Conversation Piece:

Librettist HARVEY HESS

by Bruce Duffie

Pacific swell that
metes the navigatorsí groins!
high artís beginning
planters counting out
hulis in the taro patch
art songís first taste
- Harvey Hess

Opera. You first think of the music and its composer. Maybe you think about
the fact that itís also dramatic, but even then one doesnít automati­cally
think about the words. And even when the words are important, the person
who wrote those words is usually overlooked. Often that is a kind­ness, but
more and more these days, the text of an opera is on a par with the music.

In the past, there have been a few outstanding examples of the librettistís
art. Hofmannsthal for Richard Strauss. Boito for Verdi. Scribe for Meyerbeer
(and everybody else). Da Ponte for Mozart. Metastasio and Calzabigi for
Gluck. Even Wagner for Wagner! But these days, composers realize the
importance of the text, and with greater pressure to deliver a masterpiece
every time, it had better be solid both musically and textually. Harvey Hess
is one of that breed who crafts words for a particular musician.

The Hawaii-based composer Jerré Tanner is emerging as a major force in
music, and his operatic texts have been the result of a collaboration with his
dear friend Harvey Hess. The two are originally from Iowa, and have formed
a working pair-bond that has produced five operas, and is now beginning to
be recognized by a wider audience. There are a few recordings on the
Albany label, and another is about to go into production, conducted by
Margaret Hillis.

Born just five weeks apart, Jerré and Harvey came through Chicago a few
months ago. Chatting with each one separately, I was aware of how much
they put into each piece from their own imaginations, and yet a total working
collaboration was evident.

This ďConversation PieceĒ is devoted to the poet.

Bruce Duffie: Why and when did you decide to go to Hawaii?

Harvey Hess: It was principally owing to Jerréís being there and our
life­long commitment to work together as collaborators. It started when we
were freshmen at the University of Northern Iowa. Both of us were flute
students and composers, so we agreed to bring some of our work to show
each other. Mine was a very chaste motet in the Roman style with four
voices, and he came in with a huge cardboard carton and said, ďThis is my
opera! Itís Danteís Divine Comedy.Ē I soon learned that I didnít have what it
took to be a composer, though I do write music criticism and played flute in
the Waterloo Symphony. But when Jerré and I realized we had an artistic
friendship, we made a commitment and started working together. We were
both 18 years old and have never really had any break in the continuity. So,
after he took his degree at San Francisco State, he went to Hawaii while I
was doing other things including studying philosophy and becoming a
published poet. Finally, he called and said there was such an ethos and
mythos in Hawaii, he was going to stay there. So I went and stayed, also. I
discovered (among other things) my desire to study things Japanese, which
had begun in my teens, and also discovered for myself the wonderful
uni­verse of Polynesian mythology. I was able to write texts for song-cycles
and operas. I stayed for fourteen years, and it was only because there
arenít many jobs for poets that I accepted a position as music critic with the
Spo­kane Spokesman-Review and Chronicle. I thought that was not so very
far away, and it gave me a great opportunity to meet others in the music

BD:      Was that when Hans Moldenhauer was there?

HH:      Oh yes. I would go down and see his archives, and he respected
my work enough to allow me access to his source material. [Note: The
Moldenhauer Archive of scores and manuscripts is now housed in the Music
Library at Northwestern University.] Then, my family needed me back in
Iowa. I had connections there, and an opening came up for an arts reviewer
at the paper. So I returned, and since Jerré has relatives there, it all works
out pretty well. We keep going by mail and telephone and fax, so there is no
interruption in our collaboration. I view myself as a lyric poet who is a

BD:      Having started out in music, does that help when youíre fashioning
prose and poetry for use with tonal sounds?

HH:      Absolutely, especially because Jerréís muse is brought into energy
when he encounters a text that has meter and the traditional trappings of
verse. Itís a very important aspect and I provide that for him. Then for
myself, itís important because I realize what the various pulses in time mean
in shaping Ė not just little bits of meter, but how possible climaxes may be
embedded in the text that will make available to the composer what he can
best utilize for emotional and structural purposes. The tradi­tional uses of
verse are very much alive and available, not only through me, but through
other people as well.

BD:      But you have no way of knowing what muse is going to strike him
for notes or orchestration for any of the texts you provide.

