Becoming an opera librettist was, for me, a natural extension of years spent working as a playwright in downtown New York theater and experimental music-theater. That fertile stomping ground provided an immersion into the dramaturgy of space and sound, the architectonics of tension, duration, and alternate modes of language and narrative. Writing for theater, I find inspiration everywhere I look: in literature and art; in objects and their histories; in philosophical questions and crises ranging from the local to the global; in myths, fairy tales, found photos, and on the street. But I have rarely, if ever, considered the work of a contemporary writer or filmmaker as viable terrain for playmaking—or remaking. As I first began to explore the possibility of writing for opera, I found its predilection for adaptation curious. 

There is, however, plenty of evidence that the art and craft of transmuting preexisting works into music drama is as old as the form itself. From “Wozzeck” to “Carmen,” from “The Marriage of Figaro” to “Otello” to “Ariodante” to “Turn of the Screw,” adaptation is embedded in opera’s DNA. In the U.S., we are in the midst of a veritable boom of new work, much of which follows dutifully in the footsteps of our European forebears. Paving the way for today’s proliferation of innovative chamber, or “black box,” operas (among them, many an adaptation) lies a bedrock of American works, created in the ‘90s and early aughts, that have demonstrated considerable staying power. Standing firmly on the shoulders of a compendium of iconic American stories, these include Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s “Moby Dick”; Heggie and Terrence McNally’s “Dead Man Walking,” based on Sister Helen Prejean’s book of the same name (European premiere, 2006); Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie’s “The Grapes of Wrath”; and Mark Adamo’s “Little Women,” which, at over 100 productions, may be the most-produced work by a living American composer. 

Whereas most of the aforementioned operas derive from literary classics, today’s adaptations draw from a wider range of materials. A recent wave of new works includes a proliferation of operas based on movies—Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek’s “Breaking the Waves,” which received its world premiere at Opera Philadelphia and subsequently had its European premiere at Scottish Opera; Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell’s Pulitzer Prize–winning “Silent Night,” commissioned by Minnesota Opera and based on the 2005 war drama “Joyeux Noël“; at the Met, Nico Muhly and Nicholas Wright’s “Marnie,” after Winston Graham’s book, on which the eponymous Hitchcock thriller was based, and Thomas Adès and Tom Cairns’ “The Exterminating Angel,” an adaptation of the Buñuel film—both of which were commissioned by consortiums that included European and American opera houses.

Opera adaptations of art films are not new to Europe. Olga Neuwirth’s “Lost Highway,” based on David Lynch’s neonoir, premiered in Graz in 2003. “Brokeback Mountain,” by Americans Charles Wuorinen and Annie Proulx, was commissioned by Gerard Mortier when he was heir apparent to New York City Opera and premiered at Madrid’s Teatro Real in 2014. Mikael Karlsson and Royce Vavrek are currently writing two operas based on films: Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander” and Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” for La Monnaie/De Munt and the Royal Swedish Opera, respectively.

In the U.S., memoir is also providing fodder for opera. “The Long Walk,” my first opera, with composer Jeremy Howard Beck (Opera Saratoga, 2015), is an adaptation of the memoir by returning Iraq veteran Brian Castner. Terrence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmon’s “Fire Shut Up In My Bones,” based on Charles Blow’s memoir, is making history this season as the egregiously belated first opera by a Black composer to appear at the Met.

Currently in the pipeline at that cavernous, storied house is a formidable roster of new commissions—adaptations, all—of a handful of prize-winning literary works or relatively recent plays, which longtime Met dramaturg Paul Cremo describes as inspired by “contemporary work, more racially diverse, female driven, that grapples with the issues of the day.” Novel adaptations include George Saunders’ Man Booker Prize–winning Lincoln in the Bardo (Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek), Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Hours (Kevin Puts and Greg Pierson), and Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Mason Bates and Gene Scheer). Plays that have been, or are in the process of being, whispered into operas include “Eurydice” by Sarah Ruhl (Matthew Aucoin), Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel” (Ricky Ian Gordon), and George Brandt’s “Grounded” (Jeanine Tesori)—the libretti for all adapted by the playwrights.

