Word problem

While convalescing from the glanders and mange induced by Peter Sellars’s so-called libretto for Girls of the Golden West, I’ve been picking away yet again at the mysterious symbiosis between an opera’s words and its music. 

John Adams insists Sellars’s words are his inspiration to write the music in the first place, so for him it’s a clear case of prima le parole. Yet Sellars’s parole are largely what killed the show for many of us.

Lisa Hirsch may be on to something in noting that Adams seems to rise to the occasion especially well when he’s setting really fine language that already has some history behind it—though to my ear neither of the Shakespeare settings in Girls comes near the quality of “Batter My Heart” or “The Wound Dresser,” much less “I Am the Wife of Mao Tse-Tung.”

Considering the reported acrimony of the breakup with Alice Goodman, could it be that what now appeals to Adams in Sellars’s bleeding chunks of cadged text is that their writers are dead and can’t talk back? Could it be the sheer, absolute passivity of these words that allows him to find them evocative at this point?

In fact I wonder if the collaboration with Sellars isn’t symptomatic of a certain loss of dramaturgical nerve in general. Both of the Goodman libretti impressively courted controversy by engaging with difficult people and difficult viewpoints – and they’ve taken their lumps for it.

None of the Sellars libretti do anything of the kind: who’s going to be against a slightly different but still reverent view of the Passion? Or in favor of racism, sexism, lynchings, beatings, mutilations, or the atom bomb?

Is it a bug or a feature that all of Adams’s operas except A Flowering Tree have original plots? It’s certainly something that Goodman managed in highly interesting ways, even if Sellars doesn’t. Adams may be handicapping himself by continuing to insist on new plots now that he’s bereft of Goodman’s talents.

Might he be better off with a well-shaped tale that already exists and gives him an emotional map to work from? (Perhaps even, most comfortably, from a long-dead source?) He’d be in excellent company: Beethoven, Berlioz, Verdi, Puccini, Berg…. And it might enable him to recover the dramatic tension that his music works so hard to create these days, and that the words undermine so thoroughly and so often.

It’s true enough that he might want to avoid the baggage that automatically goes with building on a known work. Our own Opera Teen wasn’t the only one to be bothered by the differences between Adès’s Exterminating Angel and its film source. There are even plenty who would still say Verdi’s Otello is inferior to Shakespeare—though on the other hand, Auden famously called The Merry Wives of Windsor a bad play that inspired an operatic masterpiece.

Just to go completely off on this tangent, it would be interesting to know whether anyone was irritated back in the day by the differences between Puccini’s Tosca and Sardou’s play, which after all was a major hit, even if it ultimately cost Bernhardt a leg.

What’s so frustrating is that on those sparse occasions when the Girls libretto calms down and gives him a chance to repeat a few strong words instead of lots of flabby ones, Adams’s expressive powers still seem intact. (The few passages in Spanish and Josefa’s aria especially stood out for me.)

The more I think about it, the more plausible a lack of nerve looks. It can’t be the whole story—composers have always gone to some lengths to hold on to compatible librettists. Whatever the case, what doesn’t look plausible is that the Adams-Sellars marriage is due for a divorce. So I guess those of us who admire the composer’s other work will have to keep sighing for what might have been.

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