A libretto (lit. "booklet") is the text used in, or intended for, an extended musical work such as an opera, operetta, masque, oratorio, cantata or musical. The term libretto is also sometimes used to refer to the text of major liturgical works, such as the Mass, requiem and sacred cantata, or the story line of a ballet.
Libretto (pronounced [liˈbretto] ; plural libretti [liˈbretti] ), from Italian, is the diminutive of the word libro ("book"). Sometimes other-language equivalents are used for libretti in that language, livret for French works and Textbuch for German. A libretto is distinct from a synopsis or scenario of the plot, in that the libretto contains all the words and stage directions, while a synopsis summarizes the plot. Some ballet historians also use the word libretto to refer to the 15–40 page books which were on sale to 19th century ballet audiences in Paris and contained a very detailed description of the ballet's story, scene by scene.
The relationship of the librettist (that is, the writer of a libretto) to the composer in the creation of a musical work has varied over the centuries, as have the sources and the writing techniques employed.
In the context of a modern English language musical theatre piece, the libretto is often referred to as the book of the work, though this usage typically excludes sung lyrics.
Libretti for operas, oratorios and cantatas in the 17th and 18th centuries were generally written by someone other than the composer, often a well-known poet.
Pietro Trapassi, known as Metastasio (1698–1782) was one of the most highly regarded librettists in Europe. His libretti were set many times by many different composers. Another noted 18th-century librettist was Lorenzo Da Ponte. He wrote the libretti for three of Mozart's greatest operas, and for many other composers as well. Eugène Scribe was one of the most prolific librettists of the 19th century, providing the words for works by Meyerbeer (with whom he had a lasting collaboration), Auber, Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini and Verdi. The French writers' duo Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy wrote a large number of opera and operetta libretti for the likes of Jacques Offenbach, Jules Massenet and Georges Bizet. Arrigo Boito, who wrote libretti for, among others, Giuseppe Verdi and Amilcare Ponchielli, also composed two operas of his own.
The libretto is not always written before the music. Some composers, such as Mikhail Glinka, Alexander Serov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Puccini and Mascagni wrote passages of music without text and subsequently had the librettist add words to the vocal melody lines. (This has often been the case with American popular song and musicals in the 20th century, as with Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's collaboration, although with the later team of Rodgers and Hammerstein the lyrics were generally written first, which was Rodgers' preferred modus operandi.)
Some composers wrote their own libretti. Richard Wagner is perhaps most famous in this regard, with his transformations of Germanic legends and events into epic subjects for his operas and music dramas. Hector Berlioz, too, wrote the libretti for two of his best-known works, La Damnation de Faust and Les Troyens . Alban Berg adapted Georg Büchner's play Woyzeck for the libretto of Wozzeck .
Sometimes the libretto is written in close collaboration with the composer; this can involve adaptation, as was the case with Rimsky-Korsakov and his librettist Vladimir Ivanovich Belsky, or an entirely original work. In the case of musicals, the music, the lyrics and the "book" (i.e., the spoken dialogue and the stage directions) may each have its own author. Thus, a musical such as Fiddler on the Roof has a composer (Jerry Bock), a lyricist (Sheldon Harnick) and the writer of the "book" (Joseph Stein). In rare cases, the composer writes everything except the dance arrangements – music, lyrics and libretto, as Lionel Bart did for Oliver! .
Other matters in the process of developing a libretto parallel those of spoken dramas for stage or screen. There are the preliminary steps of selecting or suggesting a subject and developing a sketch of the action in the form of a scenario, as well as revisions that might come about when the work is in production, as with out-of-town tryouts for Broadway musicals, or changes made for a specific local audience. A famous case of the latter is Wagner's 1861 revision of the original 1845 Dresden version of his opera Tannhäuser for Paris.
The opera libretto from its inception (ca. 1600) was written in verse, and this continued well into the 19th century, although genres of musical theatre with spoken dialogue have typically alternated verse in the musical numbers with spoken prose. Since the late 19th century some opera composers have written music to prose or free verse libretti. Much of the recitatives of George Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess , for instance, are merely DuBose and Dorothy Heyward's play Porgy set to music as written – in prose – with the lyrics of the arias, duets, trios and choruses written in verse.
The libretto of a musical, on the other hand, is almost always written in prose (except for the song lyrics). The libretto of a musical, if the musical is adapted from a play (or even a novel), may even borrow their source's original dialogue liberally – much as Oklahoma! used dialogue from Lynn Riggs's Green Grow the Lilacs , Carousel used dialogue from Ferenc Molnár's Liliom , My Fair Lady took most of its dialogue word-for-word from George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion , Man of La Mancha was adapted from the 1959 television play I, Don Quixote , which supplied most of the dialogue, and the 1954 musical version of Peter Pan used J. M. Barrie's dialogue. Even the musical Show Boat , which is greatly different from the Edna Ferber novel from which it was adapted, uses some of Ferber's original dialogue, notably during the miscegenation scene. And Lionel Bart's Oliver! uses chunks of dialogue from Charles Dickens's novel Oliver Twist , although it bills itself as a "free adaptation" of the novel.