What does infusing these stories with music bring to works that are already monumental in their own right?

“Opera’s superpower is subtext,” says composer Missy Mazzoli, “and being able to say more than one thing at once.” An elegiac meditation on grief, spurred on by the death of a child, Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo is inhabited by “all these characters who do not want to admit that they’re dead because they have this unfinished business on earth and are just waiting to wake up and get better. There’s a lot going on in there. Even in that one sentence,” says Mazzoli. “There’s so much that I can illuminate through the music itself that you can’t illuminate in the text, that is only possible in the combination of layers, and in music and sound.”

Clearly, the well-being of new American opera cannot be measured solely by the statistics of grand operas commissioned by mammoth houses. The proliferation of chamber opera in the U.S.—initiated, in large part, by New York–based producer/impresario Beth Morrison and her company, Beth Morrison Projects (where Mazzoli got her start)—serves as a context in which more established composers can take bigger risks, broaching spikier subjects and/or more challenging forms (Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Ellen West,” adapted from Frank Bidart’s poem about a woman struggling with anorexia in the early 20th century, for example). Morrison’s “black box opera” is likewise a vibrant proving ground for up-and-coming composers and librettists to hone their craft, laying the foundation for exciting new voices to trickle up to the larger scale of grand opera. Auspicious early works include: David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s devastating “Dog Days,” after a short story by Judy Budnitz, which has received productions in New York, Los Angeles, Fort Worth, and Bielefeld, Germany; and Gregory Spears and Kathryn Walat’s “Paul’s Case,” a fragmented, crystalline adaptation of the classic Willa Cather story. This work in turn paved the way for Spears’ and Greg Pierson’s “Fellow Travelers” (Cincinnati Opera), after Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel about the “lavender scare” during the McCarthy era. 

Nevertheless, consider the Met as a kind of opera glass through which to take a closer look at the bigger picture—if only because, in the U.S., a production at the Met is a measure of having arrived, of having earned the opportunity to enter the repertory. These are works that will likely appear in large houses across the country as well as internationally, and may be revived well into the future. But why so many adaptations? The obvious answer, and one that has persisted through the ages: The economic enterprise of commissioning and producing a new work is tenuous, to say the least. In the U.S., where state funding is almost nonexistent, it’s not just the recognition factor of a well-known book or film that mitigates risk by drawing audiences. The success of a new opera, an almost impossible amalgamation of all the art forms, is never guaranteed. “Good opera is a fluke when it all comes together,” says Cremo. “A new work demands such an outlay of money, time, and resources. A precious slot in a season carries so much weight that you want to minimize risk as much as possible. You’re halfway there with a preexisting story—you have its theme, what it’s about, what it has to say. You can jump into the process further down the road.” A big benefit is that the gatekeepers, the administrators, and collaborators supporting the evolution of the piece can envision what it may become: “It’s not so unknown.” 

When Mazzoli received the “Breaking the Waves” commission, the composer, who is driven by “the desire to illuminate a theme from a preexisting story in a way that is deeper and different than the original,” was acutely aware that at the time she “was not a known quantity in opera… People weren’t going to come because of who I was or who Royce was. The audience needed a way in. There had to be something they could hold onto. The story. Lars von Trier. Something.

“I think very much about what brings people in,” Mazzoli continues. “We can pretend that it doesn’t matter, but it totally matters. And companies are thinking about it all the time.” She corroborates Cremo’s statement, from an artist’s point of view: “It may be obvious but it’s just really hard to write opera! There are so many things that can go wrong. You have so little rehearsal time, particularly in America. Maybe this is why you see more adaptations in America. We don’t have the time to dramatically workshop a story before you are in a room with singers. But to do something that you know works dramatically, and then let the variables be the pacing of the music, all the other millions of variables, that’s attractive.”

