The first poem I wrote was a libretto, a byzantine elaboration of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” My roommate asked me if I’d try writing the text for an opera he was hoping to write, so I tried. I tried writing the only way I knew how—which meant meter, rhyme, form, and capitalizing the first letter of every line. It took about a year to finish the libretto and, reading it now, it seems like a record of an idiosyncratic education in which arias turn into sonnets, duets are sung is terza rima, and Longfellow makes more than one appearance. These were the best methods I knew of making a poem sound like music.
Ironically, that opera is being held in pre-production limbo just across campus from the HFR office at the Lyric Opera Theatre.
“Libretto” was drafted over the course of ten days in the San Juan Islands and was the only piece of writing I worked on while there. It was an exercise in focus, in leaving out all distractions to see what would happen. I only read one book: Peter Porter’s collection of the poems Benjamin Britten had set to music. I also went the ten days without my headphones, a typically integral part of my process. One afternoon, I was sitting outside, reading some Auden sonnets that Britten had set, and suddenly someone was in the building behind me, plinking out a few notes on a piano. It wasn’t quite a song, but the sound immediately announced itself as music. That was the moment I knew what this poem was going to be.
Britten and Auden, though frequent collaborators, only wrote one full opera together: Paul Bunyan—one of the worst English operas ever made. Suffice to say that, under pressure from the producers to include more female voices in a story about lumberjacks, Britten and Auden added the roles of a singing dog and two cats: Fido, Moppet, and Poppet.
“Libretto” reconceptualizes that collaboration, imagines the process of composition, cut through with the dangers of erotic tension and creative differences, and ultimately ends on a stale and, perhaps, underwhelming image. The goal, however, was to do more than retell Britten and Auden’s collaboration, but to become something like that piano cutting through the silence, to make language that announces itself as a potentiality for music. Auden wrote that “the job of the librettist is to furnish the composer with plot, characters, and words; of these, words are the least important.”
I say the first poem I wrote was a libretto because I’ve stopped seeing a difference between the two. We speak of the “musicality” of language, but music is not and cannot be language, nor can language be music. What language can be, however, and what I think we mean when we call it musical, is an imaginative pivot point from meaning-making into music-making. “Libretto” is a furnishing, a jumping-off place, a constellation of sounds and rhythms that can, if you would like, set off music. Dana Gioia in his essay “Sotto Voce: The Libretto as Literary Form” points out that the libretto is not written for the audience, but for the singer and the composer. It is an inspiration for the music. The title of this poem is “Libretto” not because it is meant to be sung, but because it is meant to set off music in the reader, to make the reader a composer.
Patrick Milian's poem, "Libretto," appeared in Issue 55 of Hayden's Ferry Review.