Putting the Cart Before the Horse?

Putting the Cart Before the Horse?

After a few exciting but anxious weeks of discussion, I’ve just signed on to a project that will occupy the better part of my creative energies for at least two years: an opera. It’s not something I ever gave myself much of a chance to hope for because it always seemed unattainable, and now that everything is finally coming together it seems sudden, despite the months and years of preliminary work already invested.

This leads me to an unprecedented and awkward scenario: since I’m just now reading through the novel (published in 2008) that will form the basis for the libretto, I’m acutely conscious of my own imminent musical setting and am having a hard time enjoying the book as a sovereign entity in its own right. Every time I have set text up to this point I have known the text earlier, before I ever considered setting it to music; that is, I have always chosen a text to set precisely because it had first spoken to me as a fine example of another art form. In this case, the imminent composerly project has become the 800-pound gorilla of sorts, overshadowing my relationship with the text as a work of literature and prompting all kinds of musical/dramatic analysis that I’d prefer to keep separate for now. It kind of reminds me of the experience of “summer reading” assignments, where one might have enjoyed the same book a great deal more were one not hunkered over, highlighter-in-hand, pillaging the work for the kind of fodder that might make a good five-paragraph essay.

I am concerned mainly because I don’t want to get trapped in understanding the work exclusively as it relates to my opera, no more than I’d elect to take a highlighter to Crime and Punishment for an English class essay before I’d had the chance to savor the novel as a good read. I want to luxuriate over the text, and let what is unique and essential in it come forth. I want to appreciate how it functions as a novel, so I don’t lose all those wonderful novelistic details that would never translate in my operatic setting but are absolutely essential in shaping my own mental picture of the story. This is just the first of many challenges as I embark on my operatic journey, but I’m hoping that the experience will calibrate my artistic compass for the better; if I can manage to keep my passion and dedication to the story first and foremost, I may have a fighting chance of coming out of the ordeal with a halfway-decent opera to boot.

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