As the originating language of opera, Italian dominated that genre in Europe (except in France) well through the 18th century, and even into the next century in Russia, for example, when the Italian opera troupe in Saint Petersburg was challenged by the emerging native Russian repertory. Significant exceptions before 1800 can be found in Purcell's works, German opera of Hamburg during the Baroque, ballad opera and Singspiel of the 18th century, etc.
Just as with literature and song, the libretto has its share of problems and challenges with translation. In the past (and even today), foreign musical stage works with spoken dialogue, especially comedies, were sometimes performed with the sung portions in the original language and the spoken dialogue in the vernacular. The effects of leaving lyrics untranslated depend on the piece.
Many musicals, such as the old Betty Grable – Don Ameche – Carmen Miranda vehicles, are largely unaffected, but this practice is especially misleading in translations of musicals like Show Boat , The Wizard of Oz , My Fair Lady or Carousel, in which the lyrics to the songs and the spoken text are often or always closely integrated, and the lyrics serve to further the plot.[ citation needed ] Availability of printed or projected translations today makes singing in the original language more practical, although one cannot discount the desire to hear a sung drama in one's own language.
The Spanish words libretista (playwright, script writer or screenwriter) and libreto (script or screen play), which are used in the Hispanic TV and cinema industry, derived their meanings from the original operatic sense.
Librettists have historically received less prominent credit than the composer. In some 17th-century operas still being performed, the name of the librettist was not even recorded. As the printing of libretti for sale at performances became more common, these records often survive better than music left in manuscript. But even in late 18th century London, reviews rarely mentioned the name of the librettist, as Lorenzo Da Ponte lamented in his memoirs.
By the 20th century some librettists became recognised as part of famous collaborations, as with Gilbert and Sullivan or Rodgers and Hammerstein. Today the composer (past or present) of the musical score to an opera or operetta is usually given top billing for the completed work, and the writer of the lyrics relegated to second place or a mere footnote, a notable exception being Gertrude Stein, who received top billing for Four Saints in Three Acts . Another exception was Alberto Franchetti's 1906 opera La figlia di Iorio which was a close rendering of a highly successful play by its librettist, Gabriele D'Annunzio, a celebrated Italian poet, novelist and dramatist of the day. In some cases, the operatic adaptation has become more famous than the literary text on which it was based, as with Claude Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande after a play by Maurice Maeterlinck.
The question of which is more important in opera – the music or the words – has been debated over time, and forms the basis of at least two operas, Richard Strauss's Capriccio and Antonio Salieri's Prima la musica e poi le parole .
Libretti have been made available in several formats, some more nearly complete than others. The text – i.e., the spoken dialogue, song lyrics and stage directions, as applicable – is commonly published separately from the music (such a booklet is usually included with sound recordings of most operas). Sometimes (particularly for operas in the public domain) this format is supplemented with melodic excerpts of musical notation for important numbers.
Printed scores for operas naturally contain the entire libretto, although there can exist significant differences between the score and the separately printed text. More often than not, this involves the extra repetition of words or phrases from the libretto in the actual score. For example, in the aria "Nessun dorma" from Puccini's Turandot , the final lines in the libretto are "Tramontate, stelle! All'alba, vincerò!" (Fade, you stars! At dawn, I will win!). However, in the score they are sung as "Tramontate, stelle! Tramontate, stelle! All'alba, vincerò! Vincerò! Vincerò!"
Because the modern musical tends to be published in two separate but intersecting formats (i.e., the book and lyrics, with all the words, and the piano-vocal score, with all the musical material, including some spoken cues), both are needed in order to make a thorough reading of an entire show.
Opera is a form of theatre in which music has a leading role and the parts are taken by singers, but is distinct from musical theater. Such a "work" is typically a collaboration between a composer and a librettist and incorporates a number of the performing arts, such as acting, scenery, costume, and sometimes dance or ballet. The performance is typically given in an opera house, accompanied by an orchestra or smaller musical ensemble, which since the early 19th century has been led by a conductor.
Lyrics are words that make up a song usually consisting of verses and choruses. The writer of lyrics is a lyricist. The words to an extended musical composition such as an opera are, however, usually known as a "libretto" and their writer, as a "librettist". The meaning of lyrics can either be explicit or implicit. Some lyrics are abstract, almost unintelligible, and, in such cases, their explication emphasizes form, articulation, meter, and symmetry of expression. Rappers can also create lyrics that are meant to be spoken rhythmically rather than sung.
Operetta is a form of theatre and a genre of light opera, light in terms of both music and subject matter. It includes spoken dialogue, songs, and dances. "Operetta" is the Italian diminutive of "opera" and was used originally to describe a shorter, perhaps less ambitious work than an opera. Operetta became a recognizable form in the mid-1800s in France, and its popularity led to the development of many national styles of operetta. Operetta as a genre lost favor in the 1930s and gave way to modern musical theatre. Important operetta composers include Johann Strauss, Jacques Offenbach and Franz Lehar.
