When Francesca Zambello commissioned me to create a new opera on a foundation of Rossini’s music for The Glimmerglass Festival, I was thrilled. I’ve been an opera devotee my whole life, and as a comic playwright myself, Rossini is a particular hero of mine. I was also excited to face what was bound to be a new challenge as a writer: bringing an opera to the stage had to be different from premiering a straight play. As predicted, it’s been a remarkable journey.
At this stage in my career, the development of a new play from concept to premiere is second nature to me. I’m used to writing the full play in isolation and then being in the driver’s seat as the design and production teams are assembled, the show is cast, and the entire effort is brought to the stage. I revise the play right up to opening night, which usually follows four continuous weeks of rehearsal, then a week of previews in front of a paying audience. In fact, it’s during the previews, as I hear how the comedy lands with the audience, that I’m most active in making revisions. I watch each preview, rewrite all night, rehearse the new material the next day, then listen to the new changes and start again. It’s exhilarating.
Working to bring Tenor Overboard to the stage at Glimmerglass has also been exhilarating, but the process is extremely different. The main differences are what I now think of as the four big Cs: casting, collaboration, control, and the calendar, and each overlaps with the others in complicated ways.
In casting Tenor Overboard, I’ve had to defer to those who understand operatic voices better than I do. I cast actors in plays based entirely on how suited they are to inhabiting their characters, but in opera, the ability to sing the roles is paramount. Of course, once upon a time, opera singers could succeed on their voices alone, but these days they have to be good actors as well.
I did affect the casting of Tenor Overboard in one major way: I wrote my main romantic couple as a mezzo and baritone (usually such couples are sopranos and tenors). That dictated the casting; it also limited the repertoire. Tenor Overboard uses Rossini’s music, but Rossini never wrote a lively comic love duet between a mezzo and a baritone. That meant that the A-Team – Francesca (producer/co-director), Joe Colaneri (conductor), and Kelley Rourke (dramaturg) – became vital collaborators in shaping the script. As a playwright,
I’m not used to having collaborators before my script is complete. But as a librettist, I had to develop the story as we built the score together, and I had to be adaptable based on the music they were able to suggest.
For example, we decided to re-purpose “Dunque io son” from The Barber of Seville as a romantic duet in scene one. In Barbieri, Figaro is singing to Rosina about another man, Count Almaviva, the man she loves. However, in Tenor Overboard my would-be lovers, Luca and Gianna, are singing directly to each other, so the duet didn’t quite fit the circumstances. But at the suggestion of my new collaborators, I added a sense of irony to the dialogue leading up to the duet, so now Rossini and Sterbini’s piece fits like a glove.
In writing an opera, I’ve also had to give up a lot of the control I’m used to having over my projects. This not only means collaborating much earlier, but letting go of my script much sooner. With a play, my script isn’t finalized until the critics are in their seats on opening night. But with the opera, I’ve had to finalize the script far in advance of production because it takes considerable preparation to source the parts, re-orchestrate, change keys where necessary, prepare the full score, and rehearse the music. That means freezing my script months before rehearsals begin. In the medium of theater, the playwright is king. In opera, the librettist is one cog in a highly complex machine.
Because my window for revising my work becomes smaller and smaller as time passes, I’ve had to adjust to a whole new production calendar. Unlike with plays, many opera companies like Glimmerglass present their seasons in repertory. Rehearsals therefore aren’t continuous. We have three days here and three days there, so I don’t have the time to really dive in and make structural changes to the story during the rehearsal process. But as much as that frightens me, I also know that opera companies have been rehearsing that way forever, and they know what they’re doing. It’s a music-based artform, not a word-based artform, so the rehearsal time is apportioned accordingly.
In the case of Tenor Overboard, there is a fifth C – Comedy – and it has kept me grounded. In the course of my career, I’ve written farces, adventures, thrillers, mysteries, musicals, romances, and now an opera, and what they have in common is that they’re all comedies. Indeed, I’ve spent my life steeped in the conventions of comic theater from Plautus to Shakespeare to Goldsmith to Coward, and Tenor Overboard draws on these conventions in abundance.
After all, what is the S.S. Lindoro but a kind of floating Forest of Arden where our heroes escape the city and, in so doing, learn more about life and about themselves? Who is Petronio but Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, trying to force his daughter Hermia to throw over Lysander and marry Demetrius, the man he prefers? Who are the cross-dressed Gianna and Mimi but Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in the greatest screwball comedy of all time, Some Like it Hot? These comic conventions have persisted through the millennia,
and they are the building blocks of every work I write, whether it’s a muscular comedy like Lend Me a Tenor, a musical like Crazy for You, or an adaptation like Baskerville. In this respect, writing a comic opera is no different than writing any other comedy.
Of course, opera buffa has its own set of conventions, and I had fun layering those into Tenor Overboard as well. The characters and the comic beats of the plot owe as much to The Barber of Seville, La Cenerentola, The Elixir of Love and Don Pasquale as they do to Shakespeare. When Gianna gives Luca a bracelet during their first meeting, it recalls a similar moment in La Cenerentola. Petronio’s drunkenness in Tenor Overboard strips away pretense and ultimately helps unite the lovers, not unlike Nemorino’s drunkenness in The Elixir of Love. Similarly, I hardly felt I was writing a comic opera if I didn’t include a crashing storm, and particularly one that doesn’t just set atmosphere, but feeds the plot. Without such a storm, Isabella would not be driven to the shores of Algeria in The Italian Girl in Algiers any more than Gianna and Luca would reunite in Tenor Overboard.
I knew when I accepted the commission to write Tenor Overboard that it would pose a new set of challenges. I wasn’t just dabbling in a new craft; I was jumping into the deep end by writing my first opera for one of the most innovative and celebrated opera companies in the country. I also knew that as different as the process might be, I was on firm ground with a lifetime of reading and writing comedies to guide me. In the end, I’m emerging with a renewed admiration for every artist involved in what is certainly the most beautifully complex
art form of them all.