librettoplural librettos or librettiItalian, literally, booklet, diminutive of libro book
Text of an opera or other kind of musical theater. The term is also used, less commonly, of a musical work not intended for the stage.
The earliest operas, beginning in 1597 with Ottavio Rinuccini's Dafne, set to music by Jacopo Peri, were court entertainments, and as a commemoration the words were printed in a small book, or "libretto." In the 1630s Venetian opera became a public spectacle, and audiences used printed librettos to follow the drama. The early French and Italian librettists regarded their works as poetic dramas, with the composer expected to pay faithful regard to the accents of the words. A tendency to more lyrical treatment of the text developed in Venice, however, and purely musical demands began to outweigh strict subservience to the poetry.
Perhaps the best example of successful partnership between librettist and composer is that of Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss, who collaborated on Elektra (1909), Der Rosenkavalier (1911), two versions of Ariadne auf Naxos (1912 and 1916; Ariadne on Naxos), Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919; The Woman Without a Shadow), Die agyptische Helena (1928; The Egyptian Helen), and Arabella (produced--after von Hofmannsthal's death--in 1933).
Among the rare successful uses of spoken-drama texts are Claude Debussy's setting of Maurice Maeterlinck's Pelleas et Melisande (1902) and Richard Strauss's setting of Oscar Wilde's Salome (1905). Other well-known librettists were Emanuel Schikaneder, who wrote the text for W.A. Mozart's Die Zauberflote (1791; The Magic Flute ); Arrigo Boito, who wrote his own operas and collaborated with other composers to write the text for theirs; and W.S. Gilbert, who wrote a series of light operas with the composer Arthur Sullivan. Composer Virgil Thomson collaborated with avant-garde writer Gertrude Stein in Four Saints in Three Acts (1928) and The Mother of Us All (1947).