September 2005

What makes a poet a suitable partner for the creation of an opera? J.D. McClatchy, author of five collections of poetry including Hazmat, a 2002 Pulitzer Prize finalist, says the words a librettist chooses must make a composer want to write music.  


In an interview conducted on August 4, 2005, McClatchy explained, "The most beautiful set of lyrics are a failure if they don't interest the composer.  I learned that early from Bill Schuman." In response to McClatchy's first draft of the libretto for A Question of Taste commissioned by Glimmerglass Opera Theatre, Schuman said, "they [the words] don't do anything for me." Trying to understand the composer's reaction, McClatchy persisted, "Oh, but Bill, don't you see how the image in line 3 links up in line 6? And how the rhythm and rhyme . . ." However, Schuman cut McClatchy off by reiterating, "I told you it [the libretto] didn't do anything for me."


Recommended in 1987 by poet Richard Wilbur who had collaborated successfully with Schuman on a cantata celebrating the centenary year of the Statue of Liberty,

J. D. McClatchy is the author of five collections of poetry: Scenes from Another Life (1981), Stars Principal (1986), The Rest of the Way (1990), Ten Commandments (1998) and Hazmat (1902). His selected poems, Division of Spoils, appeared in England in 2003. His work appears regularly in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, The Paris Review, The New Republic, and many other magazines. He has won numerous prizes including an Award in Literature by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

His literary essays are collected in White Paper (1989) and Twenty Questions (1998). He is the editor of The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry (1990) and The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry (1996), as well as a co-editor of James Merrill's Collected Poems (2001) and Collected Novels and Plays (2002). Other books he has edited include poets Emily Dickinson, Ann Sexton, Horace, and Longfellow. He also edits the series The Voice of the Poet for Random House Audio Books for which he has written booklets to accompany historic readings by prominent poets of the Twentieth Century.

He has written numerous opera libretti and worked in opera houses large and small throughout the United States and Europe. A former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he teaches at Yale University, and since 1991, has been editor of The Yale Review.

McClatchy had grown up listening to opera and classical music but had never written a libretto before. A Question of Taste was based on a story by Roald Dahl. The story was Schumann's choice. After the rejection of the first draft, McClatchy started over. He introduced a new character and changed the beginning and end of the story. More importantly he began thinking "less of the dramatic unfolding and more of the musical progression." His writing took focus on singers presenting the text as solos, duets, and other combinations including choral voices. He realized that Dahl's story was missing a tenor voice and so McClatchy added a boyfriend for the maid and made her a more prominent character.

McClatchy says his model is Puccini. For McClatchy, Puccini was a genius in his ability to balance character entrances and exits with the right combination of voices and within the context of emotional manipulation of the material both dramatically and musically. However, what makes a poet a more suitable partner for a composer of opera than other writers is his or her sensitivity to sound. In McClatchy's essay entitled "Reading" which is part of his White Paper: On Contemporary American Poetry, a set of analytic essays published in 1989 on such prominent poets of the Twentieth Century as Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, and W.D. Snodgrass, he says,  "…voice is our most immediate, and may be our most lasting, source of pleasure in a poem. Our first impressions of verse, in nursery and counting rhymes, were made by repeating them aloud, by voicing them. And those poets whom we most passionately and privately love... we love for their manner of speaking."  

Walking the talk, McClatchy managed ten years later to start releasing an audio series called The Voice of the Poet. McClatchy has edited and introduced recordings of twenty-two well-known poets including Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and John Ashbery reading their own work.


Despite the initial rejection of his work by Schuman, McClatchy says the nine libretti he has completed have not been difficult to write. "Opera was in my blood, I would hear the Met broadcasts [as a child]. All of this listening helps."


