The economy of empty space
Hans-Ulrich Treichel tells how to write an opera
Mr. Treichel, in your novel "Tristanakkord" (Tristan Chord), you describe how a young novelist learns from a great composer that art has a lot to do with discipline and hard work. Have you likened your own career as a librettist with Hans Werner Henze, the most famous German composer of his generation?
Now "Tristan Chord" is not a documentary novel, but fiction in the first place. Nevertheless, working with Henze was a fascinating experience for me. During my stays in his Italian villa for work, I often had the opportunity to experience his way of working, which reminded me of Thomas Mann in the synthesis of genius and almost scrupulously meticulous discipline. And in fact, I learned to write libretti as if I was attending the librettist school at his place, so to speak.
And what did the lessons in this school look like?
We had met at the English premiere of his opera WE COME TO THE RIVER, which was then also shown at the Deutsche Oper Berlin under the title WIR ERREICHEN DEN FLUSS. Back then I was still studying German Language and Literature and Henze invited me to collaborate on various smaller projects and music theatre productions, for example for his Cantiere d'arte in the Tuscan Montepulciano or the Cologne University of Music (Kölner Musikhochschule), where he taught at the time. And at some point, he asked me if I wanted to write the lyrics for his new opera DAS VERRATENE MEER (THE BETRAYED SEA), based on a novel by Yukio Mishima.
Most people know you as a successful writer. What is the appeal of a job in which you take the back seat behind the composer, at least as perceived from outside?
In fact, on the one hand, a librettist must have the ability to be a service provider at the composer's request and to be able to implement their ideas. On the other hand, they must also be able with their texts to surprise the composers and inspire new ideas. This is the case even with artists such as Hans Werner Henze and Detlev Glanert, who from the beginning have very precise ideas about the elaborations of the things they want to set to music.
Doesn't one need first of all a high potential to withstand frustration? You write text, which the composer then prunes, and what is sung at the end is often not understood.
The problem of intelligibility of texts has been somewhat mitigated since there are surtitles – today everyone can read the text and even notice in the big ensemble scenes, what is proceeding on the stage. But of course, the principle "kill your darlings" applies especially to librettists: You are particularly proud of one line, and then the composer says that instead they need a sentence whose last word contains an a, because that tone makes it sing very well.
What makes a good libretto then?
For me, a good libretto is one that leaves enough empty space for the music. Nothing is more fatal than when an opera text overflows with incredibly long conversations. Instead, in the good libretto, there is an economy of empty space that even goes to the extent that the libretto does not work as a self-contained text without music.
The long conversations you mentioned are also a main feature of Theodor Fontane's novels. Yet your libretto on OCEANE is based on a text by Fontane.
Actually, for that reason, I would not necessarily recommend writing a libretto based on a Fontane novel. There is a lot of talk, discussions, there is a lot of little jokes and linguistic local colour, and all this would have to be greatly reduced in favour of an opera-compatible conflict dramaturgy. However, the fragment "Oceane of Parceval", on which our opera is based, is different: The exact blanks that can fill the music are already in the original. In addition, the title character Oceane is a multi-faceted, brilliant, but also abysmal character that has stimulated both Detlev Glanert and me very much. "My whole work is psychography," Fontane once said, and this is especially true of the character of Oceane.
Have you ever been actually disappointed of what has become of your characters through the music when you saw a world premiere?
Fortunately, not so far. However, I was often surprised to see how the characters of an opera change through the scenic realisation on stage. Then sometimes I was shocked by what I had written, simply because much of the facial expressions, gestures, and behaviours of the performers on the stage are more explicit than on paper. In such moments I am always aware of my responsibility.
You wrote opera lyrics, poetry and, in recent years, especially novels – but never a stage play? Don't you sometimes feel the temptation to fill the empty space you mentioned in the libretti?
In fact, my theatrical work on the opera lyrics has steadily increased my affinity for the theatre, so I am pondering over writing a play. But what that will be, I will not reveal yet.