The writing of the lyric poetry that is the libretto of an opera is a major work of artistic endeavor. The libretto tells a dramatic story that will be sung by vocal artists in arias, duets, quartets, and choruses accompanied by a symphony orchestra in a setting that challenges the decorative staging arts. The librettist can only imagine the performance of his operatic creation, but unless a gifted composer is attracted to the work, it will never soar off the page. If an opera libretto takes a year to write before a composer is engaged, what is the scope of the collaboration as the music takes shape as a score? Here’s my story of the making of an opera.
My entry into classical music as a librettist began with the lyric poetry of an oratorio titled The Awakening of Humanity based on the metaphysical journey of American Indians in my five Booker Series novels. Composer Edmund Barton “Bart” Bullock, after reading my novels, suggested our collaboration and began the oratorio score in 2008. Its first two movements were performed three times in 2015 in France where he lives and works as a composer and concert pianist. The world premiere of the completed work is being planned for 2019. The Awakening of Humanity has gone through four revisions that required me to rewrite lyrics to better serve the music. These revisions required Bart to make annual trips from France to my home in North Carolina where we collaborated side by side.
When I realized that I could write for classical music and work in this challenging medium, I set out to write an opera libretto adapted from Save the Good Seed, the third novel in my Booker Series. The drama of the novel concerned the forced adoption of a Pueblo Indian child by an Anglo couple and his return as an adult to his New Mexico birth tribe to seek his true identity. It took a full year to learn the structural form of opera and to write the lyric poetry of the three-act libretto. The composer of my oratorio liked the opera libretto, but he was years away from completing our project and other commissions to consider composing it. And so the Save the Good Seed libretto remained on the shelf as I went on to write and publish books.
I had established a friendship with Dawn Bailiff during annual reunions staged by our mutual publisher Bob Friedman (Hampton Roads Publishing) at his home in Faber, Virginia. I knew that Dawn had been a concert pianist prodigy who had made a world performance tour at the age of eighteen. She had performed with the world’s most renowned conductors and symphony orchestras. Unknown to me at the time, her composer credits included the libretto and score for an opera in German that was staged in the major German opera houses. Dawn’s heritage is German-Japanese, and she is fluent in five languages. (She is a great conversationalist!) Tragically, at the height of her amazing classical music career, Dawn was struck down by Multiple Sclerosis (MS).
When Dawn was seated next to me at our annual luncheon at the historic Michie Tavern near Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, I mentioned the recent completion of my opera libretto. She asked to read it, and I sent it to her the following week. I was amazed by her response when she asked me to assign it to her for composition. In my respect and affection for Dawn, I agreed; but as her struggle with MS was too often critical, I realized that I could not pressure her in our collaboration.
There was also the problem of Dawn not having access to the computers and software used by contemporary composers. The investment would cost thousands of dollars that neither of us could afford. Dawn supported herself in those days by teaching advanced piano students. Later she would become an Adjunct Professor of London’s Royal Conservatory of Music. The RCM holds summer workshops in cities across the United States for gifted young talent.
Somewhere around mid-2015, Dawn advised me that she had acquired the electronic tools for composing . She was too busy to elaborate. She has never been chatty in her infrequent emails, so I sent congratulations and hoped for progress on our opera. Two years later, in May 2017, Dawn sent me a shocking email after I had requested an “annual” update.
After months of silence she wrote, “I have completed the music for Seed and copyrighted it so please don’t bring in another composer on that opera. It is already written. Just waiting for an opportunity to record.” There was a catch. She did not want me to hear the score until we could hear it together. She would travel to Boone, North Carolina, my home, as soon as her RCM workshop season was over.
Watch for updates on this blog as Save the Good Seed, the opera, progresses on the road to performance. To understand the great honor of having Dawn Bailiff compose my opera libretto, take a look at her resume.
Dawn Bailiff was hailed by Leonard Bernstein for the “veracity . . . and sublimity of her artistry,” when she was just ten years old. Formerly a world-class concert pianist, Bailiff has become a translator, professor, inspirational speaker, disability advocate, and author (Notes from a Minor Key—a Memoir of Music, Love, and Healing) since her diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis.
For more than a decade, Bailiff soloed with most of the major symphonies and philharmonics on five continents, including Berlin, Vienna, Prague, London, Tokyo, Chicago, and Los Angeles, with such notable maestros as Leonard Bernstein, Carlo Maria Giulini, Eugene Ormandy, and Sir Georg Solti.
As a composer, her works have received numerous performances by: Austin Symphony, Minnesota Symphony, Seattle Symphony, Internationale Junge Orchestra Akademie (Bayreuth), Wroclaw Chamber Orchestra (SW Poland on the Oder River), Quintessence Chamber Ensemble (Phoenix, AZ), and Cimarron Circuit Opera Company (Norman, OK).
Her opera, Anblicke des Himmels und der Hölle (for which she wrote the libretto in German) was performed as a collaborative effort between major opera companies in Berlin, Dresden, and Stuttgart.
At the age of eighteen, Bailiff toured thirty-two cities in six months, playing in such exotic locations as Bayreuth, Wurzburg, Wroclaw, Istanbul, Hong Kong, and Seoul.
Both she and her music have been featured on North German Radio (NDR) in Hamburg, Czech-Slovak Radio (CSR) in Bratislava, BBC World Service Radio, CBC Radio Canada, CTV (Canada), YTV (Canada), Good Morning Canada, A.M.Philadelphia, Good Morning America, and National Public Radio (WHYY).
Fluent in five languages and competent in several others, Dawn Bailiff has worked as both a translator and Internet marketing consultant for Fortune 500 companies, as well as an academic translator of Rudolph Steiner, G.W. F. Hegel, and Martin Heidegger. She has also been a successful journalist, technical writer, banking officer, college professor, and small business owner. Bailiff holds an undergraduate degree in music from the esteemed Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, as well as graduate degrees from the University of Vienna, Austria. She is also the author of Using Music to Teach Math, Foreign Language, and Technical Skills—Incorporating the Anthroposophic Principles of Rudoph Steiner (written in German). Bailiff ’s most recent translation credit is Cosmic Ordering: The Next Adventure by Barbel Mohr.