A libretto (Italian for "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 many 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.
Musical theatre is a form of theatrical performance that combines songs, spoken dialogue, acting and dance. The story and emotional content of a musical – humor, pathos, love, anger – are communicated through words, music, movement and technical aspects of the entertainment as an integrated whole. Although musical theatre overlaps with other theatrical forms like opera and dance, it may be distinguished by the equal importance given to the music as compared with the dialogue, movement and other elements. Since the early 20th century, musical theatre stage works have generally been called, simply, musicals.
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 theatre. 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.
Operetta is a form of theatre and a genre of light opera. It includes spoken dialogue, songs, and dances. It is lighter than opera in terms of its music, orchestral size, length of the work, and at face value, subject matter. Apart from its shorter length, the operetta usually features a light and amusing character while making very controversial political commentaries in response to the oppressive governments and militaries that were present.
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.
Henry Louis Reginald De Koven was an American music critic and prolific composer, particularly of comic operas.
Comic opera is a sung dramatic work of a light or comic nature, usually with a happy ending and often including spoken dialogue.
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 necessarily comical or shallow in nature; Carmen, perhaps the most famous opéra comique, is a tragedy.
Italian opera is both the art of opera in Italy and opera in the Italian language. Opera was born in Italy around the year 1600 and Italian opera has continued to play a dominant role in the history of the form until the present day. Many famous operas in Italian were written by foreign composers, including Handel, Gluck and Mozart. Works by native Italian composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini, are amongst the most famous operas ever written and today are performed in opera houses across the world.
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.
Henry Brougham Farnie, often called H. B. Farnie, was a British librettist and adapter of French operettas and an author. Some of his English-language versions of operettas became record-setting hits on the London stage of the 1870s and 1880s, strongly competing with the Gilbert and Sullivan operas being played at the same time.
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 mid-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.
Literaturoper, a term coined by the German music critic Edgar Istel, describes a genre of opera that emerged during the late 19th century. When an existing play for the legitimate theatre is set to music without major changes and without the intervention of a librettist, a “Literaturoper” is the result. Although the term is German, it can be applied to any kind of opera, irrespective of style or language.
The Mountain Sylph is an opera in two acts by John Barnett to a libretto by Thomas James Thackeray, after Trilby, ou le lutin d'Argail by Charles Nodier. It was first produced in London at the Lyceum Theatre in 1834 with great success.
Henri Charles Antoine Gaston Serpette was a French composer, best known for his operettas. After winning the prestigious Prix de Rome as a student at the Paris Conservatoire, he was expected to pursue a career in serious music. Instead, he turned to operetta, writing more than twenty full-length pieces between 1874 and 1900. He accepted some conducting work and also served as a critic and journalist on a number of French newspapers and magazines.
Comédie-ballet is a genre of French drama which mixes a spoken play with interludes containing music and dance.
Theatre music refers to a wide range of music composed or adapted for performance in theatres. Genres of theatre music include opera, ballet and several forms of musical theatre, from pantomime to operetta and modern stage musicals and revues. Another form of theatre music is incidental music, which, as in radio, film and television, is used to accompany the action or to separate the scenes of a play. The physical embodiment of the music is called a score, which includes the music and, if there are lyrics, it also shows the lyrics.
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