Women in War - Contemporary Opera Librettist Deborah Parsons - interview
How did this collaboration start?
I have known Tassos for more years than I care to remember. We played in bands together back in the dark ages, co-wrote an album of children's songs together, collaborated on various television projects. So Tassos approaching me to work together on the opera I think for him was kind of a Blues Brothers moment - "we're putting the band back together!" We work well together and understand what the other wants. My long association with Greece (I live there 3 months of the year and have done for many years) also gave me a bit of a heads up on the cultural nuances that are important to this work.
You have extensive experience in writing film and television scripts, but this is your first opera. How did you approach the challenge of writing a libretto for a modern opera?
With fear and trepidation! And of course with the confidence born of sheer ignorance. Before I attempted to put a single word on paper, I tried to read as many libretti as I could. As well as educating myself, I guess I was also looking for a model of sorts, some sort of pro forma I could hang my hat on. And then at some point I just stopped reading them. I decided "I have to make this my own beast. I have no idea how other librettists approach doing this but I am just going to dive in and wing it." Which is what I've done with most everything pretty well my entire life - and it seems to have panned out OK to date. So then I spent months working on story. There were two givens - it was war from the women's POV and the story was going to take place on Lemnos. The tricky thing narratively was how to get my Turkish mother to Limnos. That was something I tore my hair out about for a whole - but I think the dramatic solution I came up with was both elegant and emotionally potent. I gave myself a big pat on the shoulder for that one.
Did your experience in film and television help you write the libretto?
If I have learnt anything in 30 years of writing for film and TV it is that story is paramount. And that is what I think I have brought to this opera in spades. Women In War is a good ripping yarn that will (hopefuly) tear at your heartstrings.
Are there differences between contemporary and classical opera?
I think the primary difference between the two is that opera used to be a popular art form in the true sense of the word. It was art for the masses. It strikes me that contemporary opera is a more rarefied art form appealing to a much narrower audience spectrum. I guess music theatre has co-o much of the old opera audience.
I'm hoping that Women In War will work on a broader more popular level. Well, at least that was the intention!
Did you know about the Battle of Gallipoli before starting to write the libretto and what research did you do?
My father was a WW2 veteran. As a consequence, I knew much more about, and was always more intimately connected to the Second than the First World War. I knew of course about Gallipoli as the iconic Australian defeat that in many ways helped to define Australia as a nation. As I was aware growing up that it was regarded by many as the time when we as a nation began to throw off the shackles of Empire. But as far as who did what, when and where, as far as the actual battles, and the multiplicity of players in those battles - I knew very little.
I immersed myself in reading. Letters home from Diggers were particularly useful and evocative, plus there has been quite a lot written in recent years about the Australian nursing experience at Gallipoli. But while there is an enormous volume of firsthand accounts of Allied soldiers' and nurses' experiences, there is little such material available that tells of the Turkish and/or Greek experience. Which is what I needed. The diary of Aubrey Herbert who spoke fluent Greek and Turkish and was employed by the Allies as an interpreter was invaluable as were Savage's photos of Lemnos. As well a photographing the nurses, field hospitals and troops, Savage also captured the Lemnos islanders and their way of life. The other thing I did was go there. The Gallipoli peninsula in December is not the tourist draw card of summer and spring. It is perishingly cold with the winds coming in from the Baltic. As the Allies didn't evacuate till mid January, it was a salutary reminder of the condition that soldiers from both sides had to endure.
How hard was it to describe the course of the war through the eyes of female characters not involved in the battle?
Women are the forgotten victims of war. They lose husbands, fathers and sons to war while at the same time they are expected to maintain the home front, keep the farms and factories and businesses ticking over till the men return when they expected to willingly relinquish that new found independence. And then there are the contrasting mind sets of Clarisa, an educated woman who was now allowed to vote, with the traditional village lives of Yeliz and Polyxeni. It was great getting inside their very different heads.
The opera is a complex art which requires good cooperation between all involved. How did you find the experience and did you need to find compromises in the development of the libretto?
Stage one. Nothing but words on paper.
At first it was just me working my own. Trying to invent a world, a story, trying to imagine a musical tone, trying to work out what or who the chorus was and how they were going to function in narrative terms. Basically me on my own-some flying blind with occasional editorial comments from Tassos who was yet to start composing.
Stage two, words and music.
And then the music gets introduced, and everything, and I mean everything changes. Which is as it should be. The libretto is just the blue print. It was the scaffolding for Tassos to construct his world upon. Because opera is primarily a composer's medium. It is the librettist's job to serve the composer. (Not that I told Tassos that.)
The other thing is quite often once the music is there you realise you don't actually need a lot of what you have written because the song is delivering so much emotionally already, much more than what you had anticipated.
Stage three, words music and staging.
And then when Alkinos the director came on board, it all changed yet again.
Theatre, film, TV, opera - they are all collaborative mediums. No one person is king. They are all there to serve the work, to make it as good as it possibly can be.