HH:      No, thatís a mystery, but Iím always willing to revise anything so that
the fluidity he needs will be available to him in the text. Someone has said
that if you play ďThe Lordís PrayerĒ on a single note, because of duration
you can tell what it is that is being played. Meter is the thing I work on
above all elseóthe placement of vowels and diphthongs. I did some
singing, so I know how to get these problems out of the way And if I donít
eliminate diphthongs and swallowed lís, the music canít soar, nothing can
arch and thereís no continuity and no climax. Jerré tells me that when an
orchestral suite is played, he can hear my words, and I find that, also.

BD:      Are you ever surprised by what you hear?

HH:      Thatís the one joy a librettist has above any artist in any art form or
media because when itís ready to be performed and all the notes are there
and everyone has rehearsed and memorized the parts, the composer, the
conductor, and the cast all obey what Iíve written and I just watch everything
like a Roman emperor at a very great gala. Performers are just like anybody
else because theyíre people, but they have to continue to translate their
language in a way that sculptors donít because itís a living thing that
requires constant reinterpretation and constant response to the instrument
which is a living body, which changes in time and situation.

BD:      So even though theyíre your same words, you expect them to be
reinterpreted all the time?

HH:      Absolutely I hope there is not only one unique interpretation to any
work of art, be it a poetry reading or a musical performance.

BD:      Well, when youíre collaborating, how much back-and-forth is there
between the composer and librettist?

HH:      Up until heís committed to a set piece, itís almost constant. Then he
goes into his studio and suffers and I donít hear from him for awhile. But
weíre in touch all the time because I have a great deal of aesthetic input into
the drama, the structure, the creation of scenarios, etc. Itís a hero-twin
Castor and Pollux kind of thing, if I may be so bold.

BD:      Do you ever give musical ideas?

HH:      No, thatís totally his domain. I think that poets should learn a little
humility in the face of other things that they do. The mysteries of art are
such that once one has contributed something that is acceptable and the
original creator can live with it Ė whether itís a dance scenario or anything Ė
I think, then, you just commit yourself to whatever may come and realize that
art is great and long, and something wonderful is likely to happen if you
leave things alone and simply agree with the contract within yourself to be a
subordinate. The autonomy of every art in an operatic production remains
perfect. The dance is the dance, and the music is the music, and the poetry
Ė if itís good Ė has real literary virtue.

BD:      You also satisfy some of your creative outlet by writing haiku and
poetry not for music.

HH:      Of course. If I didnít do that, I wouldnít be able to contribute stern
enough stuff to the creative process to have any effect. Poets may be
egomaniacs, but musicians and architects are megalomaniacs!

BD:      So you get your own outlet in the poetry and can subordinate it
when doing libretti.

HH:      Thatís right. [Note: The haiku at the top of this conversation was
written especially for this issue; Hessís next book of poetry, Skipped
Stones, published by Eight Pound Tiger Press in Cedar Falls, Iowa, is due
out in June.)

BD:      Do how do you balance those two phases of yourself?

HH:      Edna St. Vincent Millay has a wonderful line: ďInto the golden vessel
of great song let us pour all our passions.Ē I think that one becomes a
servant for love in the arts, and you just do it. You realize that you have this
opportunity to pour nectar into this immortal vessel, and you just do it.
Thatís grandiose, especially for someone who writes delicate haiku, but
thatís what weíre all doing. It doesnít matter whether itís a critic or a
stage­hand. Weíre all pouring our lives, transmuted in song, into this vessel
which has been dipped-from for the service of all.

BD:      So you view words as song, as opposed to music as song.

HH:      Not opposed, but along with. Itís like a Chalcedonian incarnation
where the two natures in Christ, divine and human, remain absolutely
without change, without division, without separation, without confusion. The
poetry is poetry, the music is music, but if you bring them together you have
this incredible incarnation of something. Two natures in one person, and itís
like that in opera.

BD:      Are there times when one of you will suggest using a text that you
had written and never thought would be part of a collaborative venture?

