I’m still hard at work on The Letter, the musical version of Somerset Maugham’s play that Paul Moravec and I are writing for Santa Fe Opera. Paul is writing the music, I the words, and I knocked off a huge chunk of the latter while I was up in Connecticut last month. In fact, I finished the first complete draft of the entire eight-scene libretto. Paul and I are both pleased with it, though we’ll put it through the wringer of revision several more times before we’re done. Nevertheless, I believe we’ve got ourselves a libretto, and it sounds like a libretto, by which I mean that it reads like an opera, not a straight play.
An opera libretto resembles a play at first glance, but the differences are bigger than you might realize. To begin with, a libretto is shorter than a play, since it takes longer to sing words than to speak them. For the record, the first draft of The Letter is 8,700 words long, roughly half the length of the play on which it’s based. (By way of comparison, Macbeth, Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, is 18,301 words long.) I expect it will shrink still further before it reaches its final form. Yet our version of The Letter tracks the action of Maugham’s original play fairly closely.
So what happened to the rest of the play? Some was cut outright–I started by eliminating two of Maugham’s characters–and the remainder was trimmed ruthlessly. Paul and I have said all along that we want the operatic version of The Letter to feel like a movie, which means, above all, that it must move. The current London revival of the stage play runs for two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission. William Wyler’s 1940 film version, on the other hand, is ninety-five minutes long, and our goal is to bring the opera in at an intermission-free hour and a half.
Perhaps not surprisingly, my “trimming” quickly turned into rewriting, much of it radical. The Letter is a prosy play, and no sooner did I start working on the dialogue than I realized that most of it was unsingable in its original form. I had to make it more lyrical. The first step in doing that is to strip away every superfluous word. When writing a libretto, you must always keep in mind that each and every word you write will be accompanied by music–and that the music, if it does its job, will tell the audience what the characters are thinking and feeling. You don’t have to spell things out: the composer does that for you. Nor is there much room for subtlety, since opera is a primary-color medium that deals exclusively in large, explicit emotions. You don’t need a lot of words to say I love you or I hate you or I want to see you hang. (That last line, by the way, comes straight from the libretto of The Letter.)
A couple of weeks ago, I watched Budd Boetticher’s Comanche Station on TV for the first time since I’d written about it in the essay reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader. Boetticher’s Westerns have a reputation for being talky, but in fact Burt Kennedy’s script is masterly in its economy. Most of the first reel contains no dialogue at all, and elsewhere the characters never say ten words when three will do.
Here’s a typical exchange between Randolph Scott, the stoic hero of Comanche Station, and Claude Akins, the charming villain:
AKINS It wouldn’t surprise me if somebody didn’t try to take that woman away from you.
SCOTT Like you, for instance?
AKINS Like me, in particular.
As I listened to that scene, I thought, They don’t call ’em horse operas for nothing!
So far as I know, there are no how-to-do-it books about libretto writing. You have to figure it out yourself, and it didn’t take me long to figure out that the trick is to lay back, keep it simple, and give the composer plenty of room to make things happen. I spelled a lot of things out in the early drafts of The Letter, but in each successive editing pass, egged on by Paul, I tried to cut all the way down to the bare bones of emotion.
Here’s an example from the second scene, in which Leslie Crosbie (the character played by Bette Davis in the movie) is telling Robert, her husband, and Howard Joyce, their lawyer, why she shot and killed a man whom she claims (falsely) had tried to rape her.
First, Maugham’s original:
I began to lose my temper. I think I’d kept it too long. I think I’m a very even-tempered woman, but when I’m roused I don’t care very much what I say. “But, you poor fool,” I cried at him, “don’t you know that I’ve never loved anyone but Robert, and even if I didn’t love Robert you’re the last man I should care for.” “What do I care?” he said. “Robert’s away.”
And here’s my version:
“You poor fool,” I said. “I’ve never loved anyone but Robert!” And then he said, “So what? He’s away.”
In my last report, I described what it felt like to hear Paul play through his sketches for The Letter. At our most recent working session, he played me the first scene of the opera in its entirety. It starts off, literally, with a bang: there’s no overture, and the first sounds you hear are six pistol shots fired on a darkened stage. That was my idea (and Maugham’s). To be sure, I knew it would be difficult for a composer to grab the audience by the throat after an opening like that–but I knew my composer. Paul’s music for the first scene is staggeringly intense. As my brother, who knows about cars, might say, it goes from zero to 100 in nothing flat.
It’s a truism that there are no sure things in theater, but if the rest of The Letter is as effective as the beginning…well, let’s just say that I think we’re off to a pretty good start.