Journey of an Opera (8) – The Marriage of Text and Music

The Tale of Lady Thị Kính Creation Series

The composer and the librettist of an opera are usually two different people and their collaboration is not always a smooth sail. For The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, this journey is much simplified as PQ Phan is both its composer and librettist.

Regular paths of text and music

Since he started conceiving The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, Phan knows, as a composer, that it is not easy to find a librettist for it. The composer normally has to trust the librettist completely and let them do their work. The librettist is oftentimes a poet or a writer who has a knack for words but most of the time without knowledge about the close relationship between the text and the music as far as the libretto is concerned. With no control over the libretto, once it is finished and arrives at the composer’s hands, it would become a bit of a task for him to change some words to fit the music in case he needs to – because authorship of the libretto belongs to the librettist. Any changes the composer wants to make have to be discussed and approved by the librettist.

Because of the subtle relation between the two, one can say it is difficult to have a perfect marriage between the text and the music. However, if sometimes people may not like the libretto that much but the music and the story are overwhelmingly beautiful, it may work out well because then the story and music are the central points of interest and the libretto is pushed to the corner. Not knowing the path for his new opera, Phan was hoping for the best.

The marriage of text and music in The Tale of Lady Thị Kính

Phan initially didn’t plan to work on the libretto himself. He was looking for a librettist but the search went to a dead end. He then started doing the translation himself and very soon realized he could write his own libretto. In many ways, this makes good sense. Where else could he find someone who is fluent in Vietnamese and has a deep understanding of its culture the way he does? Where else could he find a Vietnamese-speaking person who is also well-versed in English and American culture the way he does? By a stroke of luck, PQ Phan became the librettist for his own opera – something very rare in this field of opera writing.

The results, admittedly, are nothing but great advantages Phan soon discovered for himself as a composer. One, while the composer normally cannot start composing music until the libretto is done, Phan could start conceiving the music at the same time he was writing the libretto – a head start for him. Two, the text paves the way for the music to happen. Phan wrote the text so he knows the music direction early. At the same time, the music also requires the text to behave in a certain way. By working on both words and music simultaneously, Phan had a great chance to engage in this integral relationship between them right from the beginning – another benefit for Phan to rip.

He said that by nature language already sets the tone and direction for the music in some way, but as a poet or a writer the librettist don’t usually know of it – they are all ears to the text as words. Phan, as a composer, already hears the music the moment he pens the words. He knows that there are some certain notes that can be used with some certain words because the intonation or nuance of the words indicate what low or high notes they are. As a result, as a librettist, Phan would translate and carefully pick the words that allow him to have a particular shape or melodic contour of music that he wants to have.

For example, at a climatic point, he is likely to use higher notes which means having to use words beginning with vowels such as [s], [f] because the pronunciation of these allow a free flow of air that helps the singers go high. Words beginning with consonants such as [t], [p], or [dr] disrupt the air flow and make it difficult for singers to sing high. Therefore, as it turned out for Phan, the translating and thinking about music/writing music are parallel processes – a treasure of experience.

Phan also learns one thing about the libretto: it should be poetic enough to sing and practical enough to create drama. He never loses sight of this. In the end, Phan created a libretto that is phonetically and culturally synchronized to the music – just like a perfect marriage between them is supposed to be.

The libretto is finished, Phan only needed to carry out some minor adjustment before he really sat down to set music to it. What are these adjustments? – Tune in for the next time.

The Vietnamese version of this article has been published by the Vien Dong Daily News, also available online here.

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