In Conversation: Caitlin Vincent

In Conversation: Caitlin Vincent

The acclaimed librettist and singer on juggling creative careers and building characters. 

In Conversation: Caitlin Vincent

The acclaimed librettist and singer on juggling creative careers and building characters. 

Aside from your work as a librettist, you are a professional opera singer. Can you tell me about how you became involved in the opera world, and how your passion for the written word has inspired your love for the genre? 

I’ve been performing since a very early age, but I actually started out in dance rather than music.  My mother was a professional dancer who started her own school when I was quite young, so I started studying classical ballet with her at the age of four.  It wasn’t until I started performing musical theatre in middle school that I really added music to my life and started studying voice privately.  Ironically, my first experience with opera was not a particularly good one: my parents took me to see a minimalist production of Carmen when I was nine, and I was definitely not impressed.  Luckily, when I was 16, I had the opportunity to attend several rehearsals for a production of The Ring Cycle at Seattle Opera.  It was an amazing experience to get a glimpse from behind-the-scenes, and from that point on, I was fully entranced by the world of opera.  As an undergraduate at Harvard, I actually majored History & Literature but continued to study both voice and dance on the side. By the time I was in my fourth year, I had sung lead roles in six operas and directed my first production, all in addition to my regular studies I think it was this combination of performance and literature that really prepared me for a career as an opera librettist, long before it even occurred to me to pursue that path.  

When did you first fall in love with story-telling, and how did this translate into your current work as a librettist? 

I can’t think of the specific moment when I first fell in love with story-telling, but I know I’ve been doing it in some way or another for as long as I remember, from writing stories as a small child to narrating whodunit mysteries during childhood bike rides.  My father is a writer and was particularly influential on this end. . . he gave me my earliest (and perhaps most important!) training on how to craft a narrative and build believable characters.  It wasn’t until I was twenty-four that I wrote my first theatrical work, and even then, it was more a matter of necessity than any sort of artistic impetus.  I graduated with my master’s degree at a particularly bad time for opera in America – it was right in the middle of the economic recession, and dozens of opera companies had just declared bankruptcy or already closed, including the local opera company in Baltimore.  Instead of waiting for the economy to rebound, I decided to start my own grassroots opera troupe with several of my friends from the Peabody Conservatory.  My company, The Figaro Project, ultimately ran for five seasons and presented nine fundraising cabarets and seven mainstage productions, including several world premieres.  But in its first season, The Figaro Project had a tiny budget, and we were really limited on where and how we could put on our first production.  I decided to present The Marriage of Figaro, but I knew that we couldn’t manage a typical period production or even use super-titles.  So, out of necessity, I decided to write a version of the opera designed for a concert setting, replacing sung recits with spoken English dialogue and adding a comedic subplot, in which the librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, suffers from writer’s block.  After the success of this first attempt, I wrote another original adaptation, again designed for a non-traditional performance space: a comedic whodunit version of Don Giovanni titled ‘Who Killed Don Giovanni?’ featuring English dialogue and an obnoxious private investigator.  The next year, I wrote the libretto for my first full-length opera, Camelot Requiem, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  In addition to producing the opera under the auspices of The Figaro Project, I also premiered the role of Jackie Kennedy.  At first, my libretto writing was a means to an end, but it soon became a way for me to tell the stories that I wanted to see come to life on stage.  From that point on, my work as a librettist really snowballed, and before I knew it, I was watching my operas premiered at the Kennedy Center.  

What is your writing process, from deciding on a story to getting the words on paper? Is there a particular technique you engage with when writing operatic “dialogue” as opposed to prose? 

