The Tales of Hoffmann

Berkeley Opera will be reviving my adaptation of Offenbach and Barbier’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann in February of next year. We’ve got a terrific cast. We originally did this nine years ago, so of course as I look fresh at the libretto after being away from it for nine years, I now see a number of places where a line of spoken dialogue could be tightened or made sharper or less clichéd, or where a word in the lyrics could be changed to something else to sing better on the note, that sort of thing.

I promised everyone that I’d be done with my revisions by the end of September, and I just barely made it. But it also meant that I got further backed up on my email again. In January Dave and I moved to a new place, and the move took much more time and effort than I’d expected, so that by March I was something like 800 messages behind, and that’s after trashing or archiving the ones that don’t require any further action. That was 800 messages that still needed action.

In July I got my inbox down to zero, though that just means having processed the messages into to-do lists, not necessarily having done whatever actions they call for. The truly urgent stuff got done, but I still have 30 or 40 letters to respond to, a big ol’ pile of stuff to read, and so on.

And now in September, while spending most of my free time on revisions to Hoffmann, I let the inbox back up again. But in the last few days I got it down to about 150 messages again.

My task for October is to make a copy of the score we used nine years ago, the one I whited out all the French words and wrote all my new words into, and make the revisions to that. Hopefully it won’t take me as many hours as the revisions themselves did — it ought to be cut-and-dried work, unlike the open-ended process of writing lyrics, on which you can pretty much spend as much time as you have available. There are always compromises I’ve made that I can keep revisiting and changing my mind about forever — which is best, the version of this line that is a little clichéd but it’s clear and sings well, or the version that says exactly what I’d like to say but puts a closed vowel on a high note, or the version that contains a really clever play on words but has the awkward consonant cluster on the rapid notes? Actually, the problem isn’t knowing which is best — better smooth than clever, always — but it’s amazing how much time I can spend trying to revise one of the flawed versions trying to get it to be both smooth and clever. Sometimes I find it, and sometimes I just go back to the first version, the one that just sings well and clearly on the notes.

Last Sunday Berkeley Opera gave an intimate little concert at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland (astonishingly beautiful place, by the way, and designed by Julia Morgan — Dave and I want to go back for a tour), including members of the cast of the upcoming production singing excerpts from my Hoffmann adaptation. The singers were excellent. I was especially grateful that Paul Murray took the trouble to learn my new lyrics for Lindorf’s opening aria, as I’d revised about a quarter of it just a month ago. The new words sounded very good for him, which was a relief. I never really know for sure how well my lyrics are going to work till I can hear them sung by someone else, and preferably the one who is going to be performing them on stage. Nine years ago, I followed the original libretto and wrote Lindorf as being in his fifties, and the lyrics referred to his creaking joints and unattractive figure. But Paul is young and handsome — I’m not sure how young but he looks early thirties to me — and I couldn’t see how we were going to make him up in a small theater to look that old without also looking ridiculous. So for this production Lindorf can be a young financier in his early thirties, and I removed the references to his advanced age from the lyrics. And Paul sang the words very effectively — he’s a good actor as well as singer.

Old version:

I may not be young and inspiring.
My figure may not be attractive.
My mind, though, is still very active —
      Very active!
My joints may creak, and yet my brain
Is nimble at acquiring
Whatever I may wish to gain,
Whatever I’m desiring:
A horse a train, a rare champagne,
A woman I’m admiring …

New version:

The ladies don’t find me inspiring.
My soul is not brooding or tragic.
And yet I do have my own magic —
      My own magic!
My banks and bonds, though dull and plain,
Work wonders in acquiring
Whatever I may wish to gain, etc.

The rest of the numbers were excellent, too. Angela Cadelago, who will play Stella and her three incarnations in Hoffmann’s tales, was terrific with the coloratura in Olympia’s song. She and Sara Couden, who will play Luther’s wife and Antonia’s mother, sang the barcarole that opens the tale of Giulietta, and all three sang the final trio from the tale of Antonia. I haven’t done any significant revising of those lyrics, so I could relax and stop worrying and just enjoy the singing.