Libretti by J.D. McClatchy




Composer/Other Collaborators


Glimmerglass Opera Theatre

A Question of Taste 

William Schuman


Brooklyn College Opera Theatre

Mario and the Magician

Francis Thorne


Lyric Opera of Chicago 

Orpheus Descending 

Bruce Saylor


Santa Fe Opera


Tobias Picker


Covent Garden


Lorin Maazel (book by Thomas Meehan)


Indiana University Opera Theater

Our Town

Ned Rorem


Julliard School of Music

Miss Lonelyhearts 

Lowell Liebermann


Los Angeles Opera


Elliot Goldenthal (co-librettist Julie Taymor)


Metropolitan Opera

The Magic Flute

Mozart (director Julie Taymor)



(In English for children) 



 "There was more give and take with Emmeline than others. The director wanted to be more involved. Then there was a singer who didn't want to sing what was written, apparently she understood the character better than I did. However, the finished product was excellent."


McClatchy's most enjoyable collaboration to date is the adaptation of George Orwell's 1984.  Thomas Meehan, who wrote the book for such Broadway musicals as The Producers and Annie, was hired by Lorin Maazel to write the libretto for 1984. "Meehan knew everything about the Broadway stage but felt he didn't know opera. We (Meehan and McClatchy) had the same lawyer." Based on the lawyer's recommendation, McClatchy first met Meehan at the White Horse Tavern in Manhattan. "We've developed a wonderful friendship and we trust each other implicitly. I was skeptical about collaboration, but found this very enjoyable. I wouldn't seek this out but I'm no longer worried about this aspect of collaboration. Usually the composer is your [sole] collaborator." In May 2008, 1984 will play at La Scala. McClatchy said, "To take my bow on the stage of La Scala would be any librettist's ultimate dream. I'm looking forward to that."


McClatchy has subsequently collaborated with Julie Taymor on the libretto Grendel (based on John Gardner's novel by the same name). Taymor, whose fame as the creator of the blockbuster musical The Lion King overshadows her work in opera, began working on Grendel over a decade ago but it took a backseat to other projects. While working with Plαcido Domingo at the Los Angles Opera, she mentioned Grendel and he expressed interest. Then she called McClatchy "out of the blue" and asked for his help. "There was nothing I would rather do in my life but I played Mr. Cool and said I was busy."  To entice him, Taymor said the opera would be set on ice. McClatchy said despite Taymor's magnificent ideas for staging, she is quite practical and is willing to cut whatever stands in the way of the finishing the work.

McClatchy said there is a lot of heavy baggage in Gardner's novel that cannot be put on stage. The problem that the novel poses is how to make a monster that kills and eats people sympathetic. McClatchy suggested that Grendel should speak in English while the human beings and the chorus would speak "in a pastiche of Anglo Saxon." In this way, the audience would sympathize with Grendel who could not understand human beings. Grendel will premiere at the LA Opera in late May 2006.

At the end of 2006, a children's version of Mozart's The Magic Flute as directed by Julie Taymor with a shortened libretto in English by McClatchy will premiere at the Metropolitan Opera. McClatchy wrote the English surtitles for Taymor's Met production of The Magic Flute that aired in the fall of 2004.


In addition to the openings of Grendel and Flute, McClatchy will see his collaborations with composers Ned Rorem — Our Town, based on Thornton Wilder's play, and Lowell Liebermann — Miss Lonelyhearts, based on Nathaniel West's novel, premiere on academic stages in 2006. McClatchy was instrumental in getting the rights to Our Town and Miss Lonelyhearts. As a former head and founding member of the board of directors of the Thornton Wilder Society, McClatchy got to know the Wilder family whom he says is happy that the opera will be performed on five or six stages around the country. The commission for this work comes from a consortium of universities. With Miss Lonelyhearts, McClatchy and Liebermann got a lucky break. Negotiating permission from West's estate was not going well, but McClatchy's lawyer suggested they hire a copyright researcher to check the rights at the Library of Congress. The hired gun (paid a sum of $500) found out that West's estate no longer held the copyright — that a playwright had gotten control of the rights when he did a stage adaptation. "He's dead but his daughter who is a dental hygienist lives on the Upper West Side and was happy to work with us."


