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.
Ted Hughes once wrote a libretto for Gordon Crosse. The Story of Vasco, whose subject-matter involves crows, is an interesting opera by a composer who has now, regrettably, stopped composing. The poet John Birtwhistle supplied David Blake with the libretto for his unusual opera, The Plumber’s Gift. David Malouf has devised a Kipling libretto, Baa Baa Black Sheep, for Michael Berkeley. Blake Morrison is, with the composer Gavin Bryars, engaged on an operatic version of Jules Verne’s story, ‘Dr Ox’s Experiment’. Gavin Ewart has provided saucy verses for Robin Holloway’s opera buffa about sexuality, Boys and Girls Come out to Play, currently awaiting the offer of a production. The American poet Alice Goodman wrote two libretti for the American minimalist composer John Adams: Nixon in China, with a text mostly in rhyming couplets, and The Death of Klinghoffer. She has also finished fresh dialogue for a Glyndebourne production of The Magic Flute (all of this under the auspices of the American director Peter Sellars). Robert Lowell meant to write a libretto and duly boned up with intensive attendance at the New York Met, but never delivered. John Ashbery has not, so far as I know, produced a libretto – only the poem, ‘Syringa’, specially composed for a setting by Elliott Carter – but one can’t help thinking he’d love to have the chance. Samuel Beckett rather lightly undertook the penning of a libretto for pre-minimalist American composer Morton Feldman. It has been averred (by Michael Tippett, who always acts as his own librettist) that a good opera plot should be summarisable on the back of a postcard; but the actual text of Beckett’s Neither could be contained on one.
For most poets, the chance to extend their own creative territory via opera and the artistic duty to the composer seem to be reasonably compatible imperatives. Alice Goodman’s Nixon couplets happily meet a literary challenge, reading well on the page, yet feeding easily into the minimalist machine of the score to be crunched and musically digested. Though he served the lyric stage conscientiously, Hofmannsthal also found in his partnership with Richard Strauss release from an artistic impasse of the kind described in his Letter to Lord Chandos: instead of being constrained to devise drama that was like ‘a tone-poem lacking music’, he now had music itself at his disposal. Auden may have ordered himself to follow the syllabic protocols of writing for music, but his opera translations apart, there is far more to his libretti than simple adherence to the criteria of singability. In an essay from Moving into Aquarius written when The Rake’s Progess was new, Tippett wondered whether Auden’s libretto hadn’t seduced Stravinsky from his proper musical concerns ‘with a poetic tour de passe-passe’. Auden’s libretti for Henze, too, have a manifest ambition as literary structures that is more than a matter of the modest participation in the High Style which Auden officially permits. Elegy for Young Lovers is set in an Alpine hotel – and, incidentally, dedicated to the memory of Hofmannsthal. Its three acts are cast in respectively 11, 12 and 12 short sections whose laconic titles – ‘Who is to Tell Her?’, ‘Each in his Place’, ‘The Master’s Time’ – smack of the chapter-headings from Mann’s Magic Mountain. In The Bassarids, the libretto’s division of the continuously running opera (a single huge act) into four symphonic ‘movements’ is arguably as much an experimental literary hijacking of musical form as a way of honouring the composer’s needs. These verbal endeavours must be counted among Auden’s long poems – with the ‘charade’ of Paid on Both Sides, the ‘Christmas oratorio’ of For the Time Being and the ‘baroque eclogue’ of The Age of Anxiety – rather than among the ‘private letters’ received by Mr Stravinsky or Mr Henze.
Shining Brow is not a private letter to Mr Hagen. It would appear that Muldoon has given some thought to stageability and the question of what can and cannot be sung. His operatic approach is, however, at the opposite pole to that of, say, the poet Anne Ridler, who meticulously produces ‘singing’ (syllabically integral) versions of Monteverdi’s stage works, and leaves her own artistic preoccupations to one side. The clarification of literary means effected by Muldoon, apparently on behalf of opera, is more like a clarification of his own manner in writing long poems.
