I almost lost it when it came time last year to write the recital libretto for the Composer Librettist Development Program (CLDP). Created by American Lyric Theater to train writers and musicians who want to create opera, CLDP is a three-year residency, with a mini-opera required of everyone at the end of the first. We’d been paired up, librettists and composers. The libretto comes first, and it has to be done on time. But the Ladysitting manuscript was due to my editor Amy Cherry at Norton Books. I’d been managing writing, teaching, and commuting to New York all year. Just. Now came the pile-up.
So composer Liliya Ugay came up with a plan. She’d been handling her own commute, from Yale, plus teaching, writing, rehearsing, and performing. “Why don’t you tell me about the book you are writing?” she said. “Maybe there’s something there we can use!”
I told her stories that I was trying to capture from my grandmother’s life: like how during the Depression Nana secretly got herself a driver’s license even though her husband forbade it; or how she told me not to waste money on a burial service, but rather to pour her ashes into a hole I was to dig at her family plot in the historic black Eden Cemetery. (Didn’t happen, by the way.)
With the composer’s go-ahead, I worked on a story that played with motifs about family obligation, memory, shame, and refusing to let go. Liliya and I argued and emailed and talked and listened. The thirty-minute opera, featuring three voices, was described in the program as follows: “Nana’s Ghost discovers that her granddaughter is revising the libretto to an opera she’s been writing about Nana’s life — and Nana’s Ghost is not pleased. A haunted wrestling for control begins, with the composer also advocating for the version of the story he thinks will sing.”
Liliya created moments for the Ghost character that move from delightfully prim and traditional (for the lines: “Write a nice/Little opera/in my name”)to out-of-control (“I gave her gold/That she’s /Turned into straw!”). The composer’s segment uses musical wit to lighten as well as convince. Finally the piece resolves in a lyrical and cascading duet. The Ghost will indeed leave, but not until the two remember the joy of life, including standing together behind roaring waters on a long-ago trip to Niagara Falls. My fraught and complicated meditation on love and loss could finally sing.
And, surprise, now I could finish the book. In the final revision of Ladysitting, I had to insert this:
…the character of Nana’s Ghost …wants to to find the libretto about her haunting and destroy it. She knows that when it is performed, she will really have to die and leave Granddaughter alone. But it turns out that, after writing the damned thing, the granddaughter is not sure she wants that either:
Granddaughter: It felt like I was losing you.
Nana’s Ghost: You are. Love would mean that I should go.
For Mother’s Day this year, Liliya and I are happy to share the piano-vocals recording of The Gospel According to Nana that she produced and performed with talented young colleagues from Yale: Mezzo Evanna Chiew, soprano Sherezade Panthaki, and tenor Gene Stenger.
Want the computer version of superscripts? Click here to follow along with the short libretto.
Thanks to these and the performers at ALT, who brought the work to life; to the American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program, including Mark Adamo, the librettist-composer (Little Women) who taught what became one long MFA-style master class; Cori Ellison, the dramaturg, translator, and teacher, who brings to the Met, Julliard, Glyndebourne Festival and students encyclopedic knowledge filtered through an open heart; and our excellent pair of directors — Executive Director David Rubeo and Producing Artistic Director Larry Edelson.
Thanks and praise to the individuals — all talented and generous leaders — who donated to my Crowdrise page devoted to ALT for its Tenth Anniversary. (Yes, it is still open.)
Thanks again, finally, to Liliya Ugay on this, her first personal Mother’s Day!