Backstage Pass: Alexis Hamilton reflects on how the libretto came to be
Backstage Pass is a series of blog posts spotlighting PHAME’s production of The Poet’s Shadow, on stage at the Hampton Opera Center this August. Follow us backstage to hear the stories behind the opera, interviews with the cast and crew, and more!
This guest post is written by Alexis Hamilton, Portland Opera’s Manager of Education and Outreach. Alexis taught the libretto writing class in Fall 2018 where students wrote the opera’s libretto.
Working with PHAME students to create the libretto for The Poet’s Shadow was an amazing process. First of all, how to take the ideas of eight passionate individuals and craft them into a whole work? Especially a work as specific as a libretto. Several of the students had written stories before; some had written poems; some song lyrics. But a libretto is a play that will be sung. So we first had to decide what the parameters were going to be.
We began by defining what a libretto was and how it would be used to create our rock opera. We talked about how the entire show would be sung and how the composers in the iPad Ensemble might have to change some of our words to more easily fit the music. This was important for two reasons: 1) To prepare the artists creating the story and words for the inevitable evolution of their work, and 2) To help the artists to keep in mind that since everything was to be sung—and that singing takes longer than speaking—we had to focus on action and imagery.
The first step for us was to create a five-sentence story to serve as the framework for our libretto. This was an exciting couple of sessions with ideas flying across the table, some disagreement and lots of enthusiasm. I won’t spoil the story by telling you what these five sentences were, but it’s safe to say they laid the groundwork for who the main character would be, what conflict would arise, and how it would be resolved.
Next, we needed to develop the characters who would tell the story. As a group, we determined the list of characters, and then each student took a character and created a character sketch outlining the character’s Needs, Emotions, Wants, and Underlying Beliefs. That was great fun, and everyone really threw themselves into the process.
As we fleshed out how we would move from step to step in our story, where the recitatives, arias and ensembles would go, etc., I was struck by how deeply committed each artist was to reflecting emotional truth. Feelings are really complex and the feelings we were exploring—love, depression, anger, frustration, hopelessness, fear and ultimately contentment—are multi-layered. In fact, I had to keep reminding everyone that opera librettos have to be painted in broader terms because all of that complication is reflected more in the music!
Working so closely with artists means that you have the privilege of seeing the treasures of their hearts. What they call out; what they dream about; what makes them angry or gives them joy. I loved finding out about JJ’s romantic soul; Michelle’s mischievous sense of fun and vivid imagery; Bridget’s deep love of words and commitment to being precise and specific; Chanel’s deep interest in representation, justice and strong plotlines; Kara’s love for songs and flowers and graceful, beautiful things; Julie’s empathic understanding of the kind of love that nurtures and stands back; Chrystal’s innate understanding of pacing and dialogue; and Mindy’s perseverance and quiet, pithy observations. Each and every artist in the room made this happen and each of them is reflected in the libretto you will see in August.