When Literature Becomes Opera: Study of a Transformational Process

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Perhaps no other art form in the Western world has polarized opinion to the same extent as opera. While its devotees can be almost fanatical in their enthusiasm, its detractors will dismiss lyric theatre as an impossible hybrid. Literature and music undermine one another when brought together, they maintain. Their contempt for the genre is more often than not motivated by the supposedly mediocre quality of the librettos or scripts to which the works are set as well as the implausibility of characters singing instead of speaking their emotions. But what if these much maligned scripts provided composers with the raw material necessary to convert stereotypes into exemplary figures and place them in powerfully dramatic situations? What if the unreality of opera opened up gripping vistas onto the reality of human emotions? When Literature Becomes Opera strives to answer these questions by analyzing the artistic process through which literary texts are simplified then transformed into lyric dramas. Using as examples eight outstanding operas inspired by works of French writers (Rigoletto, La traviata, Carmen, Thaïs, La Bohème, Tosca, Pelléas et Mélisande and Dialogues des Carmélites), this study demonstrates that a libretto, like a film script, enters into a partnership with the art it serves: music. When the quality of the partnership is high, all of opera's liabilities that purists take pleasure in deriding become stunning assets.

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Page 7 - Johnson (1709—84) has been regularly quoted as stating that opera is 'an exotic and irrational entertainment' but the complete quotation from his Lives of the English Poets reads quite differently: 'an exotic and irrational entertainment which has always been combated, and always has prevailed'.

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