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  • by Judy Coder

Launching a Masterwork

I’m writing an opera.

What makes me think I can write an opera? What makes me think I can’t?

I grew up on a fairly steady diet of opera. The radio in our dining room was permanently tuned in to the station that played The Metropolitan Opera on Saturday afternoons. Sometimes my mother would pause in her activities to explain or extol the virtues of a particular passage or a particular performer. The singing in an unknown language made the storyline difficult for me to follow, but the sound of it played in my head all the same.

Christmas tree trimming activities at our house were accompanied by music on the stereo, and that music included the complete playing of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” by Giancarlo Menotti.

Year after year I curled up in a cozy chair with libretto in hand and sang along, until I knew every part by heart.

The libretto was the script. It listed the characters, their relationships to one another, their vocal range (the heroine was nearly always a soprano) and a few stage directions. It contained all the words that were sung, and when two characters sang different words at the same time, the libretto ran the lyrics side by side. Our libretto for “Amahl” also included two or three black-and-white photographs from the original performance. The rest was left to my imagination, and I imagined it all.

The first live opera I attended was Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”. It was presented, in English, at our local university. It was marvelous. The plot was still hard to follow, but the costumes, the staging, the special effects, and the passionate energy on stage was electrifying. A few years later, we drove four hours or so to the opulent Tulsa Opera House for “Rigoletto”. Everyone there was dressed in formal attire; it was a magical night.

In college, some of my most memorable moments were in performance with the Opera Workshop class. Though I never intended to have an operatic career, it was fun to present those scenes. The group staged the complete “Amahl and the Night Visitors”, and I was the Mother.

In subsequent years, I continued to learn about opera by participating in a few concert presentations with a local opera group. Like the workshop class in college, we’d present selected music from various operas, but these performances were not staged.

A friend and I celebrated our 50th birthdays with a whirlwind visit to New York. One of the performances we attended was opening night of “Aida” at The Metropolitan Opera. We each spent $300 per seat to sit in the 3rd balcony and watch those little-itty-bitty-teeny-weeny singers on that famous stage. The ticket price for that one night would have purchased a season ticket back home with the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, but after all, it was The Met. It was a magical night.

When The Metropolitan Opera began broadcasting some of their Saturday matinee performances live in HD in movie theaters around the world, I was thrilled. I became a fan of the movie series because it gave me the chance to see more opera than I’d ever be able to afford live. The backstage interviews offered an insider’s view of the production, set design, orchestrations, and more. I saw Wagner’s complete Ring Cycle and wrote fan mail to Jay Hunter Morris (which he answered).

Then one morning, it hit me. I awoke from a night full of music playing in my head, and realized my dreams were all in song. All the characters were singing to one another, not merely speaking. I could imagine myself going through an entire day, conversing in song. It was a bit disconcerting, but exciting, too.

My daughter and I visited an art gallery, and the tour guide offered up the definition of a masterwork: a piece of art which consumes the artist for a year or more. I had been cataloguing my compositions; there was a wide variety of vocal work, and also some fine orchestrations. I stood and studied the exhibited masterwork, and realized that if I devoted myself to it, I could compose a masterwork as well. I could actually write an opera.

Music was already playing in my head, and the opera was already taking shape. I assumed I needed a librettist. After all, opera is entirely made up of dialog. What in the world did I know about writing dialog? Not all composers of opera employ a librettist, but most do. Mozart did. Verdi did.

After a year or so spent scouting out possible librettists, it began to dawn on me that I could be dragging my feet unnecessarily. The opera I grew up with, “Amahl and the Night Visitors”, was the work of one man. Menotti was his own librettist. If he had any doubts, it didn’t show in his finished work. His lyrics are charming and poetic. His characters are raw and real.

What makes me think I can write a libretto? What makes me think I can’t?

I’m learning to ignore that impish voice in my head that questions my ability to write my opera’s libretto. I’ve studied librettos created by others since I was a toddler. Somehow, I have a feeling that the music will come with the writing of the libretto. The voices are singing in my head. I’m ready to get started.

Stay tuned.

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