Upstaging

Paul Driver

  • Shining Brow by Paul Muldoon
    Faber, 86 pp, £5.99, February 1993, ISBN 0 571 16789 6

Although W.H. Auden, who ranks with Hugo von Hofmannsthal among the master librettists of the age, thought that the meaning of libretto’s words were its least important component (at any rate, so far as the audience is concerned), and that a libretto is ‘really a private letter to the composer’, he also found that ‘as an art-form involving words, opera is the last refuge of the High Style.’ The syllables are the main thing, the singability. The poet-librettist’s verses ‘have their moment of glory’, the moment in which they suggest ‘a certain melody’ to the composer; ‘once that is over, they are as expendable as infantry to a Chinese general.’ Yet opera is ‘the only art to which a poet with a nostalgia for those times past, when poets could write in the grand manner all by themselves, can still contribute, provided he will take the pains to learn the métier and is lucky enough to find a composer he can believe in’.

Paul Muldoon, who ranks with Auden as a poet for whom the intricacies of verse and rhyme are endless and masterable, and who lives in America, as Auden did, has written a libretto for a composer of whom I confess I haven’heard. He is Daron Aric Hagen, and Shining Brow is an opera about the early life of Frank Lloyd Wright, commissioned by Madison Opera, Wisconsin, Wright’s home state. The work was premièred there in April, but not having heard it, I cannot speak for the opera’s music. That, though, would not appear to be much of a drawback. Muldoon’s text was issued in February as a Faber paperback original, uniform with the other volumes of his fast-growing oeuvre; and its blurb invites us to consider it ‘as a dramatic poem in its own right’. This it has every appearance of being.

Muldoon’s Faber colleagues have been notably inclined of late to the poetic drama, whether in the form of Classical ‘translation’ (Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy, Tom Paulin’s The Riot Act and Seize the Fire, Craig Raine’s ‘1953’), or, pre-empting Muldoon, the opera libretto all in verse that is Raine’s The Electrification of the Soviet Union – a Pasternak adaptation set to music by Nigel Osborne. There is a certain admirable posturing about all this, a hunger for the larger canvas, the High Style. The writing and presentation of a verse play is fraught with traditional dangers of the kind T.S. Eliot encountered and Auden described when he wrote that Eliot took ‘the only possible line. Except at a few unusual moments, he kept the style Drab.’ Raine, in his preface to The Electrification, showed that he was painfully aware of these difficulties: ‘Shelley’s The Cenci or Coleridge’s Osorio exists as warnings: throughout it is difficult not to hear Shakespeare like a ghostly prompter, speaking just before the characters.’ The writing of an operatic libretto, on the other hand, can afford the poet an assured opportunity to spread his wings, widen his range, pursue a lofty prize, and at the same time enjoy a furlough from the lonely desk.

Auden jumped at the chance to be useful in the musical theatre; sometimes, in unseemly fashion, he pushed. Britten would have none of him after a certain date, though their early collaboration on the American operetta Paul Bunyan yielded what now seems a masterpiece; and Auden (with Chester Kallman in tow) pressed his suit on whatever composers he could. Henze accepted it (Elegy for Young Lovers, The Bassarids); Tippett and Harrison Birtwistle resisted. The latter has worked fruitfully (the small-scale pieces Bow Down and Yan Tan Tethera) with Tony Harrison, another poet avid for theatrical and operatic activity; and his most recent full-length opera, Gawain, has an ambitious verse libretto by David Harsent.

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[*] The complete Auden libretti will be published by Faber in December (1000 pp., £60, 0571 16341 6).