Spellbound and The Girl of the Golden West

Dave and I watched Hitchcock’s Spellbound Friday night. I’ve been a Hitchcock buff since my childhood and I’ve seen Spellbound many times before, but evidently not in some years, because I noticed some things in it I don’t remember noticing before. Including a really startling number of structural correspondences and similarities with Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden West.

Think about it: Independent, strong-willed Minnie Falconer/Dr. Constance Petersen has been wooed without success by a number of the men in her community (the mining camp/the hospital), including the local sheriff/her supervisor at the hospital, but has turned them all down — and then falls hard for the handsome newcomer Dick Johnson/Dr. Anthony Edwardes. Then she learns that the man she has fallen for is in fact an imposter and wanted for murder. But she knows in her heart that it can’t be true, and when a group of men, including the local sheriff, come to her room one evening to warn her and show her a photograph that proves the man is not who he says he is, she conceals what she knows from them, even though she could help them capture him if she wanted to. Instead, she works to save his life and make things right with the law, so they can marry and start a new life together.

Another parallel: In both cases, the couple’s first kiss is marked by a door opening (well, several doors opening in the case of Spellbound, and no snow), which in both cases is a metaphor for the heroine’s opening herself up to physical passion for the first time.

Did Hecht notice the parallels in the two stories and model some of his scenes on scenes in the Belasco play? I don’t know, but there seem to me to be just enough similarities to make that entirely plausible. And I doubt there’s any way Hecht didn’t know the Belasco play — it had been too huge a hit.

Die Fledermaus at Opera San Jose

I should probably mention what I’ve been working on. Opera San Jose is doing a production of Die Fledermaus in the near future, and they want to do all the singing in German but all the spoken dialogue in English. But the director, Marc Jacobs, dislikes all the English translations he’s been able to find. (And rightly so, in my humble opinion — I know of only two that manage to be better than godawful, and even those two, though they do capture the spirit of the original, are wordier and less sharp in the writing than they should be. And don’t get me started about the horrible, horrible version the Metropolitan Opera did in the 1940s or whenever it was.)

So Marc read my Bat out of Hell, an adaptation of Die Fledermaus set in Berkeley in 1998 at the end of the dot-com boom. He loved it, but of course he can’t use it because the company insists that the production must keep the story in late-19th-century Vienna and keep the singing in German. So Marc asked me if I’d write a new translation of the spoken dialogue.

Ordinarily I say no to this sort of thing — this stuff just doesn’t pay well enough for me to take time away from the projects that interest me more. But in this case I’ve had it in the back of my mind for some time that I might want to write a more or less traditional English-language version of Die Fledermaus. Alas, though Bat out of Hell has been produced more times than any of my other librettos, it has not been produced as many times as I’ve been told “We’d love to do it, but we’re committed to a traditional production.” And as I said, none of the existing English-language versions are first rate, so a really good one might well catch on and bring in some extra income for me.

So writing the dialogue is one step in that direction, and this production gives me a motivation to get that done.

Another thing that interested me about this production is that, though they’re keeping the story in Vienna, they’re updating it from 1870 to 1890. I gather that the reason has more to do with wanting to give the production a Belle Epoque look and feel than anything else, but Marc mentioned that he was also going to make Dr. Falke a psychoanalyst à la Sigmund Freud, and that caught my interest.

So I’m having some fun with the idea that Gabriel, Rosalinde, and Adele all have secret fantasies and desires that they’ve been repressing in various ways, and that come out at Orlofsky’s ball — sort of a tongue-in-cheek take on Freudian psychology.

I’ve finished my first draft of the whole thing, and I’ve done the final polish on the first act — with the one exception of the beginning of the third act. It’s become traditional to build up the part of Frosch — a small part in the original — into a star turn for a good non-singing comic. (This was first done by Max Reinhardt for his lavish, all-star 1929 production in Berlin, and it was so widely imitated that practically everybody now thinks it was written just that way in the original.) Marc has asked me to do the same thing here, as he’s got a good comic for the role.

The way this is usually done, though, is to give Frosch a big comic solo drunk scene. I dislike that approach, partly because drunk scenes seem facile and not all that funny to me, but more importantly because it steals the thunder from Frank’s drunk scene that immediately follows it. Two drunk scenes in a row is two too many for my taste, but Frank’s is important to the plot and embedded in the music, so it pretty much has to stay. So whatever Frosch is given to do right before it shouldn’t make it seem like a weak echo.

