A libretto comes to life: JL Williams

I’ve always been interested in collaborative art forms. Some of my very early and most joyful memories are of being taken by my wonderful mother, grandmother and uncle to see plays, musicals and ballet. The magic of words, music and movement coming together to stupendous effect at these performances has continued to inspire me throughout my life.

Up until a couple of years ago, my musical collaborations had been on a relatively small scale and involved me working with one or two musicians and usually performing the words myself (see, for instance, the music and poetry project OPUL that I share with my partner, James Iremonger). In 2014, however, I was accepted onto the Jerwood Opera Writing Programme, and I met a group of composers including Samantha Fernando and Lliam Paterson. At one of the residential weeks in Aldeburgh, Lliam asked if I might be interested in writing a libretto for a new opera company. It was such an exciting offer! The company was brand new, based in London and committed to making new opera in new ways, with young artists in unusual spaces. I jumped at the chance.

Writing the libretto was a completely gorgeous experience. Since my first collection of poetry, Condition of Fire, which was a response to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, I have enjoyed working from and reimagining pre-existing texts and stories. When beginning with such rich material, the challenge is to find your own way to tell a very well-known story, and opera adds in its own challenges in that often when set to music some words can be lost. This may be for many reasons – when we sing words the timing of the sounds change, the pitch and volume modulate and all this is set against a musical backdrop that may support or compete with the singers. On the other hand, thankfully, there are so many ways the music, set, direction and acting can enhance the communication of the story, and in this case the fact that Snow White was such a well-known story to begin with was ultimately freeing.

Unfortunately Lliam ended up not being able to compose for this opera, though for good reasons as he had too much other work on his plate, and instead the folks at The Opera Story came up with the brilliant idea of inviting not one but three talented young composers to create the music. I first met these composers; Lucie Treacher, Lewis Murphy and Tom Floyd, at a full day workshop at the home of Artistic Director, Hamish Mackay, nearly a year ago. Executive Director Manuel Fajardo joined us, and together we discussed the intricacies of each scene and character. It was such a special experience to have these creative minds working together to envisage how the story would evolve. With the help of the three composers, brilliant director James Hurley who brought so much research and insightful observation to the process, and the kind support and input of Hamish and Manuel along the way, we got to a point where the libretto was ready to pass on to the composers and my role was complete.

As months have passed since I submitted the final draft of the libretto, I can hardly contain or express my delight at the prospect of finally getting to see the finished opera. For an idea to begin as a spark in one’s heart and mind, and to be so close to seeing it blazing in full voice, music, light, costume, set and drama on stage, is almost more than I can comprehend. It takes me back to the joy of those early childhood memories, when stories shimmered to life on stage in a way that was truly magical.

I want to express my gratitude to all the many, many people involved whose hard work has brought Snow to life, and I hope you will be able to join us at one of the performances in London: http://theoperastory.com.

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