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Opera is dependent on librettos as much as the melodies. Without the words, operas would be symphonies, which are great too, but not when you want to see an opera. Here is a little tribute to several writers – the obscure and the well known librettists – who penned some fantastic librettos for operas that typically garner recognition for the composer.


1. Emanuel Schikaneder

This German librettist penned the story for one of the most loved operas of all time, Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Another interesting fact is that he built the Theater a Wien, which is still located on the Left Wienzeile in Vienna. He was called the greatest man in theater, in his day.

He first met Mozart in 1780 but wouldn’t work on Die Zauberflöte until years later. Called a Singspiel, which means “sing-play” in its literal German terms this is an opera which utilizes spoken words as well as singing.  

Tamino, a handsome prince, is lost in an unfamiliar terrain and being hunted by a snake. He implores to the heavens for help. When the pressure of being trailed by a deadly serpent gets to be too much Tamino faints.

Three female aides of the Queen of the Night suddenly appear and vanquish the snake. Tamino, still unconscious, is discovered by the women and they all find the young prince desirable.  Each on tries to influence the other two to depart but when they are all unsuccessful they all set out together halfheartedly.

When Tamino regains consciousness, he meets Papageno dressed in a bird costume. He tells Tamino about his time as a bird catcher and whines to Tamino of being alone without female companionship. Tamino assumes that Papageno is the one who killed the relentless serpent and the bird man is glad to let Tamino continue to believe this.

While Papageno declares that the serpent died from his hands around its throat the three women reappear and Papageno is punished for his lies. In the meantime, they show Tamino a portrait of Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night. He falls in love with her instantly. Unfortunately, Pamina has been kidnapped by Sarastro, an evil necromancer who is an enemy of the Queen.


2. Ruggero Leoncavallo

In this case, the composer is the librettist. Born in Naples in 1857 to a musical family, he spent time working as a pianist in Egypt where his uncle Giuseppe served as the director of the press department at the Foreign Ministry. Yet while working on his music, he also penned the lyrics for some of his most famous works.

Pagliacci is a famous two-act opera with music and libretto by Leoncavallo. In fact, this opera and its weeping clown, have been parodied and referenced in pop culture as much as any opera ever written. From the Marx Brothers to Seinfeld, to the Simpsons, Leoncavallo’s most celebrated opera has made its way into pop culture infamy.

I Medici focuses on the Medici family, a banking clan who were very influential in politics. They would become a royal family who first gained celebrity from their patriarch Cosimo de’Medici. The incident that this Leoncavallo opera focuses on is the Pazzi conspiracy, which was a plan devised by the Pazzi family and their followers to take over the Republic of Florence and get rid of the Medici family.

Leoncavallo also penned a libretto for the opera La bohéme, which should not be mistaken with the bohemians that Puccini wrote about this opera was written at the same time. It turns out that Puccini and Leoncavallo wrote their versions of La bohéme at the same time but Leoncavallo started his first, which would make it the subject of a public argument between the two composers.

There are different accounts of what happened between the two, and it depends on which composer the scholar sides with. One account says that Leoncavallo went to Puccini with the libretto and, when rejected, resolved to writing the opera himself. Another says that Puccini was unaware of Leoncavallo’s writing an opera of the same title.


3. Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa

This pair penned the dialogue for opera favorites by Puccini La bohéme, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly. Illica was born at Castell’Arquato and wrote for other composers including Pietro Mascagni, Alfredo Catalani, Alberto Franchetti, and Umberto Giordano. Besides the two aforementioned operas, Giacosa was born near Turin and studied at the University there, in the Law Department.

Giacosa was a playwright first and his first taste of fame came after debuting Una Partita a Scacchi in 1871. It is said that his simple style and subject matter surrounding values of the conventional. When pairing with Illica, Giacosa turned his partner’s plot and dialogue prose into verse form.

Illica was an interesting character who is reported to live like the characters he created or was it the other way around? Also, he preferred to be photographed with his head slightly tilted because one of his ears was cut off in a duel. The fight was over the affection of a woman. An award in his name, the Luigi Illica International Prize, is one of the oldest artistic prizes in Italian history.

The Prize was founded in 1961 and it honors authors, directors, singers, and conductors within the opera world. They are passed out every two years opposite the Opera Stage International Competition, which focuses on younger artists.


4. Modest Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Brother to one of the most loved composers in history this Tchaikovsky penned the libretto for his brother’s Iolanta and The Queen of Spades. Unlike his sibling, Modest spent his life focusing on the written word and created many more works than the ones he collaborated on with his brother. Plays he has written include Predrassudki, Simfoniya, and Den’v Peterburge.

Modest worked with other composers too. He penned the librettos for Eduard Nápravnik’s Dubrovsky, Arseny Koreshchenko’s Ledyanoy dom, Anton Arensky’s Nal’i Damayanty, and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Francesca da Rimini.

Iolanta, tells the story of a blind princess who is unaware that she is either blind or a princess. She has been isolated from birth by her father and only attended to by servants. Still, Iolanta can sense that she is missing out on something and expresses her sadness.

King René, Iolanta’s father, insists that she is not ever to know she is blind nor shall or her soon to be husband, Duke Robert. A doctor, Ibn-Hakia, says that he has a treatment for Iolanta, and she could be cured of her blindness but it will only work if she knows that she is blind. The king decides that the risk of breaking her heart is too big and denies Iolanta the treatment.

The soon-to-be husband, Robert arrives and confesses to his friend Count Vaudémont that he has fallen in love with Countess Matilde and does not want to marry Iolanta. After Robert professes his love for Matilde, Vaudémont finds the garden where Iolanta has been kept. He ignores the sign forbidding intruders and finds the princess sleeping. Vaudémont falls in love with Iolanta on sight.

When she awakens Vaudémont asks her for a red rose to keep, she offers him a white one twice and finally realizes that she is blind. Vaudémont helps her by explaining color and light. The couple falls deeply in love. King René discovers them and is furious but Vaudémont tells the king he loves Iolanta and wants to marry her.

Displayed on the cover of this post is Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta by the Teatro Real, from Spain.

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