What Muldoon seems to concede to the requirements of a libretto, he stealthily takes straight back again for poetry’s sake. If, for instance, the arrangement of lines on a page appears at first to represent merely the disposition of the singing voices, as is usually the case with a libretto, closer inspection is likely to show up a verbal patterning rife with all too Muldoonian half-rhymes, half-tones and half-ironies. For the poet – especially this one – the form of a libretto is a form like any other, waiting to be nudged and toyed with. It hasn’t much to do with the music of music.
I don’t know whether Muldoon did in fact alter his libretto to suit the composer’s developing requirements, as David Harsent informs us he did for Birtwistle, having first laid out Gawain as a verse play of his own, or as Montagu Slater, poet-librettist of Peter Grimes, did for Britten. (The published libretto of Gawain is the musicalised one; Slater published his original text of Peter Grimes as a dramatic poem in its own right, like Muldoon’s.) But Shining Brow certainly doesn’t propose itself as the sort of opera – the only true sort for Michael Tippett – in which the music finally ‘eats up’ the words. Though the best libretti may do more man just stimulate tunes in the composer’s mind and trip off the singer’s tongue, it is true that we rarely remember Guillard’s words for Gluck, Da Ponte’s for Mozart, Boito’s for Verdi, Wagner’s for Wagner in their own poetical right. When, say, Slater’s lines from Peter Grimes stick in my mind, it is inevitably the tunes I am recalling – for instance, the peculiar choral catchiness of:
We live and let live, and look
We keep our hands to ourselves.
Insofar as the lines stand out, it is likely to be because they are infelicitous: the music has withstood rather than transformed them, eaten them up. Of course, a good composer can find ways to set practically anything. In his preface to the published libretto of The Rape of Lucretia, Britten reminds us that Darius Milhaud (in Machines Agricoles) even set a catalogue. For his own purposes, Britten sought poetry that was ‘simple, succinct and crystal clear’. All the more astonishing that he was able to give haunting musical expression to Ronald Duncan’s egregiously metaphorical verse:
The oatmeal slippers of sleep
Creep through the city and drag
The sable shadows of night
Over the limbs of light.
The music of a great composer has a strong stomach. But there are limits. They are touched early in Muldoon’s libretto, when Frank Lloyd Wright’s draughtsmen are asked to sing:
We know pretty much exactly what he has in mind
when he mentions his ‘pencil in his hand’.
It is hard enough for a single vocalist to hold a phrase in the forceps of quotation marks – and Wright’s mistress Mamah Cheney has just had to attempt as much with the same phrase, one of numerous verbal tags that circulate around the libretto. But for a chorus of 20 men the trick is surely impossible, without recourse to camp gestures. It would be a remarkable compositional skill that could add the necessary little pauses, the twist of irony to the choral texture. Cannily aware that his text might be engorged by the music, Muldoon has fitted it with anti-compositional devices, his own ‘write protect’ labels.
If anything consumes anything here, it will be words sucking the blood of music: the poet gaining inspiration for new forms from a vampirish encounter with the conventions of opera. So much for Milton’s ‘sphere-borne harmonious sisters’. Those verbal tags – which are mostly the historical Wright’s own words – might seem to facilitate the composer’s use of the leitmotif. But the situation is probably the reverse of musically obliging. Muldoon is adapting a Wagnerian idea for the sake of an innovation in his own verse.
For although Muldoon has attempted to simplify his poetic style, he has not gone nearly far enough for musical purposes. Shining Brow is to a large extent a drama of and about wordplay, neither requiring nor prompting music, and quite possibly stageable just as it is: a kind of taut verse equivalent of Stoppard. But as with John Ashbery’s ‘Syringa’, the new clarity of expression is marvellous for poetic purposes. ‘Syringa’ is one of Ashbery’s easiest poems to understand, yet one of his most characteristic and best. Similarly, Shining Brow, with its elegant craftsmanship for the theatre, is a model of directness and transparency in comparison with Muldoon’s previous long poems, particularly the most recent, Madoc – A Mystery; not only is it perhaps the most ambitious and assured, but it is also able to shed some backward light of understanding on the earlier, more problematic work.
