By Deborah Brevoort
It is often said that Mozart is the greatest composer to have ever lived. After writing a new libretto for his comic opera The Impresario I understand why.
I got the first inkling of his genius when I began work on the first aria sung by Madame Heartmelt. There was something in the music that made it extremely difficult to set. Putting words to music is usually very easy for me, so why was this so difficult?
Well, for starters, there is Mozart’s habit of taking a musical phrase and repeating it endlessly. However, Mozart doesn’t simply repeat a phrase, he varies it every time it repeats, and more importantly he varies it rhythmically. This is what makes his music such a delight to the ear. The listener is treated to a musical exploration that is familiar and comfortable (because it is repeated) and yet has endless variety, innovation, complexity and surprise.
This, however, poses a nightmare for a librettist. It means that the stressed words change on every line. It means that for some variations you will be forced to commit the cardinal sin of putting stresses on non-operative words like “the” or “a.” In short, it means that Mozart’s musical brilliance is going to make you look like a very bad librettist.
Unless, of course, you sharpen your pencil, summon your inner Shakespeare, and try to rise to Mozart’s level by finding the right combination of repeated words that don’t commit these sins and allow you to leave the ring—if not victorious—then at least with your dignity and reputation somewhat intact.
You can’t just throw any old words on music like this. “Good enough” isn’t good enough. There is only one word that will work, and you can’t stop until you find it. Every word has to have the right punch in the right place; every variation has to add a different weight or dimension to the words. And, of course, it all has to sing. Beautifully.
The second thing that makes Mozart a great composer is his specificity. He wasn’t just writing beautiful music with endless variety, innovation, complexity and surprise, he was creating a specific dramatic situation through the language of music.
I discovered this while working on the second aria, sung by Madamoiselle Warblewell. At first I thought she was simply singing about falling in love with a handsome young man. Indeed, that was the approach taken in other librettos for this opera. However, I realized pretty quickly that this concept was wrong.
Not too far into the aria, there are these three little notes. I don’t read music, so I can’t tell you what kinds of notes they are. But when I heard them, they stopped me cold. The giddy music of the opening—clearly the music of a young woman who has fallen head over heels in love—is suddenly undercut by three little notes that say… wait a minute. Hold on. Those three little notes are full of doubt—the kind that tugs deep in your gut when you are about to make a big decision.
What’s going on here? I listened some more and realized that Warblewell is now reasoning with herself. She is trying to quiet her doubts. Then she repeats the first verse. Lesser composers repeat their verses just because; Mozart repeats them for a reason. Warblewell sings that verse again to be doubly sure about something. There’s an action in the repetition: she is trying to extract a promise from her lover.
And then the music stops. There is silence. It’s a scary moment, this music-less pause. What’s going on there? Does the lover respond? What does Warblewell do? And then, suddenly, the orchestra comes in. Mozart takes us from a music-less moment to a word-less moment. It seems we are now inside her heart—in that place beyond words. The doubt is still there, but so is the bright shiny feeling of love, and then the music suddenly bursts into a march.
At that moment, I shouted out loud! And Mozart slipped down from the heavens and into the seat next to me and whispered in my ear “You got it! It’s a wedding! The aria is about the moment before someone takes the leap.”
That pause in the music is her gut check; the bright, doubt-colored music that follows is the deep breath she takes the moment before she leaps. And then she leaps. To marriage. To joy. To ecstasy—which is where the aria ends.
So, yeah, Mozart is specific. Very. Every single note is there for a reason. And if you listen close enough, he will tell you all kinds of secrets about the human heart.
Writing The Impresario was like taking a master class with Mozart. There is no better teacher. He sets the bar high. He pulled things out of me I didn’t know I had. He made me a better writer.
Thank you maestro.