Johann Adolph Hasse was an 18th-century German composer, singer and teacher of music. Immensely popular in his time, Hasse was best known for his prolific operatic output, though he also composed a considerable quantity of sacred music. Married to soprano Faustina Bordoni and a great friend of librettist Pietro Metastasio, whose libretti he frequently set, Hasse was a pivotal figure in the development of opera seria and 18th-century music.
Opera seria is an Italian musical term which refers to the noble and "serious" style of Italian opera that predominated in Europe from the 1710s to about 1770. The term itself was rarely used at the time and only attained common usage once opera seria was becoming unfashionable and beginning to be viewed as something of a historical genre. The popular rival to opera seria was opera buffa, the 'comic' opera that took its cue from the improvisatory commedia dell'arte.
A lyricist or lyrist is a person who writes lyrics—words for songs—as opposed to a composer, who writes the song's music which may include but not limited to the melody, harmony, arrangement and accompaniment.
Comic opera is a sung dramatic work of a light or comic nature, usually with a happy ending and often including spoken dialogue.
Grand opera is a genre of 19th-century opera generally in four or five acts, characterized by large-scale casts and orchestras, and lavish and spectacular design and stage effects, normally with plots based on or around dramatic historic events. The term is particularly applied to certain productions of the Paris Opéra from the late 1820s to around 1850; 'grand opéra' has sometimes been used to denote the Paris Opéra itself.
Opéra comique is a genre of French opera that contains spoken dialogue and arias. It emerged from the popular opéras comiques en vaudevilles of the Fair Theatres of St Germain and St Laurent, which combined existing popular tunes with spoken sections. Associated with the Paris theatre of the same name, opéra comique is not always comic or light in nature; Carmen, perhaps the most famous opéra comique, is a tragedy.
Anastasio Martín Ignacio Vicente Tadeo Francisco Pellegrin Martín y Soler was a Spanish composer of opera and ballet. Although relatively obscure now, in his own day he was compared favorably with his contemporary, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as a composer of opera buffa. In his time he was called "Martini lo spagnuolo" ; in modern times, he has been called "the Valencian Mozart". He was known primarily for his melodious Italian comic operas and his work with Lorenzo Da Ponte in the late 18th century, as well as the melody from Una cosa rara quoted in the dining scene of Mozart's Don Giovanni.
French opera is one of Europe's most important operatic traditions, containing works by composers of the stature of Rameau, Berlioz, Gounod, Bizet, Massenet, Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc and Messiaen. Many foreign-born composers have played a part in the French tradition as well, including Lully, Gluck, Salieri, Cherubini, Spontini, Meyerbeer, Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi and Offenbach.
The musical scores to several operas by the French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau have been lost. They include two major tragédies en musique, Samson and Linus, and a one-act pastoral opera Lisis et Délie. The music to these pieces was substantially complete and was performed in rehearsal but for various reasons - including censorship in the case of Samson - they were never publicly staged. Rameau also wrote a divertissement for Alexis Piron's play Les courses de Tempé, which did appear at the theatre in 1734. The music to all these works has been almost completely lost, although there is evidence Rameau reused some of it in his later operas. Rameau also began other operatic projects, which were either abandoned at an early stage (Pandore) or broken up to form shorter works.
Polish opera may be broadly understood to include operas staged in Poland and works written for foreign stages by Polish composers, as well as opera in the Polish language.
Dramma per musica is a libretto. The term was used by dramatists in Italy and elsewhere between the late-17th and mid-19th centuries. In modern times the same meaning of drama for music was conveyed through the Italian Greek-rooted word melodramma. Dramma per musica never meant "drama through music", let alone music drama.
Roland is a tragédie lyrique in three acts by the composer Niccolò Piccinni. The opera was a new setting of a libretto written by Philippe Quinault for Jean-Baptiste Lully in 1685, specially adapted for Piccinni by Jean-François Marmontel and based on Ludovico Ariosto's epic poem Orlando Furioso. The opera was first performed on 27 January 1778 by the Académie Royale de Musique at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal.
Comédie-ballet is a genre of French drama which mixes a spoken play with interludes containing music and dance.
In music, number refers to an individual song, dance, or instrumental piece which is part of a larger work of musical theatre, opera, or oratorio. It can also refer either to an individual song in a published collection or an individual song or dance in a performance of several unrelated musical pieces as in concerts and revues. Both meanings of the term have been used in American English since the second half of the 19th century.
Giovanni Battista Maccioni was an Italian composer, librettist, and musician. His L'arpa festante, first performed in 1653, inaugurated what was to become the Bavarian State Opera and is often described as the first opera to be wholly written and produced in Germany.
Gian Carlo Menotti was an Italian-American composer and librettist. Although he often referred to himself as an American composer, he kept his Italian citizenship. He wrote the classic Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, along with over two dozen other operas intended to appeal to popular taste.
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