Muldoon’s long poems form an impressively expanding series. Each of his collections ends with a longer piece and the progression in technical scope is plain to see: from the ‘Indian’ lyrics of the modestly extended ‘The Year of the Sloes, for Ishi’ at the end of New Weather to the compact sonnet sequence, ‘Armageddon, Armageddon’, concluding Mules; to ‘Immram’, that elaborately stanzaic reworking of a medieval Irish voyage tale winding up Why Brownlee Left. Quoof builds to a conclusion on the extraordinary series of ‘destructed’ sonnets, ‘The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants’, which records a debt to the Trickster cycle of the Winnebago Indians; and Meeting the British ends with the dazzling series of overlapping dramatic monologues, ‘7, Middagh Street’. In the Madoc volume, the ratio is inverted: the long eccentric title poem, subtitled ‘A Mystery’, occupies all but ten of the 261 pages, a fact which adds to the mystery: the reader must tease out the possible relationships of the seven prefatory poems (including one in prose) to the main text. The arrangement seems to show Muldoon at his most capricious – what could have been more logical than to make the poem a book in its own right?
Madoc suggests itself as the high point of Muldoon’s experimentalism. The title poem’s recondite philosophical posturing and its uncertain link to the imaginary narrative of Southey and Coleridge in America tend to confound the reader as much as stimulate him. Coming as it does between the different kinds of dramatic directness of ‘7, Middagh Street’ and Shining Brow, the mannerism of Madoc begins to look like a wrong turning for Muldoon – a Tristram Shandyish excursion (complete with graphics) of dubious success, whose hyperbolically exaggerated wordplay and ‘letterplay’ Muldoon simply had to get out of his system. For all its relish of paronomasia the libretto never leaves the reader (I don’t speak of the auditor) in substantial doubt as to what is going on.
Shining Brow is in direct continuity with ‘7, Middagh Street’, the monologists of the earlier work having, as it were, jumped into three-dimensional life on stage. Wright, his erstwhile mentor Louis Sullivan and Mamah Cheney are not much less bohemian than the crew of the Brooklyn household; and the spirit and influence of Middagh Street’s domineering character, Wystan Auden, are everywhere. This applies to the biography of the librettist as well as to the libretto. Having forsaken Belfast and a career as a BBC radio producer to live on the East Coast of America as poet-librettist, Muldoon has symbolically shifted allegiances to Auden from MacNeice – their speeches respectively open and close ‘7, Middagh Street’. Shining Brow reflects Muldoon’s physical transplantation to the States, and confirms the diverse American and Indian interests of his poetry: its concern is with America’s foundation. The subject is prefigured in ‘7, Middagh Street’ by Wystan, who is occupied in providing Britten (another of the poem’s monologists) with the libretto for Paul Bunyan, pursuing, as Muldoon has it,
the ghostly axe
of a huge, blond-haired lumberjack.
The mythical giant, Bunyan, helped the American pioneers to advance out of the savage wilderness into ‘the life of choice’ – a life whose dilemmas are then examined in The Age of Anxiety. Muldoon’s theme in Shining Brow is the cultural rather than the historical establishment of the country. The figure of Lloyd Wright looms Bunyan-like over the natural landscape. He is filled with visions of America’s true architectural transformation: one which keeps faith with Nature. With his Lieber Meister, Sullivan, he fantasised about how
together we would make our mark
on the clean slate of America.
He means to ‘build upon the built-up dark’, a reference perhaps to obscurely menacing traces of the country’s Indian past, the not so clean slate of America. And he does so. He builds Taliesin, his studio-home in south-western Wisconsin: a house ‘married’ to a hill, the realisation of a concept of architecture as integral to American landscape and life. ‘Taliesin’ – a word in Wright’s ancestral Welsh – means ‘radiant brow’; it is also the name of a legendary bard who, as a baby, was discovered washed up into a fish trap, and found to boast such a forehead. Already able to talk in rhyme (avatar of Muldoon), he immediately informed his rescuers of his starry poetic destiny.