I typically follow the same process for every piece, no matter the subject.  The first step is always researching.  Depending on the topic, this could mean a few hours reading articles on the internet or spending several weeks reading books about a specific historical figure.  Once I’ve done enough early research, the next – and most important – step is writing out a detailed outline.  The specific details of the outline might change over the course of the writing process, but I rely on this framework from the beginning, just to make sure I know where I’m going.  My next step is to sketch out a full draft of the piece by hand.  I have a particular pen and a particular kind of paper that I always use for this step, and I just sit down on a cushy chair and write, write, write.   It’s one of those things where I emerge from a kind of haze several hours later and have somehow acquired dozens of pages of scrawled-out arias, duets, and trios.  The next step is the editing stage, where I type up my handwritten sketch and start the long process of revision.  I usually revise individual numbers first, finalizing and polishing the narrower emotional arcs of a single aria or duet.  Then, I move on to the larger numbers and then the full scene and finally the full act, constantly revising the narrative arc and making sure the pacing feels right.  After I’ve done enough revisions that I’m confident with the pacing of the piece, I usually do one or two final read-through/revision.  This is the brutal ‘red-pen’ stage, when I cut out all superfluous language, answer any character questions, and so forth.  Then, it’s off to both my father and my husband for quick reads and then I send the draft along to the composer for his or her thoughts.  Depending on what they say, I might make some additional revisions, or we’ll shake hands, so to speak, on the finalized draft, and he or she will start setting the text.

In terms of writing operatic ‘dialogue’ versus prose, the primary difference for me comes down to simplicity and length of lines.  When a sentence is going to be sung, you have to consider the kinds of timing delays that inevitably come with music.  Unless you’re writing a patter aria à la Gilbert & Sullivan, you can pretty much guarantee that anything sung will be substantially slower than it would be if spoken.  Plus, the composer might choose to take additional time with certain words, certain notes, or even decide to repeat an entire phrase.  So, the longer and more complicated a sentence, the more likely it will have issues of clarity and audience comprehension.  As Mark Campbell, one of my mentors and a truly brilliant librettist, once told me: “Never use thirty words when you can use five.”   So, for every line I write, I try to find the simplest form, deleting superfluous words, revising and reordering. . . anything that I can do to simplify without losing the meaning that I want.

Do particular stories have more operatic potential? How do you gauge this? 

Certain stories definitely have more operatic potential.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that an opera has to have a major dramatic event. . . an opera can just be about a group of people sitting in a room and still be amazing.  I think the key element comes down to emotional weight and the human element behind the story.  If you think about the classic components of opera – internal monologues in aria form, unrealistically long death scenes, massive ensemble numbers where everyone is singing in asides – the emphasis is nearly always emotional, focused on how a character is reacting to an external (or internal) situation.  So, let’s say you read about a very dramatic event, such as a hostage situation, and you decide that you want to write an opera about it. The situation isn’t enough for a good opera in itself: it’s simply the background scenario.  It gives you the ‘how,’ but it doesn’t give you the ‘who,’ the ‘why,’ or the ‘why do we care.’ You need to add interesting characters with unique motivations (the ‘who’), establish a specific conflict to drive the events of the narrative (the ‘why’), and then find a way to relate your story to modern-day audiences (the ‘why do we care’).  Once you have these in place, you have a story with operatic potential.

What effect does your work as a singer with knowledge of how an opera comes together have on your writing. Do you find yourself writing for your own voice, or voices you know? 

When I’m writing a libretto, I don’t write for any particular singing voice or even think of specific music.  Instead, I write for the personality and inflection of the character that I’m inventing.  This can translate into the kind of vocabulary he or she would use, the length of his or her sentences, and the kinds of rhythmic inflections he or she would use, and even just overall style (for example, would an overly-romantic character use particularly florid language?).  Beyond considering the personalities of my characters, I also take a lot of care with the rhythm and phrasing for each line to make sure that it will be easy for the composer to set.  This often means that I’ll sprechstimme a particular line out loud, just to make sure the phrasing is what I want.  If the rhythm or phrasing feels jagged or unnatural, then it won’t set well and definitely won’t be sung well. 

Because of my background as a singer and director, I do have a good sense of stage logistics and what does and doesn’t work when it comes to staging a scene. I always include specific stage directions in my libretti, just so the composer and the stage director have a sense of what I was intending when I wrote the text.  The stage director may end up deviating from these instructions when the piece goes on stage, but it’s important that he or she understands the original context.  I also try to consider the practicality of the piece that I’m writing.  Opera companies don’t have unlimited budgets, especially these days, and it’s important to design a libretto that can produced with a budget of $5,000 or a budget of $500,000.   Obviously, there are certain stories that need a bit more money for sets and costumes, but as a librettist, it’s important to be cognizant of what you’re writing and how you’re writing it.  You might want to write the libretto for an opera on Mars, but if it’s too impractical to be produced, then it doesn’t matter how good it is.