HH:       (enthusiastically) Oh yes! This is the other thing that is a wonderful
opportunity for every poet. Another person, especially one who really knows
music, will see good things in what youíve done and thought were mediocre,
and with a little bit of work they blossom into something that one had never
dreamed could be there. Itís something wonderful. Jerré will sometimes find
dinky little things Iíd done ages ago and disregarded, and express interest.
Then I have to put them into shape.

BD:      I was going to ask if you had to revise them for use.

HH:      Unless he says no. It is the need of the music that must be
answered, always. And if itís something Iím not proud of, I think I should
have gotten rid of it before he saw it.

BD:      Are you the best judge of what is or is not worthy in your own

HH:      Not always. I know technically when something is energetic and
when itís vital, but I donít always see it unless someone else points it out.
This is something wonderful about all the collaborative arts. There is
another opportunity to learn and grow and alter and transform material that
might have seemed dead or old and now will be given new life. One of the
things needed in the twentieth century is the opportunity to look at old
things anew. Working with other artists, especially musicians with poets,
gives opportunity for resuscitation for material that had gotten to be

BD:      Weíve used several different words Ė poet, librettist, lyricist Ė what
do you con­sider yourself?

HH:      Since Iím a contemplative, I suppose an aesthete who writes, but a
singer, too. Poetry, even haiku which is objective, must have an innate lyric
cry somewhere along the way for it to be meaningful. Then I can feel it,
because to be an aesthete is to feel and perceive. Itís the life of the senses.

BD:      OK, then, what is the purpose of art?

HH:      The purpose of art is to incarnate - in a medium which has become
second-nature Ė in such a way that the artist is freed to embody emotion
and human experience and insight, in a work that will release and express
and embody those insights and feelings and experiences in such a way that
you can, at last, even transcend the medium and contribute things
undreamed of to its corporeality that had never been known of before Ė
especially when one is in touch with oneself and oneís community and
archetypal things such as human history and the excitement of living life in
art and letting art inform life. The Japanese feel there is little distinction
between the artistic life and the aesthetic life, so there is very little
difference between art and life. That also happens with devout
concert-goers and theater-goers. They are so in-tune with what is going on.
In Hindu aesthetics, there comes a time when there is little differentiation
between an appreciator and a creator. I think all artists, especially poets,
need to be aware of how to appreciate what theyíve done Ė even the
failures. Being professionally humble may be one of the most obnoxious
forms of pride. Thatís what I teach my humanities students Ė hubris is to be
avoided. I love teaching because Iím able to articulate through and with my
students the things that we all know and take for granted. But once one
states these principles, then some of these human foibles can be
expressed. Some of the students have gone through trying times and when
theyíre articulated, you can contemplate them and itís no longer remote or
dry-as-dust. It becomes living and interesting, and I gain from it and they
gain from it, and so I find teaching is a great artistic tool for creation and

BD:      So what is your advice to someone who wants to craft libretti?

HH:      Be as much of a musician as possible. The more one knows of
music, and the more one loves it and listens to it attentively Ė especially
Hofmannsthal and Strauss operas Ė the better off one will be. Some people
disagree, but perhaps itís because I was a musician and itís in my blood. I
canít imagine tackling the task of writing words for music without knowing
the technique involved.

BD:        Conversely, should composers understand the craft of writing

HH:      Ah, yes! I think this is one of the reasons we have so many bland
modem operas. All the corners of the respective art forms have been
blunted. The poetry is sort of oatmeal and the music is sort of half and half.
It should be a breakfast that is crackly crisp bacon and carefully cooked
sunny-side ­up eggs and freshly-squeezed orange juice. Everything should
be tart and tangy...

BD:      And loaded with cholesterol! (Laughter all around). Seriously, do
you think there will come a time when weíll have to have ďopera liteĒ?

HH:      Thatís what our ďKona Coffee CantataĒ is Ė a companion to the
Bach ďCoffee CantataĒ! People should not shy away from spoken words in
opera if they feel they are needed. The Schickaneder approach is great.
People love to be entertained, and some of the most profound
entertainment is light and great art at the same time. Whatever seems to be
right in the arts should be done, however frivolous it may seem.

BD:      Any advice for those singers who directly present your words?

HH:      Be more conscious of those words! Live the text through your
technique more incisively.

 - - - - -

Bruce Duffie continues his work at WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago.

 = = = = =

The Opera Journal, June, 1994