Librettist David Harsent on writing for opera
Find out more about the creative process behind The Minotaur and In the Locked Room.
Whether they come from the muzzle of the Minotaur or the lips of an enchantress, the words in a David Harsent libretto are distinguished by their lyricism, intensity and narrative drive. Harsent is the author of ten collections of poetry, including the Forward-Prize-winning Legion; under various pseudonyms he also writes thrillers. It’s this combination of talents that has attracted such composers as Birtwistle to commission librettos which they know will complement their musical conceptions.
Harsent’s work can be heard on two occasions in the forthcoming Season. Before The Minotaur roars onto the stage in January 2013, Music Theatre Wales and Scottish Opera bring a one-act opera, In the Locked Room, with music by Huw Watkins, to the Linbury Studio Theatre. It’s the second libretto that Harsent has written for Watkins and MTW; the first was a chamber opera, Crime Fiction. Similarly, Birtwistle has set three of Harsent’s texts as music dramas – The Corridor, The Woman and the Hare and The Ring Dance of the Nazarene – and commissioned librettos for two major operas, both of which have been premiered at the Royal Opera House – Gawain in 1991 (and, revised, in 1994) and The Minotaur in 2008.
So, how different is it to write for a gruff, 77-year-old Lancastrian ‘genius’ as Harsent calls him, and a 36-year-old Welsh pianist whose modest body of work contains mainly orchestral and chamber pieces? Surprisingly similar, according to Harsent. “I went through exactly the same method with Huw as with Harry in that we agreed on a piece, talked about it to make sure we were approaching it from the same direction, and then I sat down and wrote it. Once I’d handed it over, then that business of their composition starting to tell on mine came about.”
He cites one particular circumstance in which both composers came back with the same request. “In The Minotaur, Harry said, ‘I can’t set a cry, ‘Aaaah’, because it’s a sound. There’s got to be something to hang the music on.’ Huw said exactly the same to me – ‘Can this be a word rather than a cry?’ I changed it.”
The long partnership between Harsent and Birtwistle is informed by a shared love of theatre. “Sometimes he’ll suggest a change that is wholly theatrical rather than musical,” says Harsent. “He asked me to write something extra for a moment in which Ariadne (Christine Rice) is alone on stage: ‘A little aria, about eight lines, make it dark’. So I wrote her the aria ‘The Cretan sun is black’. And it turned out to be one of the best moments in the piece, I thought.” Harsent’s language matches Birtwistle’s music in that it can be terse, visceral, even brutal. That’s balanced by passages of glowing lyricism, often involving images of nature: the sun, the moon and the seasons.
When he handed over the libretto of In the Locked Room he told Huw Watkins to call if there was anything he needed. “He phoned soon after and said ‘I’ve hit a small snag. It’s the first word.’ He wasn’t joking. But it was easily solved – my first word had been ‘Near’. It’s now ‘By… the scenic village of Canley Bay’”. In the Locked Room features a mysterious poet (Harsent uses lines from his own poems) and an unhappy woman whose banker husband is obsessed with making money. The libretto conjures up an atmosphere of unease and sadness; lost souls float through it. Harsent has no idea what the music will be like. “I haven’t heard a note yet. I do know Huw’s music because I did Crime Fiction with him (the title was a wry reference to my other life!) – I did like the way he used limited forces for that; it was very interesting.”
Harsent likes to go along to rehearsals of his operas in the early stages: “As with any play, there ought to be a conversation between the director and the writer. It’s a collaborative process, initially between me and the composer, but then it’s a broader collaboration. I hope to go to rehearsals for The Minotaur. It’s one of the pieces I’m proudest of. It’s much better integrated than Gawain as a theatre piece – Gawain was my first main-stage piece and I was green. I think I got it right in The Minotaur.”
How does he feel about the composer always getting top billing? “When other writers have complained to me I say, ‘just don’t work in opera if that worries you’”
There’s no changing the fact that, like Mozart’s Don Giovanni, posterity will remember it as Birtwistle’s The Minotaur. Happily, David Harsent’s reputation as a librettist, novelist and award-winning poet guarantees him a prominent place in the credits.
This feature was adapted from a piece originally featured in About the House magazine, received quarterly by the Friends of Covent Garden. In the Locked Room opens on 27 September. The Minotaur returns on 17 January 2013.