When Books Are Made Into Operas

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“The first rule is that there are no rules,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody in an opening to his discussion on turning books into movies.

The post ran on the magazine’s blog last week, following the news that film director Baz Luhrmann had pushed back his cinematic adaptation of The Great Gatsby from this Christmas to next summer in the name of “more time to finish its extensive 3D effects and a planned all-star soundtrack.” Such a pushback caused no small amount of debate among cinephiles and bibliophiles alike, with perhaps the most pointed observation coming from critic David Ehrlich via Twitter (also quoted in Brody’s blog post): “of course THE GREAT GATSBY was delayed. i mean, *you* try rendering ‘boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’ in CG.”

For many, Luhrmann’s flashy and, at times, overly-accentuated brand of filmmaking may make Fitzgerald’s classic story of Jazz-Age excess subservient to cinematic style. The result doesn’t always spell disaster — watch Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not in lieu of reading Ernest Hemingway’s work of the same name and you’re bound to fail a reading comprehension quiz. But though you may, it doesn’t mean the film isn’t counted among one of the greatest of its era.

It’s clear there are no rules in cinema when it comes to taking a book (or play) and making it over for the silver screen. Brody cites numerous examples, including To Have and Have Not, and his list is readily available. However, does the 'rule of no rules' apply to opera?

For starters, you’re introducing a new medium with a full score of music complimenting dialogue and action and visuals. In fact, the music takes the wheel. A soprano recently remarked to me for another interview that working with an opera means that there is very little room for argument in a line delivery when a composer has written a high note and indicated that it ought to be sung forte. There are vocal colorations one can add, sure. But unlike spoken dialogue, which can go loud or soft, high or low, the written score carries an emotional and dramatic DNA that is nearly impossible to go against. Of course, that’s also one of the reasons that we all love opera. Composers are able to catch a layer of emotion that cannot be described in words, and carries a seismic impact when you hear the swell of an orchestra leading into Wotan’s Farewell or the final trio in Faust.

And, in fact, novels that become operas are also subject to dramatic license and liberties. Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor bears about as much in common with Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor as Hawks did to Hemingway in To Have and Have Not. Once you get past the Scottish politics (I recommend the Oxford Classics edition of the book for its grounding introduction), Scott’s novel is a romantic read, but you’re left with a different taste in your mouth than you are with Donizetti’s Italianate score full of vocal fireworks and a focus on the love story versus the political intrigue.

Such nip-tucks are also what allow a story to function equally well on the page and on the stage. Puccini’s La bohème creates a solid plot out of an episodic novel, picking and choosing plot threads from Murger and expanding them into a standalone story that remains true to the author’s original intent, if not his original characters. Likewise, composer Mark Adamo had no easy task taking a similarly unwieldy plot in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and siphoning it down into a workable opera, finding a gateway into his work through a connecting theme (he has admitted to throwing a couch pillow at the television when attempting to watch the 1994 film adaptation, whose own plot differs wildly from the opera version).

In many ways, it’s actually these sorts of thematically structured novels that make for some of the most solid examples of the operas-based-on-books genre. In citing his favorite film adaptations of books, Brody notes that many of his top picks are based on short stories and novellas, because they “give the director and his or her screenwriters the chance to expand and elaborate, rather than condense and truncate, the literary source.”

Conversely, composers and librettists have license to condense and truncate towards thematic purpose. One of my favorite examples is Janacek’s From the House of the Dead, based on Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead. Even in Janacek’s adaptation, there’s a bit of the Dostoyevskian documentary vibe that permeates the source text, creating a rhapsody on themes of social injustice, political imprisonment and human nature.

The nobleman Goryantchikov, a literary double for Dostoyevsky, is the central focus of Janacek’s opera, and his arrival and departure provide the framework for the piece. However, the allure of the work is the assortment of narratives of the fellow prisoners Goryantchikov encounters during his stay. Even without a straightforward narrative like Puccini or Adamo, Janacek’s work makes a strong case for its source text. But it makes an even stronger case for the composer’s own merits.

The one rule that Brody suggests in his New Yorker piece is that “a director is likely to stumble when taking on the work of a writer who is a greater artist.… [W]hen they lay hold of works of genius, they simply aren’t up to the material and reveal not the vastness of the author’s imagination but the limits of their own.” Conversely, when music meets words, the best literary adaptations in opera can often eclipse the greatness of their source authors and reveal the abundance of the composer’s own genius.

So does this make the task of adapting books into operas any more or less daunting than adapting books into movies? While Puccini can be categorically considered a more noted genius and artist than Murger, Janacek and Dostoyevsky occupied similar strata of talent and prestige. And where, in the test of time, will that leave composers like Adamo, or Kurt Weill (whose work, Lost in the Stars, based on Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country), in the decades to come? That’s another episode in the circuitous story of opera. And hopefully that episode will have an all-star soundtrack… I can take or leave the CG effects.