Classical Music

What’s a Libretto?

Back in January, I gave my readers a quick lesson in Italian because so many musical terms are indeed Italian. For some reason, Italy got the jump on everyone and ended up with a monopoly in musical lingo. Totally fine – it all sounds good, Italy has produced some fabulous music and the country itself is gorgeous.

I thought I’d go a little more specific with you today. Here in Columbus, our classical music station, Classical 101, broadcasts a complete opera each and every Saturday afternoon. Likewise we can view opera performances at the Met on the large screen at area movie theaters.

What goes into making an opera? Who makes up the story? Where does it all come from? Well like a good movie, many operas come from existing stories or plays.

Like any large production, there are many people involved in the making of an opera. With movies, we have directors, actors, crew, editors, you name it. With operas, there are composers, instrumental musicians, crew, costume designers, and the actors / singers on stage. All that goes without saying, but who writes it? We know where the music comes from, but who writes the opera’s story itself?

The best way I could describe a story on which an opera is based is to equate it to an adapted screen play.

In this year’s Oscars, John Ridley won the award for best adapted screenplay.  He took the book 12 Years a Slave, originally written by Solomon Northrup, and converted it to a screen play for a movie.


Twelve Years a Slave

He’s the librettist of modern-day movie productions. That’s what a librettist does: converts an already-existing story into a production that can be performed on stage. The composer, then sets all that to music.

In classical music, in particular with operas, one often hears the word “libretto.” Think of this as the script.

li·bret·to – noun \lə-ˈbre-(ˌ)tō\  : the words of an opera or musical

According to Merriam Webster, a libretto is defined as follows.

The text of a work (as an opera) for the musical theater

Pierre Beaumarchais

Pierre Beaumarchais, who, in addition to being a playwright, was also an inventor, spy and arms dealer, wrote a series of plays featuring the character Figaro. Though controversial, these plays were picked up by composers who worked with librettists to turn them into operas for the stage. Two main examples are by Rossini and Mozart.

The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini –  libretto by Cesare Sterbini


Lorenzo da Ponte

The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte

Rossini and Mozart were great at the music part of it, but needed some help with story itself. That’s where Sterbini and da Ponte came in.

In more modern times, the great American composer, George Gershwin collaborated with his brother, Ira Gershwin, on writing such great songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Embraceable You.”  And while George wrote the music, Ira was the librettist for the opera Porgy and Bess – considered one of the most important 20th century operas written.


Ira Gershwin

Unsung Heroes

These operas would not have been possible without the script –  made possible by the talented librettists. Sure the composer gets all the credit, but until he has a story, he has nothing to set to music. Just like with modern-day movies, the actors and the directors are those who get noticed and who are therefore well-known.

Every performance – symphony, movie or opera – is a collaborative effort with an incredible amount of work put in both in advance and behind the scenes during a performance. As patrons we typically just see the finished product, but there’s definitely far more to the creative process! Try to think of that the next time you head out to a concert or movie.

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