Building Character

I never wanted a big mansion, but I always wanted the quintessential big mansion library with leather chairs, wood paneling, shelves to the ceiling, and a ladder that’s on a roller track so I can slide it around the room, examine my stacks, and get lost in a book four rungs off the ground. While the smoking jacket and pipe are – at this point – not foreseen, the pretension is real, and tantalizingly delicious.

The reality, however, is thus: I have a library. It’s very small, and mostly digital. A good portion of my library exists in a storage unit in Stoneham, Massachusetts. Such is the expatriate experience.

In the portion of my library which is at hand, a majority of the volumes are in the section I have labeled, “Required Reading for Artists.” These are books which have helped me shape the way I think about how I do what I do, and how I fit what I do into my life. I frequently evangelize – thumping these books as part of the act – to anyone with the rare question of how I got myself into this mess to begin with, and I have actually purchased additional copies of these books to give as gifts, or, at least, as tokens of aggressive support for potential artistic exploration.

A few nights ago, I reread one of my favorites, Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See. I was seeking a particular chapter that pertained to my current predicament. I’m closing in on the double bar of a new one-act comedic opera for five women and piano.  The writing has been coming along at an encouraging pace especially given that I have a deadline for a draft of the work in a month. The encouraging pace came to a screeching halt this week.

The current opera is the first for which I have written a completely original libretto. A libretto is a “script,” plus all the text and stage direction that serves as a blueprint of putting the piece on stage and making it go. In the past, I have curated a libretto by collecting and combining various source material into a story line, written a new English translation of existing Italian libretti, and adapted short stories, with a few edits here and there to make things more singable. An original libretto – characters, story, action, stage direction, relationship details that will be communicated musically, even suggestions for staging, costumes, and lighting design – requires much more attention to detail from the start if it is to translate as seamlessly to the stage as I’d like it to.

The problem: this week, I confronted the fact that my characters were not acting like themselves throughout the entire work – only when the spotlight was on them. They were hollow and their interactions were perfunctory.

I turned to my library for help, specifically, to Dr. See’s book. In a chapter dedicated to the subject of Character (the one I sought out specifically), she encourages the potential writer to assemble an ensemble of personalities from one’s own life – ten of the most important people and 5-10 “creeps” (those who make your skin crawl). From these 15-20 individuals, all characters needed in the telling of one’s stories can be found, so saith Dr. See (I’ve done this exercise twice since my first reading of Making a Literary Life, about seven years ago).

I apparently needed reminding that the characters in my operas were people I knew. Everything flows from character – personality, interactive relationships, what one wants, why, from whom, and what are they willing or required to do to get it. Figuring out these problems provides timing, mannerisms, interactions, pitfalls and climactic resolutions. Who one is and what one does has repercussions. So much so for the web of characters one creates in a story where there are several people who want the same thing, as is the case in the present example.

A wood-encased library and an absurd smoking jacket seem like impenetrable armor compared to the open warfare that one’s personal characters should be employed in a side show of one’s own devising. But that’s how it goes sometimes.



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