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Words into music: Novelist Margaret Atwood and the art of the opera librettist.

W. H. Auden was a ruthless editor of his own poetry, who in later life suppressed many early poems he no longer found worthy. He took an even more pitiless attitude towards his texts for opera, though he expected others to do the pruning. The verses of a libretto, he wrote, "have their moment of glory, the moment when they suggest to [the composer] a certain melody. Once that is over, they are as expendable as infantry to a Chinese general: they must efface themselves and cease to care what happens to them."

Margaret Atwood prefers to think in terms of a "coat-hanger for the composer to make the rest of the thing hang on. If it's a bad coat-hanger, that will be unfortunate, but if it's a good coat-hanger, nobody will notice it" Atwood is trying to do something unnoticeable with Randolph Peters, whose first opera, The Golden Ass, used a libretto by another Canadian literary lion, Robertson Davies. Inanna's Journey, which Peters and Atwood are writing for the Canadian Opera Company, is well past the wishing stage, and will probably be the first original work to be produced in the COC's new opera house.

As Auden was well aware, opera is not a cozy place for a writer accustomed to the autonomy of poetry and prose fiction. A libretto must support other ends, for another art Small wonder that; for long stretches of opera history, writers of libretti were thought of with as much respect as the average B-movie-script hack. In his essay The Mortality of Opera, musicologist Alfred Einstein describes the low status, during opera's first century, of "that miserable menial, who was made to clean everybody's boots, the librettist--for poet' was too good a name for him." Even the machinist, who worked out the flight-paths of the gods, was better thought of--in fact, was often the star of the show.

The only librettist ever to get that kind of billing was Pietro Metastasio, the well-connected court poet whose 27 libretti were set more than 300 times during the 18th century. Except for Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito, written after 39 other composers had had a go at the text, Metastasio's verses and their small library of opera seria settings, are now sunk in what one writer aptly called an "irreversible coma."

Between the servitude of Einstein's menial and the self-immolating eminence of Metastasio, there wouldn't seem to be much incentive for a writer of real stature to get involved with opera. But they have anyway, especially in modern times. Auden and Jean Cocteau wrote for Stravinsky, Bertolt Brecht and Maxwell Anderson for Kurt Weill, Gertrude Stein for Virgil Thomson, E. M. Forster for Benjamin Britten, Lillian Hellman for Leonard Bernstein and Colette for Maurice Ravel. Hugo von Hofmannsthal is known in non-Germanic countries only as librettist for Richard Strauss, but he was also a celebrated poet and playwright, and jealously aware of the fact.

Part of the appeal, of course, is that there are things a writer can do on stage that won't work in a novel or poem. The supernatural is particularly scarce in modern letters, having pretty much retreated to pulp fantasy fiction. But Colette could put magical animals and singing furniture in L'Enfant et les Sortileges, Hofmannsthal could dream up the mystical kingdom of Keikobad for Die Frau ohne Schatten and Auden could put Baba the Turk into a state of suspended animation in The Rake's Progress simply by having Tom plop his wig on her head.

Atwood's project with Peters goes all of these one better, in that there's hardly any character who isn't a god or magical being. "In a naturalistic opera, the gods are hidden," Atwood says. "In this opera, they're right out in the open."

They kept themselves hidden at first, as Atwood dallied with other ideas for an opera with Peters. She wrote up an outline based on John Gardner's novel, Grendel (a telling of the Beowulf legend from the monster's point of view), and another drawn from a science-fiction tale by Ray Bradbury. But Grendel had already been optioned for the stage by Julie Taymor (director of The Lion King) and all of Bradbury's novels have been locked up by movie producers. Then Atwood turned away from obvious magic to the story of Pauline Johnson, which nobody else was bidding for, and wrote a libretto based on that But when Peters had read it, she could see that something wasn't right.

"He turned an odd shade of green," she says. "And I thought, 'He's afraid that if he says he doesn't like it, I'm going to have a hissy fit and stomp off.' ... I could tell it wasn't going to be dark enough for him, and that it was too contemplative. It would be good for one aria, but you couldn't make a whole opera out of it"

Fortunately, she had a book in her bag of some 5,000-year-old scraps of Sumerian sacred verse, which she had discovered in translation in Prague and which she thought might make a good opera Peters read it and agreed, and the two of them began work on a piece that puts the gods back where they were at the birth of opera on the stage, expressing their oh-so-human desires and disappointments.