McClatchy is working with companies of all different sizes and levels of experience from college groups straight up to the Metropolitan and La Scala opera companies. When asked what kind of company McClatchy prefers working with he answered, "The bigger the company, the more professional. The singers and the orchestra provide more pleasure. Schuman would say the more strings they have, the softer they can play.  The more professional the ensemble, the better the text and music can be delivered. The real pro works harder and has less ego. However, I will say singers and the level of production at Julliard can be as high as many professional companies. The students are remarkably well trained and standards are high there. I look at it this way — I'm lucky that everything I have written has been produced."


Does a librettist make any money for his work? McClatchy said, "Opera companies hire composers and not librettists. The collaboration agreements — 2/3 [to the composer] and 1/3 [to the librettist] — are standard. The only money a librettist makes is the commissioning fee. There's not much in the way of royalties. A great deal of that money goes to lawyers for such things as rights and contracts."  

McClatchy said he worked some years ago with playwright-librettists William Hoffman (librettist of The Ghosts of Versailles) and Susan Yankowitz (librettist/lyricist of Slain In The Spirit, a gospel-and-blues opera with music by Taj Mahal) to form a librettist guild (Prima Le Parole). The goals were to help young librettists create model contracts and guidelines so that they could protect their intellectual property rights and their billing. McClatchy said, "The recording of Emmeline came out without my name on the cover. There was an article in Opera News about Miss Lonelyhearts and they mentioned the costume designer but not the librettist. You can't control what journalists write. We tried to do this through the Dramatist Guild and they weren't particularly interested in helping us. Young people coming into the field need help. They'll get screwed. It's not malice. The only recourse you have is a contract and a threat from your lawyer to theirs. It's expensive. We thought we could help cut down expenses. "

Does working as a librettist open up a bigger audience for poetry? McClatchy says no. "I don't see much overlap. The business of the opera world gives me less time to write poems. It's poems that mean more to me than anything. Librettos are more of a distraction. Not to compare great with small but it's like Michelangelo saying I only really like to make these little stone figures but this god damn Sistine ceiling is taking me forever! Poetry is my preference.  My training as a poet has been useful for my work as a librettist. My whole temperament is trained toward distilling things as a poet and working in small units and forms — to make every word count, give maximum beauty, force, expressiveness. Nothing worse than a wordy libretto."

When asked if he calls himself poet or librettist, McClatchy said, "I call myself writer. It sounds pretentious to say I am a poet. Auden used to say he was a poet when he was writing poems. The rest of the time he was just a citizen. I take that line. Too many people call themselves poets who can't write poems or good ones. I would rather say, I write poems or librettos. I do a lot of other things – I teach, run a magazine, run the creative writing program at Yale. As a writer, writing anything is a great pleasure for me. I'd write encyclopedia entries, record jacket copy. I'd write the back of a software label if that was the only job offered."

McClatchy advises that if a poet wants to write a libretto, he or she should go find a composer. "They are under various rocks. I see them together at a place like Yaddo." He warns however "composers have a deficiency with language. They aren't good at choosing their librettists. Composers will settle on anything – they've set the phone books [for example]. Yet writers in the 20th Century alone — Colette, Gertrude Stein, E.M. Forester, W.H. Auden — have contributed to the vitality of the form."

With all the stumbling stones librettists face — little monetary recompense, unreliable recognition for having written the words, divas who call for rewrites of their characters, why would a writer like J.D. McClatchy who teaches at a prestigious university, runs a respected magazine, writes and publishes his own poetry as well as edits other poets' work want to write a libretto? And, by the way, McClatchy is at the early stages of a tenth opera with composer Michael Dellaira entitled The Secret Agent, which is based on a novel about terrorism written by Joseph Conrad and published in 1907. "I realized that this [writing a libretto] would be a chance to pay back something to the art I love. As they say, the only thing more expensive to produce than opera is war, and the librettist's take is correspondingly small — though he is really the originator of the entire process. At least I am paid. Please don't tell anyone I'd do it for nothing! And remember, having started as a poet, I am long since used to working for the sake of the art form itself."

Cover Photo - James Hamilton

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©2005 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2005 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Karren Alenier and Gertrude Stein
Karren LaLonde Alenier's column, Bumper Cars: The Steiny Road to Operadom
is a regular feature of Scene4's Perspectives

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