”"Opera was a plum pudding, I primly decided, a few jewels set in ponderous, creaking plots.”Peter GoldsworthyLibrettist - Summer of the Seventeenth Doll
Our lives begin as opera. Our first memories, the indelible memories of early childhood, are operatic: overblown, deeply resonant, larger than life. Infancy is a kind of opera, and just as noisy: libretto by Freud, music for solo soprano or castrato. Our first emotions are big and simple, our responses out of all proportion to cause – essential ingredients for opera. La Scala hath no wailing prima donna as an infant ignored.
My own first memories are more specific – they are of actual opera or operetta, of huddling beneath a piano in a bush high school as my mother accompanied the school production of The Gondoliers, her feet pressing the squeaky pedals, rhythmically.
The town of Minlaton, population 500. Barley Capital of the World, Tidy Town Award winner, lies in the middle of the Yorke Peninsula in South Australia, about knee-height or Rome-height on that leg-shaped protrusion from the continent. The Yorke Peninsula even has its own Sicily to kick around: Kangaroo Island. The leg is shod in farm-boots, rather than the elegant stiletto of Puglia, and the Minlaton Town Hall in 1955 was no La Scala, but opera was the main cultural event for many miles.
My parents went on to produce a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta in every Tidy Town and world capital in Australia, it seemed. My mother was always down in the engine-room — her piano an orchestra of one, in a makeshift pit — while my father was up on the bridge, either singing or conducting. Slow ahead two thirds, dear. Another indelible memory, my shock at age twelve, as my dad, by now a respectable school Head, bounded onto the stage at the first dress rehearsal of Trial by Jury wearing a rakish straw boater and striped blazer, with a pencil-thin cad’s moustache.
I sang as a member of the jury for that school production. Later I played a pirate in The Pirates of Penzance and a marine in HMS Pinafore — but never managed to gain promotion beyond the chorus. Despite the limitations of my larynx, I still love that simple, stylised music, three-quarters self-parody.
The process of writing a libretto has taught me to appreciate another great virtue in Gilbert & Sullivan: theirs is the only such creative team in which the librettist receives top billing. This might well be because Gilbert was the producer as well as the writer of the Savoy operas, and could bill himself anywhere he liked, but his witty, clever libretti are surely the equal of the witty, clever music.
There are no da Ponte & Mozart societies, no Strauss & von Hofmannsthal revivals. The norm is this: the librettist is the hired help. Which seems fair: you hum the tunes on the way out, you do not murmur the words.
At our first meeting, the composer Richard Mills told the story of the diva Montserrat Caballe, amply proportioned, who was asked to sing while walking down a flight of steps in the role of Carmen.
‘I don’t do steps,’ Miss Caballe told the director. ‘I don’t do opera,’ I told Richard. Partly this was because the division of labour and credit deterred me. Who listens to the libretto? On the other hand, anonymity also offered a safety net. If my libretto were a fiasco, perhaps no-one would notice — except myself and Ray Lawler.
My deeper objections were more puritanical. Despite fond childhood memories, I’d come to think that opera was a ludicrous form, at least when taking itself seriously: a collection of good bits loosely sewn together with all kinds of artifice and tedious recitative — a bit like most novels I read, come to think of it.
Opera was a plum pudding, I primly decided, a few jewels set in ponderous, creaking plots. And with the form exaggerated out of all proportion to content. All style, no substance. It seemed, to flog my earlier analogy, infantile.
It was the possibility of working with the singing voice that tempted me back from this extreme puritanical view. Poetry is ultimately about voice; the biological origins of poetry are in singing and in breathing, just as the origins of music itself are in the biology of the human larynx, first and most natural of our musical instruments.
And still the most erotic. This, also, attracted me: that opera is the most erotic of the arts, especially, for me, the soprano or mezzo voice, in full moan. At close quarters especially, in the flesh, its power is simply thrilling.
In laconic Australian fashion the erotic in Ray Lawler’s classic play, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, is never explicit, but one of the things that Roo and Barney’s five-month lay-off from the cane fields is actually about is not a lay-off at all, but a lay-down, with a friend.
How to translate this into song? For a song to have force it cannot be laconic or understated — at least as we understand the terms relative to other forms of expression. Music, even at its most subdued, is an emotional overstatement. It is the most purely emotional of human languages.
This problem serves as a metaphor for the basic dislocation in turning the play, perhaps any play, into opera. Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is probably the Great Australian Play or at least a GAP — and it’s finally a tragedy, but it’s a vernacular, often understated, tragedy.
How, then, to transform the vernacular dialogue of the Melbourne fifties into something that scans and can be sung, while attempting to remain faithful to the spirit of the play? This was an imposing difficulty — and the extra challenge it offered finally overcame my puritanical objections to opera as a form.
Next problem: how to handle the comic elements of the play? The Doll is a tragedy, yes, but it expends a lot of laughter getting there. I wanted the libretto to remember that comedy, however, attenuated by the constraints of the new form.
I went back to the deft, irreverent humour of Gilbert’s libretti for Sullivan — required reading for all poets and lyricists — wondering if I might find models there.
Philip Furia in his book The Poets of Tin Pan Alley has pointed out the influence of Gilbert on the great song lyricists of America — Ira Gershwin, ‘Yip’ Harburg and so on. Echoes of Gilbertian rhymes such as ‘cerebellum, too’ with ‘tell ’em, too’ can be heard in such famous Ira Gershwin couplets as ‘The things that you’re liable / to read in the Bible…’ or, my Jonah-and-the-whale favourite, ‘He made his home in/that fish’s abdomen.’