Hence, in Bat out of Hell I wrote an entirely different sort of comic turn for Frosch at the start of act three. I can’t use anything like that one in this production, though, because the things it satirizes are modern. So I’m trying something very different. But still, not a drunk scene. I’m hoping to finish it tonight. We’ll see how it comes out.

Welcome, Visitors!

If nothing else, writing a libretto for the ENO’s Mini Opera competition and posting it to my blog seems to be drawing some eyeballs. The libretto is now by far the most popular page on my site.

It remains to be seen whether it will have the staying power of my posts about Frida Kahlo’s parrots and Whistler’s The Gold Scab, which are a few years old and yet inexplicably continue to get a few visitors a week, week in and week out.

And Who Would Have Thought I’d Ever Have Anything in Common with the Metropolitan Opera

It looks like me and the Met are now on the same blacklist, and how cool is that?

I used to figure it was just my bad luck that Opera News would publish reviews of a number of other Berkeley Opera (now West Edge Opera) productions but always seemed to skip over mine. Over the years, though, I’ve heard from a few people that Opera News actually made a decision that no review of my work could be published in the magazine. Apparently this was decided about a decade ago, and they’ve stuck to it. I have no idea why — they review lots of Bay Area productions, and they review lots of productions of operas performed in the vernacular or in unorthodox ways. I even know that reviewers have at times asked to be assigned to write a review of one of my productions, and they’ve been refused every time.

What gives? I have no idea why this is, or who decided it, but it seems petty and unprofessional, doesn’t it? Still, I’ve taken a perverse pleasure in knowing that, no matter how unsuccessful I am, no matter how completely unknown I am outside the Bay Area (and not all that well known within it, really), I have somehow managed to acquire one enemy in a high place.

Now Opera News has declared that they will no longer publish reviews of Metropolitan Opera productions. I can only assume that the Met is quivering in its boots.

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.

Weekend Update

What a weekend! It’s Wednesday and I’m still tired.

Thursday, Dave and I went to the American Mavericks opening concert at Davies — works by Copland and Harrison and Ives, the last being the wonderful Brant orchestration of the Concord Sonata.

Friday night was the second performance of The Manga Flute. A very full house and a great performance. Dave and I watched it from the back row of the balcony, where the visuals are less effective but the sound is better. The supertitles are party obstructed from there, but I thought you hardly needed them — the sound of orchestra and singers is better blended up there and it was easy to make out the words. Of course, I can usually remember what people are singing on any given line, so I’m not necessarily the most accurate judge of that.

The performance was very polished — the whole show zipped along happily, acting was sharper, everybody’s characters seemed a notch or two more focused and intense than they were on opening, the music (both singing and orchestra) was confident and full of detail and nuance, and set changes and other cues were crisp. Lovely.

Saturday night, Dave and I headed to the Castro Theater to see a beautifully restored print of Children of Paradise. It’s a favorite of Dave’s. Me, I like parts of it enormously but other parts seem kind of silly to me, and the whole movie strikes me as being at least a half hour too long for the story it’s telling. But the story is rich and many-layered, and I’m never bored by it, even in the places where the story and characters feel a bit too dry and mechanical for my taste.

Sunday afternoon was the final performance of Manga Flute, and it was even better than Friday’s. Tempi were more energetic, transitions between scenes were tighter and smoother, the dialogue scenes were brisker and more focused, and the whole show felt like its energy level had been cranked up a notch or two.

Monday, the SF Chronicle‘s review came out — overall a rave, though with a few qualifications. The prize paragraph for my résumé is this:

Chief among the pleasures of the piece is the sleek virtuosity of Marley’s English libretto, which — like his many previous efforts for the company – turns the foreign-language original into a faithful, witty and effortlessly naturalistic translation. The rhymes all fall where they should and the sense of the text remains intact — and all without any impression of strain.

I’m a bit startled, though, that he calls the libretto “faithful”, says in the above quote that “the sense of the text remains intact”, and writes elsewhere that “the plot remains largely intact”. It seems to me that — after you get past the first musical number, at least — my plot is just about entirely different from Schikaneder’s and only gets more obviously so as it progresses, and that the few places where the English words are more or less faithful to the German original — the Queen of the Night’s second-act aria, for example, and some individual lines and couplets here and there in Papageno’s second-act solo scene (the one leading to the entrance of the Raccoons and then Papagena) — are very much the exceptions.

But I shall choose to interpret this as meaning that Mr. Kosman found that the story and the words fit the music so well that they create the illusion in the theater of being exactly right for the score, and thank him for the compliment.