Ahead of the work-in-progress sharing of ‘While There’s Light’ next Wednesday, librettist and translator Vincent Katz reflects on the process of adapting ancient texts amid numerous influences.
Elizabeth Bishop got me here, but now that I’m in London, albeit in quarantine for the moment, other voices are speaking to me. I’ve been reading Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) on the origins of blues and jazz, and David Toop’s book ‘Ocean of Sound’. Last night, I read the bit about Des Esseintes, Huysmans’ character from ‘Against Nature’. Toop’s book is great because you don’t have to read it in sequence; it’s composed of many sound bites, as it were, and you can read around in it as well as straight through.
I’m in quarantine, having arrived from New York two days ago; one loses one’s sense of time, and time zone, in travel. I’m here for the last few days of prep for ‘While There’s Light’, the opera that composer Sarah Sarhandi and I began working on over 10 years ago, based on my translations of the 1st century BCE Roman poet Sextus Propertius. I know it’s more than 10 because there’s a photo of us, bowing to each other and the audience, in Frank O’Hara’s formulation, at the end of Sarah’s evening of performances, ‘The Dance of Giving Up’, at Great Western Studios, on November 24, 2011. That evening included the first performance of the aria ‘Lucky me! Radiant night!’ sung that night by Lauren Kinsella.
Ten years is a long time. Remember how different the world was in 2011? Think how different it must have been two thousand years ago, or a little more, around the time Propertius was alive and strutting his stuff in the Roman Forum and also in the halls of his patron Maecenas and the emperor Augustus. Different, but also the same. Which is part of the reason, I think, we are drawn to Propertius’ poetry, his intensely conflicted and then suddenly soaring phrases responding to the wrenching emotions he felt while in the throes, and then the aftermath, of his love affair with a woman he called Cynthia. He called her Cynthia partially to veil her identity, partially as a nod to her prodigious musical skills (Cynthius was one of the epithets of the god Apollo, born on Mount Kynthos). Sarah and I have been trying to think of ways to work on this project for years, and we have created three arias at this point.
In the first, ‘The Roman Callimachus,’ we have Propertius singing of his origins (‘What class I am and from where’) and detailing the pain of land distribution under Augustus (‘you allowed my relative’s limbs to go abandoned, / you cover the poor man’s bones with no earth’). About half way through, he summons his strength and makes his promise to gain fame by singing Rome’s praises (‘whatever stream should flow from my narrow / breast, all of it will serve my nation’). If we know the whole story, we know this ambition can be achieved only with difficulty. Twice Propertius will rebuff the advances of Maecenas, Augustus’ right-hand man and cultural minister, when he comes asking for official poetry to embellish the empire’s image. Propertius is a poet of love; he can no more write of war and power than Maecenas can change his own character and come out of the shadows to receive the public recognition that is his due.
Our second aria, ‘Lucky me! Radiant night!’, is sung by Cynthia, who may or may not have been a courtesan. Certainly, she was a very talented and beautiful woman, who drove Propertius to paroxysms of delight and also tortured suffering when she could or would not be with him. In the language of the literary genre Propertius wrote in — Latin Love Elegy — Cynthia was the ‘domina’ and Propertius the ‘miser’. A typical trope is the poet complaining at being locked outside the gate to his lover’s home. Most of Propertius’ poems are first-person narration in the original text. To make the libretto, I transformed the scenario, putting some of the poems’ words in the mouths of other characters. In this aria, for example, Cynthia, not Propertius, sings of a night of very memorable love-making. So memorable, in fact, that the couch that was the site of their love was ‘made fertile by my pleasures!’ The violent side to their relationship is not skirted here, and yet the aria ends on a quieter, philosophical note: ‘But you, while there’s light, don’t neglect the fruit of life! / If you give all your kisses, you give few.’ Sarah’s music for this entire aria, and especially the ending, is so evocative; it seems to include all the emotional ups and downs we all have been experiencing in these last few years. It becomes more than the specific story; or maybe, each listener hears their own story in it.
Finally, in the third aria of the evening, ‘O guardian of the world,’ Apollo, the god of rationality and music, addresses Octavian, soon to be Augustus, before the decisive battle of Actium in 31 BCE, at which Octavian will defeat the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, thus consolidating his imperial power. Apollo says that Augustus is ‘more famous than Hector’ and exhorts him: ‘conquer the sea: the earth is already yours; my bow fights for you / and this whole quiver on my shoulders is on your side.’ As our evening ends, we are left with the image of Propertius and Cynthia struggling to maintain their fragile private love in the context of a brutal and excessive outer world.
The music Sarah has composed for these three arias and for two instrumental interludes amazes me. She has a way of thinking about music that corresponds very closely with the way I think about poetry: it has something deeply rooted in tradition (in Sarah’s case the traditions of Western Classical Music, contemporary music, and Pakistani music) while also being very free, not bound to previous ways of composing. Her melodies and harmonies, her timbres, are so unique, and yet they feel ancient at the same time.
London, July 31, 2021