Quoting such lines in a review, of Furia’s book, the American poet Brad Leithauser traces this ancestry a step further, finding the source of Gilbert’s own playful rhyme-schemes in the Byron of Don Juan (`battery’ with ‘satire, he’). Such couplets permeate light verse generally. Closer to home, thematically, does even Ogden Nash’s Kangaroo owe something to Byron?
O Kangaroo, O Kangaroo
Be grateful that you’re in a zoo
And not transmuted by a boomerang
Into zestful, tasty kangaroo meringue.
What has this got to do with writing a libretto for the Doll, and the Australia of Roo and Barney and Pearl and Olive in the fifties. Their music was Strangers in Paradise and perhaps somewhere in there the sentimental stirrings of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and the uncomplicated rhymes of June/moon/spoon. It was into the playfulness of epigram rather than the playfulness of rhyme that I mostly attempted to steer the libretto, using existing lines from the play, or clichés, and trying to tease them a little further, giving them what I hoped might be extra legs.
Although a confession: some of the most playfully rhymed light-verse in the libretto, the verse that most approximates the Tin Pan Alley tradition, was tossed off by the composer, who seems to have a gift for it.
Perhaps the greatest challenge in converting the play into a libretto was the length. A librettist has only a fraction of the number of words to play with; what cannot be condensed in an adaptation must therefore be cut. Da Ponte managed to condense The Marriage of Figaro, a play banned by Emperor Joseph II, from 230 pages into 51. He also dropped 5 characters.
`But I have written an opera, not a play,’ he wrote to the Emperor. ‘I have had to omit many scenes and shorten others, and I have omitted or shortened anything which might offend the delicacy and decency of a spectacle at which your Majesty would be present.’
There were no such censorship problems with the Doll. At the Melbourne premiere, the nearest thing to majesty, Premier Jeff Kennett, was impressed enough to remark that the opera was ‘interesting’. Carlton and United Breweries, the Melbourne sponsors, and perhaps, therefore, the nearest thing to a royal patron did request that the brand of beer mentioned in the libretto be changed from Melbourne Bitter to Fosters’ Lager, although both are CUB beers. Fine by me, I said, if it’s okay with Ray Lawler.
There was still the problem of length. How to shrink-wrap Lawler’s play around the bare bones of the musical structure that Richard and I spent an intense week sketching out? In adapting a classic, this involves considerable risk.
‘Don’t you dare leave out my favourite line,’ the writer David Marr told me several years ago when discussing my commission? ‘Emma’s line about getting a sea-breeze off the gutter.’
I put the line back in. My first instinct had been to simplify too much. I had pruned the playback to what I thought was the bare minimum of the plot — and in so doing, threw out most of the babies with the bathwater. I also caused some anxiety to Ray Lawler. I thought I knew everything about the play – in fact, I soon learnt that I knew very little. Ray would send me his notes after each draft, and the process of writing the libretto from then, became, to some extent, a tug of war between a poet’s desire for simplicity and Ray’s – and later Richard’s, and the director Richard Wherrett’s – lessons in drama.
Unlike da Ponte, I dropped no characters. There were only seven, to begin with. Perhaps the major structural change was the enlarging of the role of Emma, at least in her Cassandra persona. This was partly to provide a musical balance: two insomniac nocturnes during which she would soliloquise, largo, over a pot of tea, singing of events past and future. This enlarged or altered character owes something to Sandy Stone, my favourite Barry Humphries creation. Stone, at any rate, is the most purely literary of Humphries’ creations in the sense that I can imagine other, lesser actors reciting Sandy’s monologues with success. With the Dame or Sir Les, the performance of Humphries himself provides much, perhaps most, of the power. Stone’s monologues can also stand alone as text.
I published a small suite of Doll songs in a collection of poetry, titled If, Then. The Doll songs are probably the least interesting poems, qua poems, in the book. Partly I stuck them in to get people who would not normally buy poetry to buy poetry — the public profile of an opera being beyond the wildest dreams of a slim volume of verse. There might, I hoped, be a trickle-down effect, or coat-tail-riding effect. If any of these published songs can claim to stand apart as poetry, on a page, the Emma monologues must have the best chance.
The full libretto plays deliberately with the banality of ordinary speech: it uses or paraphrases cliché extensively, as does the musical score itself, playfully using musical cliché, especially the sentimentality of the. Left high and dry by the withdrawal of music, the words of many operas can seem banal. Mine no doubt too.
And If favourite lines from the play are missing, if I am not the very model of a modem opera librettist, the audience can ignore the words and hum the tunes on the way out.
Ira Gershwin wrote: ‘Given a fondness for music, a feeling for rhyme, a sense of whimsy and humour, an eye for a balanced sentence, and the ability to imagine oneself a performer — given all this, I still say it takes four or five years collaborating with knowledgeable composers to become a well-rounded lyricist.’
I might not be able to do much about feeling, sense and eye —you either have them or you don’t — but I have a knowledgeable composer, and a few years yet to work with him on more projects.
Adapted from Navel Gazing – a collection of essays Goldsworthy by Peter Goldsworthy. Penguin Books, 1998