Poet and librettist J. D. McClatchy grew up immersed in opera. As a child, he listened to broadcasts from New York City's Metropolitan Opera on the radio, played La Boheme in his bedroom, and every Friday afternoon his grandmother would take him out of school so that they could attend a daytime performance of the Philadelphia Orchestra. "I learned the trade as a child," he said in an interview with Poets.org. "Just like you learn to write by reading, you learn opera by listening."
However, McClatchy built his reputation in poetry: he is the author of five collections of poems, the editor of several others, a former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and the editor of The Yale Review. He said he never intended to work in the opera, and came to be a librettist only after composer William Schuman called him one day with an offer. Schuman needed a libretto written for A Question of Taste, an opera based on the story "Taste" by Roald Dahl. Though he had never written for the opera before, McClatchy accepted. A Question of Taste premiered in 1989, and more offers soon followed. "Once you write one libretto," McClatchy said, "suddenly you're known as a librettist."
He eventually wrote libretti for Francis Thorne's Mario and the Magician, Bruce Saylor's Orpheus Descending, and Tobias Picker's Emmeline. He's currently working on opera adaptations of George Orwell's novel 1984, Thornton Wilder's play Our Town, Nathanael West's novel Miss Lonelyhearts, and the opera Grendel, with Julie Taymor, based on Beowulf. 1984 will premiere at Convent Gardens in 2005. The others are set to open at venues across the country in 2006.
Writing a libretto, McClatchy said, presents an entirely different set of challenges than writing a poem. For example, the subtle textures he enjoys in poetry--a lingering image, a nice turn of phrase--don't necessarily work on the grand scale of an opera.
"Opera is a kind of poster art. It deals in big emotion," he said. "You have a singer belting out these words over a 100-piece orchestra to people who have had two drinks and are wearing tight-fitting clothes. How subtle can you be?"
And while McClatchy is the final arbiter of his poems, he said he's forced into a more subservient role when writing opera. His job is to be a "handmaiden" to the composer, to create musical possibilities, "to make a composer want to make music, to draw music out," he said. "I'm in the service of the music."
The job becomes even more complicated when rehearsals begin, when the librettist needs to collaborate with the director, singers, cast, set designers, musicians, and all the other people involved in bringing opera to the stage. "It's an incredible production," McClatchy said. "The only thing more expensive than opera is war."
There are times, however, when having a background in poetry helps: sometimes a singer will need a different sound, for example, an open vowel or closed vowel, depending on the pitch and volume of the note. Other times a composer will need a few extra syllables. Here, McClatchy is working in familiar territory, he said, with "the sheer sound of a word."