"The precursor of opera was religious ritual," Atwood says, "and all of the things that are important about religious ritual, when you get them right, work in the same way in opera. You're communicating with the gods. How else can one put it? But you have to know which gods."

The opera's main deity is Inanna, the lusty Sumerian queen of heaven and earth, who gains most of her powers by getting the god of wisdom drunk After admiring her own "wondrous vulva," she beds down with the farmer Dumuzi, thus symbolically enacting the union of divine power and the staff of life. Later--and this is the central incident of the opera--she goes down to Hell to pay tribute to her dead brother-in-law. But her sister, the queen of the underworld, has Inanna stripped naked and killed, and exhibits the corpse, "a piece of rotting meat, hung on a hook on the wall."

The god of wisdom, hearing of this calamity, scrapes some dirt from under his fingernails and turns it into two helper-creatures, which Atwood describes as "sort of like androids and sort of like insects." They fly down to Hell, retrieve the corpse and bring it back to life. But the only way Inanna can leave the underworld is by having someone else take her place for half the year. She picks her husband, Dumuzi, mainly because he hasn't mourned her properly, and some feathered harpies drag the farmer-god down, kicking and screaming. In this way, the Sumerians accounted for the phenomenon of winter, when the crops vanish from the earth.

When you think about it, it's a profoundly Canadian subject, if only because our winters are so much longer and fiercer than those in Iraq, where Sumerian civilization flourished and died so long ago. Exhuming a tale from antiquity stimulated Atwood's scholarly side, and Peters' too ("Randolph was bombarding me with things about the Mesopotamian mathematical system," Atwood says). But the main attraction seems to be the earthy magic of these boldly dramatic characters, which comes with its own comedy.

Atwood's first opera, which she co-wrote as a home-economics project in high school, was a comedy about three synthetic textile characters who sit around drinking fabric softeners, and who save a woollen romantic lead from shrinking by having synthetic-blend children with him. Atwood hasn't lost her taste for the prankish flavor of that early opus. "When I was working on Grendel, I wanted to have tap-dancers in it," she says. "When Beowulf enters with his troops, I was going to have them tap-dancing."

As for the music, she, like Auden before her, is waiting to hear what her words have sparked in her collaborator's imagination. She hopes she hasn't given him too many. Her first reaction when she read an English version of the libretto for Foul Ruders' opera The Handmaid's Tale (based on her dystopian novel) was that it was "too long. But you can't tell. You don't know how close together the words and music are going to be." The premiere production, which she saw in Copenhagen in 2000, was "pretty shocking. It opened with images that appeared rather extreme at the time, but less so since September 11."

She's guarded in her comments about The Golden Ass, which the COC produced in 1999. "I'm not a music critic. I thought the sets were terrific, and the way they staged it. It was very enjoyable, a rollicking romp. The music was appropriate to what was happening on stage, and a lot of it was quite lyrical, and very embroidered and sparkly. What you want from music in opera is that it be the embodiment of what you're seeing. But The Golden Ass was a comedy. This is a very different piece. [Inanna] has the capacity for being huge. You could have as big a chorus as you want. The chorus of the COC is really quite wonderful, and I've written a lot of things for them."

She talks about the project in a fairly breezy manner, in part because she has much bigger fish on the line: a new novel, and the extensive touring and publicity that go with that. She has the least at stake in manna's Journey--less by far than Peters, who wants to prove his mettle in serious drama, and the COC, which will have to invest a considerable chunk of money to produce the piece on the scale of The Golden Ass. She knows that the piece will stand or fall with the quality of the music. And she's as skeptical about the sublime marriage of text and music as all those lowly menials who ground out libretti in the 17th century for operas we no longer remember.

"I don't consider this a marriage," she says in her characteristic drawl. "So far, it's just a flirtation." *

Robert Everett-Green is music critic for The Globe and Mail
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Author:Everett-Green, Robert
Publication:Opera Canada
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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