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July 11, 2007

TT: Men at work

I announced back in May that Paul Moravec and I had been commissioned to write an operatic adaptation of Somerset Maugham's The Letter. Of course we'd been working on it for some time before then, but the only thing we had on paper at that point was a draft of the first five scenes of my eight-scene libretto.

Paul retired to the MacDowell Colony last month to start writing the music. He drove back to New York two weeks ago to play me his first sketches. We've known each other for more than a decade and are close neighbors and good friends, so I had every reason to expect that our collaboration would be a reasonably smooth one. Nevertheless, I was feeling a bit nervous when I knocked on the door of his Upper West Side studio, and I nearly jumped out of my skin when he put a sheaf of rough pencil sketches on the music rack of his piano. Would I like the way they sounded? Would he be open to criticism? Would I be open to it?

I'm delighted to say that the answers to these questions turned out to be yes, yes, and yes. I was thrilled to hear my words set to Paul's brilliantly apposite music, and no sooner did he finish playing through the sketches than the two of us rolled up our sleeves and started revising words and music on the spot. Any mutual apprehensions we may have had about our ability to collaborate were dispelled at once: we were entirely frank with one another, and the fruits of our joint labors are already the better for our frankness.

So far, our working process appears to have more in common with the making of a musical comedy than the writing of an opera. In fact, we did something two Sundays ago that comes straight out of the Broadway playbook. Paul had already sketched the music for an aria whose words are not yet written, so I knocked out on the spot what professional songwriters call a "dummy lyric," a piece of nonsense verse that matches the rhythms of the pre-written music exactly, thus allowing the lyricist to work more easily on his own after the fact. The most famous of all dummy lyrics is the one Ira Gershwin wrote for "I Got Rhythm": Roly-poly/Eating solely/Ravioli/Better watch your diet or bust. Here's the one I wrote for the first stanza of an aria in which one of the characters in The Letter laments the death of her lover:

I am a toad,
Green, grey,
In a dark, dark, dark wood,
And I'm longing for light.

Needless to say, there are no toads in our opera--at least not in singing roles.

Once I'd penned these soon-to-be-forgotten words, Paul packed up his sketches and returned to the MacDowell Colony, there to resume the writing of the score to The Letter. Composing, like writing, is a solitary business, and a major composer doesn't need to have a wordsmith peering over his shoulder as he grapples with the knotty problem of snatching notes out of the air and putting them in the right order. But it's a lonely business, too, and I suspect that Paul, like me, found it immensely exciting--and reassuring--for the two of us to sit down in a soundproof studio and face the music jointly.

To be continued...

UPDATE: As the next-to-last paragraph of this story in today's Guardian reveals, The Letter will be staged by Jonathan Kent, who directed last year's Broadway revival of Brian Friel's Faith Healer.

Cool, huh?

Posted July 11, 2007 12:00 AM

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