Terry Teachout is the drama critic for The Wall Street Journal and the chief culture critic for Commentary magazine. His writings on theater, music, and the arts have appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and National Review. His most recent book, "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), was published in December 2009. Teachout is also the librettist for The Letter (composer Paul Moravec), an operatic version of Somerset Maugham's 1927 play, which was commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera in 2006 and premiered there in 2009.
Question: For a critic of music and drama, is opera the ideal form?
Terry Teachout: I like what you put there. Opera is the medium of choice to embrace everything to do everything and if you do it right, if you keep all the different parts and balance, it's a juggling act, but you know, there's really nothing much more exciting than a really good juggling act when there are about 15 balls in the air. I've always loved opera; it never occurred to me that I would write a proper libretto. The reason why it happened was, one of my closest friends is a composer, Paul Moravec, and a few years ago, Paul and I were at lunch, he is a neighbor of mine in the upper West side, and we were sitting at lunch and I said to him, "you really have to write an opera." And I ticked off the reasons why he should do this. His music was inherently dramatic, he wrote well for voices, you know, things like that.
So, he says very casually to me, "I'll do it if you write the libretto." Well, little did I know that the within a couple of years we would end up getting a commission from the Santa Fe Opera to write an opera together, "The Letter," which turned out to be, so they tell us, the most successful commissioned opera in the history of the Santa Fe Opera. We are hoping to write more operas. We are talking to other companies about commissions. It was a completely unexpected for me. I have not since the days of when I was a performing musician, have I got myself as a creative artist. A critic is not a creative artist, is a commenter, a midwife of creativity, but not creative himself.
George Balanchine, the choreographer, would have said, "He's like an angel. He carries the message, but doesn't experience it." And then suddenly, here I am, writing a libretto. And it worked. I mean, the reason why it worked was because I was working with a great composer, but I had learned a lot about what works on stage from spending six years of seeing two or three plays a week. You know, if you don't learn something from that experience, you're not paying attention. And it was fun. It was fun to be on the other side of the curtain. It was fun to see a director, Jonathan Kent, whom I had praised to the skies in my capacity of a critic, working on my material and seeing how he did it.
Direction is the most invisible part of the theatrical art. You don't see it. It's not like the conductor in the symphony orchestra performance because he's standing in front of you waiving his arms. You now what he's doing. You don't know what the director is doing unless you know a lot about theater and even then you can only deduce it. You know it when you go to rehearsal. You really know it when they are rehearsing something of yours. I learned more in the rehearsals for The Letter than I have ever dreamed of know in the theater as a critic. If it doesn't make me a better critic, I'm an idiot.
Question: What advice would you give someone writing a libretto?
Terry Teachout: The most important thing to remember is that the composer is a senior partner. You cannot force a subject on a composer if it doesn't inspire him. He has to take the lead, you are an enabler, and you are creating the enabling conditions under which he can write great music. Your words are secondary. Many librettists in opera collaborations in the past have forgotten this, or not known it, or refuse to accept it and tried to get out in front of the creative process and it just doesn't work that way.
Now, Paul and I are old friends; we really understand each other on. And Paul, not being a theater person, would always trust me when I said things that I am like, "you're going to need another 10 seconds of music year to get them across the stage." But at the same time, I always knew that the people weren’t going to be coming to this opera tear my words, they were going to be coming to hear his music of which my words are going to be a part. And had there ever been a major dispute in our collaboration, and there never was, I would have yielded to him. And I would try to make my point but it was clear that he wanted to go and direction A., and I wanted to go and direction B. We would've gone and direction A. that's the most important piece of advice I can give to anybody who finds themselves in an opera, or musical comedy situation like that.
Recorded on November 17, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen