The Dream Sweeper

A few days ago, I noticed that there was less than a week left in the English National Opera’s “Mini Operas” competition, the first stage of which is a libretto writing competition.

When I first heard several months ago that the competition was coming, I thought it was a cool idea and I had wanted to write something for it. But then, when the rules were announced, I found them not only uninspiring but anti-inspiring, and I had drawn nothing but blanks.

First, the libretto had to be for an opera that was about five to seven minutes in length, which seems absurdly short to me. It seems unlikely to me that you can really accomplish the minimum that I think an opera should accomplish — tell anything resembling a real story, even a short one, and bring out through song the emotions that are stirred up by that story — in a mere seven minutes. If you manage to tell a very short story but don’t have time to use the music to enlarge on its emotional content, then why tell the story as an opera at all? It would be more effective as a short spoken play. Whereas, even if you use singing as the medium in which you show some kind of situation, if that situation is essentially static — if you’re not telling a story, however brief, in which somebody goes through some kind of experience and comes out the other end a different person in some way — then what you’ve got might be interesting and even good, but it’s a song, not an opera, and why not just call this a songwriting competition?

So I was having trouble imagining how I could create a libretto that I was at all satisfied with that could be adequately set to music and run no more than seven minutes. That was one thing. And the other is that the mini opera was supposed to be inspired by one of three short prose pieces, and none of them seemed to me to contain the seeds of an opera, either. Each of the three describes a static situation.

But last Wednesday evening, with just four days left in the competition, an idea came to me for a very short story that would involve a character from one of the prose pieces. Nothing else would be used from the piece but that character, and in fact the situation that I’d be placing that character in would be the very opposite of his situation in the prose piece. But the rules to the competition specifically say that you can be inspired by anything in the piece you choose and you can take it in any direction. So that should be cool.

And it was one of those rare moments when the Muse descends with full force: I started scribbling (in the back of my notebook for The Manga Flute, which still has a dozen or so blank pages left), and ten minutes later I had covered two pages with the outline for the whole thing, and I swear that thirty seconds before I started writing, I had no ideas at all. At least not consciously. Perhaps my unconscious had been thinking about it for weeks and chose that moment to spit the results up to me.

I looked over the outline. Four characters, which isn’t too many. Some opportunity for a composer to develop the emotional content. Not the same emotion running all the way through, either; there’s a variety of emotions along the way, which is good (though admittedly not as crucial for a seven-minute opera as it is for a full-length one). So all was looking promising.

The prose piece, which is by Neil Gaiman, describes the unfortunate consequences when its character (the Sweeper of Dreams) fails to appear, what happens when he refuses to do what is expected of him. This is intriguing but completely static, just a sketch or a vignette, really. My story, though, would be about his appearing and insisting on doing what he’s supposed to do over the objections of someone who doesn’t want him to do it. So, bingo, there’s my conflict, that’s where the force comes from to move the story forward and have the characters end up somewhere else from where they started.

And I was pleased to see that the story I’d outlined really did look like one that I could tell adequately in just ten minutes. It would be tight, but doable.

Yep, ten minutes. I hadn’t looked at the ENO website in over two months at this point, and I was misremembering the rules of the contest. I thought the maximum length was ten minutes, not seven.

The next morning, during my long commute by BART and Caltrain to work, I looked at the outline again. The words for a conversation in the middle of the story started coming to me, and I started writing. As I wrote, more ideas came up, and about an hour and 45 minutes later, I had a complete first draft.

I knew I needed to look at the website again and double-check that I was following all the requirements of the competition. But it was a busy day at work so I didn’t get around to it during the day. And then on the way home I decided what I really wanted to do first was type my handwritten draft into my laptop, where it would be easier to work on revisions. As I was doing that, I saw lots of places to make small improvements, so I got carried away and spent the whole commute on rewriting. Even after the revisions, though, the story still followed the original outline very closely, which is pretty cool. Outlines usually take all kinds of work to get right, but this one was still basically in the same form in which it first occurred to me.

So it wasn’t until after I’d gotten home Thursday evening, with my second draft completed, that I finally looked at the website and discovered that the damn thing had to come in at under seven minutes, not ten. Argh.

The rest of the process was to go through the libretto many times, singing it in my head to trite but passionate melodies of my own improvisation, seeing how long the various parts took to get through, and figuring out where I could cut things without losing anything really essential. Early Saturday evening, I submitted my entry.

The rules of the competition are that, instead of submitting your libretto directly, you post your entry to your blog and then submit the link to the webpage with your entry. So if you want to read it, it’s here. The piece by Mr. Gaiman that the libretto is inspired by (I don’t think I can really say “based on”) is titled “The Sweeper of Dreams”, and in a final burst of creative brilliance, I have titled my libretto The Dream Sweeper. It really ought to have its own distinct title, but under the gun I couldn’t think of anything more suitable than that.

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