Skuller:                                  But don't despise
                 The safety and freedom that money buys.
                 Unless you provide, she may be lost.

    Eric:    A man must be strong whatever the cost.

In this, because of the repetitions, not only of rhyme, but of phrases and entire lines, you can almost hear a singer's phrasing and feel strong demands on the composer.  The duet's dramatic function is to conclude the scene, which means to close Skuller's deal and to go to blackout for the next scene with the sickly Ellen, her doctor (Harding), and Marthe (her older sister).   The sentiments are clichés -- "A man must be strong whatever the cost," "the safety and freedom that money buys," but the dramatic function of the scene is about conclusions, not subtle argumentation.  The music, well supported by the rhymes and by a punchy metric that closes each line:  "I feel lost"; "understand"; "haven't planned"; "don't despise"; "money buys"; "she may be lost";  etc.   The structure of the line is well illustrated by "The safety and freedom that money buys," an iamb, two anapests and a closing iamb.  This complex yet driving rhythm is a gift for the composer, offering dramatic tension and power in the lyrics themselves.   In the duet where both voices join, each line is virtually a mirror of the other (and we assume the melodic line for each singer is in counterpoint with the other); in hearing it, the musical values will convey who says what.  The subtle variations on nearly identical lines demand this:

          Skuller                                            Eric
You have no father; I have no son         I have no father; you have no son.
To help me do what must be done         To help you do what must be done.
Become my partner.                               I'll be your partner.
Together we'll make                               Together we'll make
Profit from all we undertake.                Profit from all we undertake.

Gioia gives composer and singers a lot to work with in this short, climactic duet.   In line 1, there's a caesura followed by an extra syllable.   Line two is precisely iambic tetrameter.  Line three is iambic dimeter with a feminine ending.  Line four is an iamb followed by an anapest.  And line five is a trochee followed by three iambs.  Whether the composer wants to contrast the poetry's prosody or work within it, there's much fun to be had within what only the librettist has provided.

The rest of the piece, from Eric's disastrous travels to "Count Orlock" (Nosferatu), to Ellen's seduction, and to her triumphant death at the end uses much the same methods in prosody, careful exclusion of metaphorical complications, and plain diction.  As Gioia quotes in his dedication, prima la musica.  If you can't get it by hearing it with the music, the libretto is useless.  This should be a good one.

If you'd like to carry a copy at a production, or simply enjoy reading libretti, this is a good release from Gioia and from Graywolf Press.  You may wish to do further examination yourself of how Gioia works as a librettist.

                                 Arthur Mortensen

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