Opera Librettos and Song: Telling a Story Through Music

By Natalie Creamer

Over Labor Day Weekend, the 2012 AJC Decatur Book Festival drew in big crowds interested in purchasing books, eating good food, listening to readings, and attending conversations led by authors from around the country. The Atlanta Opera had an opportunity to participate in one of these conversations. Vynnie Meli, an award winning playwright, and a librettist in our 24-Hour Opera Project for the past two seasons, joined a panel discussion investigating “The Poetics of Song Lyrics.” Led by Charlotte Pence, editor of The Poetics of American Song Lyrics, along with Wyn Cooper, a distinguished poet and lyricist whose work with musician Sheryl Crow won a Grammy®, and David Kirby, author of Talking About Movies With Jesus and Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University, the dialogue examined the different aspects of poetry and song lyric structure and production. Opera resembles the construction of song lyrics because it is a collaborative process, that tells a story, and is paced by the melody of the instrumental backdrop.

Vynnie Meli gained a firsthand look at the collaborative and narrative aspects of opera writing when she became involved with The Atlanta Opera in the 24-Hour Opera Project. The project randomly paired together lyricists, composers, stage directors and operas singers from all over the U.S. to compete against rival teams with the mission of writing, rehearsing, staging and performing an opera within a 24-hour time span. Meli participated as a librettist, and worked with composers by putting these words in a simplified narrative that could be understood by the audience. She explained that the purpose of the lyrics is to serve the story, and the purpose of the music is to move the story along. Song lyrics read without music do not have the same arousing effect as they would with the complete production. They are purely words intended to complement the instrumental backdrop.

Meli, along with fellow panel contributors, agreed that structuring a text to fit a song is a challenging task, and one quite different than poetry composition. Presenting a clear message, a catchy chorus and the occasional rhyme are all characteristics of a popular song that contrast with the prose of expressive poetry. Opera and song lyrics are designed to bring people together and drive a story. Poetry is expressive writing that does not rely on widespread acceptance. For the highly stylized formats of opera and song lyrics to succeed, they must read as narratives, with simple repetition and a signature “hook.” Poetry, on the other hand, is written autonomously, and therefore follows no rules or structure guidelines. Poetry does not require the approval nor does it thrive on the praise of the public.

You can see firsthand the process of how a librettist and composer make the words come to life, when The Atlanta Opera hosts its third annual 24-Hour Opera Project, January 25 and 26, 2013. Tune in to atlantaopera.org for more info.

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