I’m taking a break from Hoffmann this weekend, and then I start working on updating the score.

Spring Awakening

Dave and I saw Spring Awakening at the Curran on Thursday. Dave liked it a lot; I liked it more than I was expecting to. The musical seems fairly true to the feverish spirit of the Wedekind play, which may or may not have been such a good thing, and the rock songs are fun and a surprisingly good match for the story of nineteenth-century teens angsting about sex all over the place.

But though the songs were pleasant and the choreography was interesting and the story was clearly told, I never felt any strong emotional connection with any of the characters, who seemed thin and conventional to me. The deck is heavily stacked in favor of the teens, who are all poignantly lost in various ways, and against the adults, none of whom cares much about any of the kids and most of whom do little other than find new and increasing cruel ways of mistreating them. (The one adult who ever makes an attempt to be understanding, and who is somewhat less obviously a cartoon character than the others, nevertheless won’t stand up for her son when it counts, so it doesn’t matter.) The cartoony, one-dimensional way all the parents and teachers are written reminded me at times of things like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Bleah.

I haven’t read the Wedekind play in probably thirty years, so I’ll have to reread it and see, but my memory is that the characters are just as shallowly drawn and the story just as one-sided there. But that’s just an observation, not a justification; I’m not a believer in being faithful to the weaknesses of a play as well as its strengths when you’re adapting it. And the Wedekind play is not a classic because of its theatrical skill, but because it was very, very shocking a century ago. It isn’t very shocking now. It’s not that America isn’t every bit as fucked up and in denial about sex as Germany was a century ago; but we aren’t fucked up and in denial in quite the same ways.

However, the audience was full of young people who were applauding vigorously all the way through and cheering at the end, so clearly the show strikes a chord with its audience, and equally clearly I’m at least a quarter of a century too old to be part of that audience.

I have several rules of thumb I’ve developed over the years about choosing stories to adapt as musicals, and one of them is: Don’t adapt anything you were assigned to read in school. It tends to lead you as a writer into to the wrong relationship with your story. It’s hard to argue with Spring Awakening‘s success, but the story and characters never came alive for me, and I wish they’d chosen a different play to give this treatment to, something that they might have felt freer to rewrite as they wanted to in order to tell a richer and more alive story. Or maybe scrap the nineteenth-century German setting and move it to modern-day America, and use it to write about the lies about sex that our society is telling itself. It’s a little too easy to give ourselves credit for recognizing the lies of a century ago.

The book itself to Spring Awakening is clear and well constructed. One thing it was hard to miss about the musical, though, is that the songs are rarely used in a dramatic way to advance the action. They’re all static expressions of the characters’ attitudes and emotions, and the characters and situations and relationships never change between the beginning of a song and its end. It’s what I think of as opera seria construction: You have a spoken scene in which, say, X tries to persuade Y about something; Y is either persuaded or not, still in spoken dialogue; and only once the action of this scene has concluded do X and Y sing a static duet that is in some way about the new situation. This seems like bland theater writing to me; better if the song in that scene consists of, say, X making his argument, or Y giving her answer, or a duet in which both happen.

On the other hand, though, with the songs in Spring Awakening being performed in the modern overamplified style, I couldn’t make out very many of the lyrics, so maybe it was just as well.

Those Wacky, Inscrutable Chinese and Their Crazy Language!

From today’s Contra Costa Times:

The Chinese language does not have a word for “puzzle”. The characters for “enhancing”, “intelligence”, and “games” must be fitted together in a specific order to create a close translation.

Um, that means the Chinese language has a word for “puzzle”, and it’s made up of three characters. That’s how Chinese works. It would make equally good sense to say

The English language has no word for “tablespoon”; instead, the words “table” and “spoon” must be fitted together in a specific order to create a close translation.

Come on.