Convinced like Taliesin of his artistic greatness and mission, the Wright depicted in Muldoon’s libretto (which keeps to the facts as detailed in Meryle Secrest’s new biography) is something of a monster. (In real life, incidentally, Wright had a conspicuous, though not a radiant, brow.) He betrays Sullivan. He deserts his wife and family to live with Mamah Cheney, wife of a Chicago client. His ‘immorality’ and flamboyance everywhere provoke the hostility of the average folk from whose laws he deems himself exempt. He is hounded by the press. If he partly recalls Paul Bunyan – and the merry versification of the choruses of draughtsmen, reporters and bawdy workmen draws close to Auden’s style in that operetta – he also evokes the protagonist of the Auden/Kallman tragedy Elegy for Young Lovers. Like the great poet Gregor Mittenhofer, who ‘morally’ (and more than morally) murders a young couple in order to find the ending of his new poem, Wright would have appealed to Art in resisting accusations of selfishness:
No, there you made a mistake.
I was angry for the sake
Of an unmade verse
Crying out to be made.
He had to pay a horrible price for his shining genius. Taliesin burned down three times. The opera dwells on the first conflagration, which was deliberately caused by a deranged servant who took the lives of Mamah, her two children and four other people. Wright’s strongest impulse, as always, was to rebuild. In a lonely oration at the end he declares that he ‘will make of their De Profundis /a Kyrie Eleison’:
That Mamah’s dead and gone
is itself a grand illusion;
she’ll be both key-and corner-stone
of a newly built Taliesin.
She is the house. She is the hill.
She is the house that hill might marry.
This soliloquy gropingly resumes the libretto’s themes and key phrases as though it were the conclusion of a giant sestina. And that in a sense is what the opera has been: a sestina accommodating within itself a whole host of prosodic and rhetorical forms. ‘Oh, Frank, you’ve such a way with words,’ Mamah enthuses; and so has Paul Muldoon.
One wonders what Daron Aric Hagen has made of all this verbal ability. If, in my ignorance of his style, I try to surmise how these words could effectively be set, I come up with the opposite extremes of, on the one hand, a Harrison Birtwistle approach – ritualistic, cognisant of the tight formal schemes, hard-hitting, lyrical yet earthy (like his opera Punch and Judy) – and, on the other, a frankly Arthur Sullivanish approach that would make the most of the verbal fun and outrageousness, which sometimes seems conceived as G – S parody:
Your mouth is full of puff pastry.
Am I destined for ever to do crewelwork
on Frank Lloyd Wright’s tapestries?
Her mouth is full of puff pastry.
Is he destined for ever to do crewelwork
on Frank Lloyd Wright’s tapestries?
Gilbertianly enough, the Louis Sullivan character appears to be roused from his drunken slumber primarily by the need to rhyme. In Act I Wright’s wife Catherine says to him:
We’ve scarcely spoken in a month.
Slumped in a dimly lit corner of the stage, Sullivan briefly comes to:
Another brandy and crème de menthe.
The only composer equal to the task would probably be one who could miraculously combine the two approaches and, like the poet, generally contrive to have it both ways. In Shining Brow, Muldoon has created a long poem displaying both an exemplary dramatic clarity and an endless aptitude for wordplay and humorous equivocation. His verse conveys a sense of headlong energy, yet his technique involves a perpetual circulation of phrases and redoubling of allusion. Just as Wright’s great achievement was to construct buildings that seem to fly free of their walls and yet stand firm, so Muldoon, under the dispensation of opera’s traditional arbitrariness and nonsensicality, has risked dissolving into pure verbal euphoria, while at the same time maintaining a cohesive and comprehensible structure.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.