The Met makes a practice of programming work that encompasses a wide range of aesthetic points of view—from this season’s grandiose, warhorse rendition of “Turandot,” conceived of by the late Franco Zeffirelli, to William Kentridge’s visionary “Lulu” (both adaptations), to the great American outliers “Satyagraha” and “Nixon in China.” But at least in one respect, its recent commissions share a singular intent: to distill a more-than-likely sprawling original into a compelling dramatic narrative that honors its essence and provides the composer with a scaffold on which to build a work that sings. In the case of a play, this can amount to a minimally interventionist paring down of the original text by approximately 40 percent, then reshaping it into the language of opera: arias, duets, ensemble moments, and recitative. More often than not, however, the process involves substantial formal transformation, taking advantage of “what opera does well,” as Cremo says, “like simultaneity,” in addition to ruthless cutting, in order to activate the flow of thoughts that make up a novel—to transmogrify, for example, the “philosophical, watery, reflective, internal” prose of Lincoln In the Bardo into an opera that can “lift the weight of the big stage, the big orchestra, the big voices, with dramatic action that’s similarly inflated. A work that pushes towards a strong Act I curtain, leaving us with the question, ‘What will happen next?’ hanging over intermission.”

Another way of describing the process of translating prose into music might be  as synesthetic. “The book is so abstract yet also so visual,” says Mazzoli, of Lincoln in the Bardo. “Even though it’s not a visual medium, it brings to my mind all these lush, vibrant, incredible images, which then makes me think of music. The structure of the book”—which, in many ways, is actively pushing against the dramatic structure to which Cremo aspires—“feels like the structure of an opera.” Its imagery and themes galvanized the composer—“the grief over losing a child, the nature of freedom in America, our inability to accept death and our unwillingness to talk about it… I always say opera is a place for big ideas. So I was like, ‘I want to write an opera around these big themes.’”

Taking its place in a long line of Shakespeare adaptations that have originated in Europe, by composers from Verdi to Reimann to Adès, is Brett Dean and Matthew Jocelyn’s “Hamlet,” commissioned by Glyndebourne and making its U.S. premiere this season at the Met. “Shakespeare’s works are almost all adaptations of earlier texts—historical chronicles or preexisting Italian stories,” says dramaturg Cori Ellison, who worked with the composer and librettist to develop “Hamlet” during her four-year sojourn at Glyndebourne. The Bard’s artistry in adaptation is an excellent precedent: it shows how taking liberties with preexisting material can both get at its core and create something new. “Brett and Matthew started with the premise that you have to make real, bold choices,” says Ellison. “The libretto is constructed, verbatim, from Shakespeare’s text. But it’s not only streamlined, it’s freely rearranged. ‘To be or not to be’ is the first thing you hear. This becomes a verbal/musical motif that recurs in the mouths of different characters. It’s so imaginatively rejiggered. What Matthew did with that libretto is totally creative. The inspiration for a very, very good score.”

The art of adaptation can take many forms beyond pure distillation in order to embody the essence of a work. Depending on the parameters, or lack thereof, of an underlying rights agreement, or whether the property is in the public domain, adaptation can, like the Dean/Jocelyn “Hamlet,” explode the original to become a kind of prismatic, kaleidoscopic reordering or fragmenting of imagery, event, and character. Or it may riff on the source material, transporting it to another time and place, with a new set of cultural referents, using its original narrative structure as only the thinnest spine or thematic thread. Or, like Olga Neuwirth’s “Orlando,” it may use the existing work as a kind of launch pad from which to take off and explore terrain that the original doesn’t begin to encompass. But in the U.S., these more radical reconstructions tend to live in the realm of experimental venues, supported by smaller-scale commissioners. In Europe, adventurous work transpires in both the larger houses and experimental bastions such as Muziektheater Transparant in Antwerp or Rotterdam’s Operadagen festival.

No matter how much risk may be mitigated by a preexisting set of characters, story, and structure, or how faithfully the creators intend to honor the original author’s intentions, making art is not about the known, it’s about the venture into the unknown, and the discoveries made there. Making choices about what to include and what to leave out of an adaptation, and what to change as a result of those choices, gives rise to something new, with a voice of its own. Some years ago, James Robinson, artistic director of Opera Theatre of St. Louis, speaking to Opera News about Mazzoli’s collaborator, librettist Royce Vavrek, stressed that “there are artists who are writing new-old operas and those writing new-new operas.” For Robinson, Vavrek is clearly the latter. Fueled by his lifelong love of film, television, and popular culture, it was the librettist who initially brought “Breaking the Waves” to Mazzoli, recounts Peggy Monastra, Senior Promotion Advisor for G. Schirmer, Inc. and freelance arts consultant. At first, Vavrek had some convincing to do. But ultimately “the story just really moved the creators and they wanted to get inside of it in a different way,” says Monastra. “They wanted to make it their own. Royce is so driven by his personal response.”

