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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Song without Words by John von Daler

                The Confessions of an Unfaithful Librettist
I've spent a good part of my working life as a violinist, composer and writer. As a composer I tried to put to music the poems of Danish poets in such a way that the listener would feel that the words have been strengthened and illuminated. As a violinist I played along with some of the most beautiful Danish poetry, trying at one and the same time to support, interpret and liberate the lyrics of the songs without stepping all over the singer.

How is it then that I hardly know one opera libretto? I've written one myself (Bo Holten: The Bond), I have friends who have written them (among others: Lieberson/Penick: King Gesar) and I have listened to operas since I was four or five, in fact ever since I could work on an Erector Set with my father.

He was Austrian. We lived in Oklahoma when I was little. He was not the type of dad who picked up a football and shouted, Run out for a pass, kid! As a matter of fact, physical activity did not interest him, so baseball, football, soccer and any other sport I had to learn by myself.

On Saturday afternoons when my friends presumably were trotting around their lawns with their fathers, I was either sight-reading Mozart and Beethoven Sonatas with him or playing with my Erector Set under his guidance while we heard the matiné opera from The Metropolitan in New York on the radio. Back then listening to radio was such a liberation; with nothing to watch, you could work at something else and let your brain fly off in any direction.

So I've heard Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, Handel, Wagner and others without really paying attention to what was going on. The music just seeped into my brain and the words, well, flew off somewhere.

Apologies to my fellow librettists; I heard your words but understood nothing. To this very day I still focus on the music even at live performances. The most I know is that Mimi gets hungry from the beginning of act one and dies of starvation after a whole lot of beautiful music. And, oh, her hand was cold. Sorry.

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