How do you deal with writer’s block? What methods do you have to overcome this, particularly around deadline days?  

I don’t really experience writer’s block in the traditional sense, or at least, I don’t perceive it in that way.  For me, if I get stuck with a certain text, then I attribute it to fatigue or insufficient research.  Whatever the cause, the key is not to panic.  If it’s an issue of fatigue, my strategy is to close my computer and go do something else, whether for an hour or for a few days . . . however long it takes for me to recharge.  I find that when I take this break – and most importantly, give myself permission to take the break without feeling guilty – I’m able to resolve the issue the next time I sit down to write.  More often than not, my mind is continuing to work even when I’m not writing and just needs time to find inspiration again.  This is why I end up with bits and pieces of all of my operas written as notes on my iPhone…after a day or two on break, I’ll be waiting in the grocery line and suddenly a phrase will pop into my head and inspire a whole new aria.

If the block is more a matter of insufficient research and not knowing what to write, then there’s not much to do except go back and do the necessary studying.  Especially when you’re writing a work about a historical event or a historical figure, you really can’t take shortcuts with the research.  Otherwise, you’ll just end up returning to that first step anyway and wasting time when you could be writing.

In terms of deadlines, I try not to put myself in a situation where I’m struggling to make a deadline at the last minute.  That kind of rushed writing isn’t the most enjoyable experience and also doesn’t necessarily produce very good work.  As soon as I get any deadline from an external commissioner or composer, I create my own internal deadline (usually a week or so beforehand) and really try to hold myself to that date.  

What advice do you have for young writers interested in learning how to write compelling dialogue?

Writing for song or opera is really a matter of experimentation, trying out different voices and different styles, all while trying to create a genuine ‘character.’   Art songs are a great avenue for this because they’re much more condensed than a full-length opera and provide an opportunity to write a relatively narrow dramatic arc.  Another good exercise is to experiment with a certain scenario (for example, a woman at a job interview), and write several different versions of the scene, each time using a slightly different personality or background for the main character (for example, a woman who really wants the job versus a woman who doesn’t want the job; a woman who has been out of work for several years versus a woman who was just fired unfairly from another job, etc.).  This really helps in terms of shaping different kinds of characters and exploring various quirks and nuances in any given personality.  Once you start hearing the voice of your specific character, you can then tap into his or her motivations and flaws.  Once you have created several well-rounded characters, each with their own reasons for reacting in certain ways, you just let them go and hear what they have to say. 

If you could give your younger self some advice on the industry, what would you say? What do you wish you'd known at the start of your career?

The biggest issues that I’ve had in this career have been related to the practical concerns that result from the collaborative process, namely communication.  Early on, I found myself in situations with the potential for conflict, either with my commissioner or my collaborator, but I didn’t address the issues early enough to resolve them.  Part of this was due to a lack of confidence, but also to my uncertainty about my authority as librettist and whether the role of a librettist allowed me to say ‘no’ to the composer or commissioner. The answer to this, of course, is ‘yes.’  But it was difficult to get to the point of comfort with standing my ground, especially when I felt that a collaborator was in the process of damaging or undermining my work.  One great resource that I wish I had employed earlier is a collaboration agreement, which clearly outlines the expectations and roles for all parties involved in a work.  This ranges from issues of royalties and fees to copyright ownership to more creative concerns, such as whether a composer can revise the libretto without informing the librettist.  This way, everything is clarified before the creative process even begins, and both the librettist and composer have recourse in case the collaboration starts going south. 

Caitlin Vincent as Jackie Kennedy and Nathan Wyatt as Bobby Kennedy in Camelot Requiem, music by Joshua Bornfield and libretto by Caitlin Vincent. Photograph by Britt Olsen-Ecker