Ohen I moved to Barcelona at the age of 20 in 1975, I expected to see lots of opera. The first ticket I bought was for Puccini’s La Bohème at the Liceu, with Montserrat Caballé as Mimi. When I found my seat, however, I discovered that I had no view of the stage. Getting up wouldn’t help, because there wasn’t even enough space to stand.
I became sad when the music started, knowing that the stage had to be bathed in beautiful light, that the costumes had to be magnificent and the set superbly crafted. But the real problem came in act four. As Mimi sang her goodbyes, I couldn’t take it anymore. I felt a rat’s determination to see Caballé only once. I realized that bending over from where I was wouldn’t work. So I waited for a climactic moment, Caballé’s voice in all its glory, and not only leaned down, but put both my hands on the shoulders of each of the two men in front of me – and propelled myself forward like a duck. It gave me a glimpse of the scene, just a glimpse, for a second.
The men whose shoulders had been used went mad. But by then, I had backed off. The problem was that my incline had been less smooth than I had expected. I had clearly ruined the experience of an excellent treble note for two audience members who had paid more money than me. When the opera ended, since they knew where I was, I didn’t wait for applause. I fled like a thief in the Barcelona night.
On Good Friday 1989, during my first visit to New York, I discovered to my delight that all the shops in the city were open. I went to a good restaurant for lunch. I even met a taxi driver who didn’t know what Good Friday was. When I tried to explain to her, the whole sorry story sounded completely wrong, so I decided not to try again.
Instead, I bought a $5 standing-only ticket to Wagner’s Die Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera, with Jessye Norman and Christa Ludwig in the cast. It started at 6 p.m. and was supposed to last until midnight. As the lights dimmed, I saw an empty seat halfway at the end of a row. It was one of the best seats in the house. I walked up to him like I owned him and sat down like a king for the evening.
That year, new ways of using the phone began to emerge. In New York, I had a friend who insisted that if I called his number, he would change the message on his answering machine remotely and, thus, could tell me the name of the bar where he and his friends were meeting. . After the opera I went to a phone booth and found he was right.
At midnight I sped downtown in a cab and met my friends at the Peter McManus pub on Seventh Avenue and we sat there drinking and talking and laughing until four o’clock in the morning. morning. When the garbage collectors came to quench their thirst, we mingled with them. I didn’t get home until 5:30. In Ireland, I would have spent the day contemplating the wounds of Christ – at that time even pubs closed in Dublin on Good Friday. Even today, every time I walk past Peter McManus, I think of Brünnhilde and her poor father, not to mention the Rhine girls. And every time I hear these young girls on record, I think of that epic night at Peter McManus.
Between the hardships I experienced at the Liceu and the luck of the Met, there was the Wexford Opera Festival, founded in 1951. It was there that I first saw live opera. I was 16 and it was the dress rehearsal for Bizet’s Pearl Fishers. Our boarding school was on the outskirts of the town of Wexford on the south east coast of Ireland, and those who wanted to go to the opera had to gather for a few afternoons to listen to a recording. I have a clear memory of the stereo record player set up and the light from the sea shining through the long windows.
At the opera itself, what was surprising was the precision of the chorus, the sharpness and closeness of the sound, and the rich yellow color the lighting gave to the stage when the curtain rose. The soprano was called Christiane Eda-Pierre. Now, as I write this, the word pattern comes back to me. In the opera discussions each afternoon, we were told to watch the grounds, but that didn’t seem very important. But as I sat in the Theater Royal, Wexford, I recognized the motif that preceded the first duet – though nothing had prepared me for those searing moments when the two voices merged and drifted apart, competed and merged. again. The lead duo seemed to soar above the town of Wexford itself and linger in the night air.
In the days that followed, I managed to get permission to go downtown. Wexford was full of English, there for the opera. At that time, I had never met an Englishman. They were amazing. I started listening to their conversations at White’s Coffee Shop. One man told another that he had had supper with Eda-Pierre a few nights before and they had been up pretty late and he really hoped it hadn’t affected his vocal chords. I’ve heard two chubby little Englishmen talk about the chorus in some of Schubert’s melodies: do you have to repeat it every time? One man kinda thought he should since he really thought those choruses were really pretty good.
For a few days after that, I said “really” and “kinda” until I got worried that people thought I was kinda weird myself. And then, more recently, the Italian composer Alberto Caruso asked me to write for him a libretto of The Master, my novel on Henry James. As I admired Caruso’s work and enjoyed his company, I accepted, even though I had never written a libretto before.
When The Master first came out, I was called to meet director Bernardo Bertolucci, who told me he wanted to make a movie of the book. He enjoyed the scene in Venice, he said, when James and a gondolier attempted to “bury” fellow writer Constance Fenimore Woolson’s clothes in the waters of the lagoon. In fact, he liked it so much, he added, that he just wanted to make a movie out of it. “The rest has no history!” he said disdainfully.
The novel followed the shape of James’s life. He didn’t have, as Bertolucci so kindly put it, a real story. For a libretto, I needed a plot. So, I followed what Bertolucci had said: the scene with the clothes in Venice was where the drama was. It was the climax. And so I could focus on the relationship between James and Woolson, a close friend of his who died after accidentally jumping or falling from a fourth story window in Venice in 1894.
He could be tenor and she mezzo. Rather than trying to tell a linear story, I would focus on the highlights between them, as he sought to dedicate his life to his work while suffering intense loneliness, as she lived an independent life. but also wanted some commitment from him. . Woolson was the closest James had ever had to a companion. So I was writing about doomed love, unrequited love, a misunderstanding between a man and a woman – subjects that opera has embraced over the centuries.
I worked for a few summers with Caruso to dramatize certain scenes. But it wasn’t until we started working with director Ron Daniels that a central drama emerged. With Daniels, we brought opera to the University of Colorado at Boulder to do a workshop with students. Colorado was, at the time, the only place in America that had legalized marijuana. It wasn’t safe to walk the streets as most of the pedestrians were pretty stoned. People kept offering to take me to the best drug store in town, like in Dublin they could offer to take you to the best pub. Having to explain that I was really rather busy writing an opera made me sound even more out of my tree than the general population of Boulder.
When Rosetta Cucchi, the new director of Wexford Festival Opera, decided to include The Master among this year’s productions, it was agreed that Caruso would conduct and that Conor Hanratty – who did a wonderful version of I Capuleti ei Montecchi from Bellini at Wexford last year – would lead, with Thomas Birch playing Henry James.
After that production of The Pearl Fishers 51 years ago, we had to go back to school. I remember thinking there was a big crowd out there, with bright lights and soaring emotions, with people crossing the sea to hear a singer. Fellows dined with Christiane Eda-Pierre or seriously discussed Schubert songs. I imagined that I would always have my nose against the glass of this world.
If someone had told me then that I would write the lyrics to be set to music by a man called Caruso, to be sung in Wexford by a man playing Henry James, I would have rather thought not. I really had no evidence to believe that something like this was going to happen.
The Master opens in Wexford on October 22 with subsequent performances on October 23, 27, 29, 30 and November 1, 3, 5. Wexford Opera Festival takes place from October 21 to November 6, with 80 cultural events over 17 days.