Working on the Libretto - La Favola - by Alessandro Striggio.
3532. That’s the number of words in the original libretto. More or less. These specific words, were written in the beginning of the 17th-century, by the nobleman, and poet: Alessandro Striggio. Elisabeth, the Singer can get away with singing and just about understanding the 3532 words. But Elisabeth the Actor-singer needs to carve out the story, with its characters and drama, word by word, and then get inside the words.
In almost all opera productions I’ve taken part in, the director (or myself) has at least once asked me to re-tell some lines in an aria or recitative my character is singing ”in my own words.” For an in-depth understanding of the sentences, gaining ownership of the text (or to understand it in the first place), and/or to make it float more naturally, especially when singing in a language different from my mother tongue, or if the language is archaic and hard to connect to today. Even when we understand the individual words, and sentences, some meaning might be hidden behind double meanings, and associations to gone topicalities. Re-telling the libretto or script (if we’re in a theatre play) in our own words, is a hands-on method to overcome language barriers such as them.
Peter Brook theorises a similar exercise. He writes about when he did it with young actors rehearsing ”Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare. The archaic words by Shakespeare were unnatural for their 20th-century minds and it neither sounded nor felt right. They stumbled over the words and were stiff and uncomfortable. Brook asked them to take away all the words that weren’t crucial and then go back again and read the text as written.
”Once this crude separation had been made, it was then possible to do the reverse: to play the erased passages with full recognition that they had nothing whatsoever to do with normal speech. Then it was possible to explore them in many different ways - turning them into sounds or movements - until the actor saw more and more vividly how a single line of speech can have certain pegs of natural speech round which twist unspoken thoughts and feelings rendered apparent by words of another order.”FN
Using an extended version of this method, I investigated what would happen with my understanding of an entire opera libretto if I re-told it with fewer words, and my own words. In several workshops and presentations in addition to many, many hours in my own space, the words and passages were spoken, mumbled, screamed, whispered… I experimented with slang, descriptive language, short sentences, swear words, dialects…
My aim with this exercise was to create a narrative I could relate to. I wanted to take it personally. I wanted to become the words. Without the music, I had to be very clear with my intentions with the words I chose to say.