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.

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