The Letter opens one month from today. Next week Commentary runs an essay by me called “A Critic Takes a Bow.” This is the first paragraph:
On July 25, I expect to step from the wings of an opera house perched atop a 6,900-foot-high mesa in New Mexico, walk to center stage, look out at two thousand people and take the first curtain call of my adult life. The occasion will be the premiere of The Letter, an opera by the composer Paul Moravec that is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1927 play of the same name and for which I have written the words. If all goes well, the members of the audience will be cheering by the time that Paul and I appear on stage. If not, my career as an opera librettist will come to an abrupt and inglorious end.
And how do I feel about this fast-approaching set of mutually exclusive alternatives? Pretty good, actually, though I’m sure it helps that I’m too busy to think about it very much. Not so Paul, who is spending the week going through the orchestral parts of The Letter in search of microscopic mistakes. I ran into him at the gym on Monday and asked how he was feeling. “I’m still having a lot of dreams about the opera,” he replied, “but they’re not as bad as they used to be.” On Tuesday the two of us dined together–it’ll be the last time we see one another until we meet in Santa Fe–and drew up a list of the ten funniest movies ever made. (We agreed on His Girl Friday, The In-Laws, Some Like It Hot, This Is Spinal Tap, and Tootsie.) Next to nothing was said about The Letter.
As for me, I haven’t had a single dream about our opera, good, bad, or indifferent, which may or may not bespeak a certain lack of imagination on my part. I know perfectly well that the whole thing could blow up in our faces–but I don’t think it will. No, I’m not sure that it’s going to be a hit. I do, however, feel sure of our craftsmanship, by which I mean that I think The Letter is a solid piece of work. Some people will like it, others won’t, but I expect that everyone in the opening-night audience, critics included, will take what we’ve done seriously and respond accordingly.
And after that…what? I haven’t a clue, nor do I much care, at least for the moment. “Why are you stingy with yourselves?” George Balanchine used to ask his dancers. “Why are you holding back? What are you saving for–for another time? There are no other times. There is only now. Right now.” That’s how I feel about The Letter. For me, the clock stops on July 25.