A few days ago I heard Jonathan Richards, a Santa Fe-based actor and writer, give a public reading of “The Letter,” the short story by W. Somerset Maugham that inspired Paul Moravec and me to write The Letter. Our opera is based on Maugham’s own 1927 stage version of “The Letter,” but it was the story that was our starting point–I hadn’t yet read the play when I first got the idea to turn “The Letter” into an opera–and more than two years had gone by since I last looked at it. Hence I found it fascinating to hear Jonathan read “The Letter” out loud, not least because I’d forgotten that it was the source of the original version of one of the best lines in the libretto.
In the second scene of the opera, Howard Joyce, the very proper lawyer who takes on the case of Leslie Crosbie, a woman who shot and killed a neighbor whom she claims tried to rape her, reflects on his client’s plight. “One never knows what respectable women are capable of,” he muses. My libretto contains most of the best-known lines of dialogue from Maugham’s stage version of The Letter, but that particular line isn’t in the play, and when Jim Maddalena, who plays the role of Joyce, told me that it was his favorite line in the opera, I wondered whether I’d actually come up with it myself.
The answer, it turns out, is that I based it on a line from the original short story, one that had slipped my mind until I heard Jonathan read it out loud at Collected Works last week:
“The fact is, I suppose,” he reflected, “that you can never know what hidden possibilities of savagery there are in the most respectable of women.”
So far as I can remember, this is the only line from “The Letter” that can be found in the opera but not in the play. Even so, it’s a good example of how I changed virtually all of Maugham’s language in order to make it pithier and more lyrical. Try to imagine Jim singing that handsomely worded but rather complicated sentence and you’ll start to get an idea of the process by which a librettist turns the script of a play into the libretto of an opera.
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Mrs. T and I had a busman’s holiday yesterday: we went to see the Santa Fe Opera‘s production of Don Giovanni. I’ve been so busy with The Letter of late that it’s been more than a year since I saw an opera not written by Paul Moravec and me, and it was a great treat to relax and let Mozart and da Ponte do the heavy lifting.
Tonight it’s back to work. The final dress rehearsal of The Letter starts at nine o’clock. Definitely no tweeting–I expect to be completely preoccupied–but I’ll let you know how it went on Friday.