According to Monastra, although the music publishers don’t influence what composers and librettists choose as subject matter, they do at times advise them on the idea’s potential for future interest, based on what the field may be looking for, as well as the most pragmatic combination of vocal and instrumental forces. Even a well-known title or a very hot topic can face challenges getting programmed again, if the forces are too large and only very specific venues can hold the opera. But Monastra acknowledges that if the artists’ vision is “long” enough, whether or not they choose to work with a well-known property can become irrelevant. If an artist is ahead of the curve, then the institutions may simply need to catch up.

Mazzoli composed “Breaking the Waves” for relatively small orchestral forces, a reasonably sized vocal ensemble and a small chorus, which helped to ensure the future of the opera and its reach. “Our goal was to bring in people who wouldn’t normally go to the opera,” she says. “Adapting a popular filmmaker’s work was a way to do that. But I would not have done that if I didn’t have something to say about the deep psychology of those characters—something I felt that opera in particular could do that film did not. The film already exists. The source material is super successful. That’s why you want to work with it. But the idea is not just to meet that level of quality or even surpass it, the goal is explicitly not to recreate the film, to do something totally different.”

For the danger with adaptation—at least within the American idiom, especially when it comes to operas commissioned and developed by the more risk-averse houses—can be that the work assumes the cloak of the “new-old,” as a result of an effort to attempt to hew too closely to the original. More than one epic American novel with vast impact and reach has been converted, despite its adaptors’ best intentions, into an unwieldy behemoth of an opera—either too dependent on musical theater tropes and conventional dramatic narrative in an attempt, perhaps, to offer up a crowd pleaser; or rendered dramatically inert for a multitude of reasons. A creakily faithful rendition of key narrative moments does not an opera make. Remaining not just true to a story and its thematic intricacies, but getting ever deeper inside the work, while at the same time remaining true to one’s compositional voice is challenging, to say the least. How does one capture the essence of the source via radical transformation?

Nevertheless, if the artist’s passion for the source material is there, along with the requisite confidence in their own voice and vision, adaptation has as much potential to earn the moniker “new-new” as anything. Mazzolli and Vavrek have these qualities. As Ellison says, it’s all about interpretation. “There’s always a point of view that the storyteller brings to the work. Partly having to do with their milieu, their era, their locale. Partly having to do with their own artistic personality, the statements they want to make… Take ‘Falstaff,’ a particularly loose adaptation of ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor,’ one of Shakespeare’s weakest plays,” Ellison continues.Verdi and Boito nipped and tucked, interpolating material from Shakespeare’s sonnets and Boccaccio, to make a much greater work than its source material, adding tremendous dimension and reaching insightful depths on the human condition that Shakespeare’s ‘Merry Wives’ doesn’t remotely touch.”

One could argue, as Ellison does, that there is no such thing as an original story: “We have all these mythological tropes that are hard-wired into us. Take ‘Così fan tutte’supposedly an ‘original’ work, yet the mistaken identities and disguises, etc., are all tropes you find over and over again in literature, in mythology.”

Books. Films. News headlines. Real people, living or dead… These days, I keep a running list: Opera ideas ready to dream into with composer collaborators or to pitch to artistic directors. The stuff of adaptation. Which, it turns out, is as old as the hills.

We retell stories. We recycle experience. We osmose, ruminate and regurgitate. We transform the stories that came before us—whether they happen to be wildly recognizable stories of our time, or ancient texts secreted away within some obscure tome—into something that comes from us. And as we do so, we transform our world. ¶

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Stephanie Fleischmann is a playwright and librettist and has collaborated with numerous composers. She received her MFA from Brooklyn College, and has taught at Sewanee, Bard, and Skidmore Colleges.