Interview with Glyn Maxwell

Glyn Maxwell 

Librettist for The Magic Flute

Glyn is a poet and playwright who has written extensively for opera. His libretto for the David Bruce piece The Firework-Maker’s Daughter (2013, ROH, UK tour, New York) was nominated for ‘Best New Opera’ at the Olivier Awards in 2014, and Nothing, also for David Bruce, premiered at Glyndebourne (2016) to 4 and 5 star reviews and was recently staged at Aarhus, Denmark. His other libretti include The Lion’s Face (2010, for Elena Langer, ROH and UK tour), Seven Angels (2011, for Luke Bedford, ROH and UK tour), and The Birds (2008, for Edward Dudley Hughes and I Fagiolini.)

What’s been your journey to becoming Glyn Maxwell, poet, playwright, librettist and lecturer?

Well it started with poetry, but I think I realised quite quickly that what I loved most was the sound of human conversation, tragic, comic, whatever, but human talk made memorable, sung by rhyme or drama, or literally sung in opera.
And thinking about what they all have in common, I’m struck only by this: in every case the writer has a kind of impatience with reality, as if one’s saying ‘no, that’s not quite it – what’s missing is this’. As if one’s poem or play or libretto or lecture will amend life to perfection – of course they won’t, or maybe they do for three seconds – but I think that’s the impulse. At its weirdest it says: Shakespeare was great, but he’s gone, so let’s try and make some more of him. Or in this case: there are lots of Magic Flute libretti – even one by Auden, whom I revere – but none of them are quite right any more so I’d better do it myself. From the outside this sounds arrogant or crazy, but this is what a serious writer looks like on the inside.

What's your relationship with opera, have you always been a fan?

No, I grew up more with theatre, and in music, rock, and I didn’t appreciate classical music much until about my forties. In 2002 John Fulljames at the Opera Group was looking for a poet that the Russian composer Elena Langer could set to music, and that’s where things began.

How do you approach writing operas libretti? Is it all about the text, or how does the music influence you as you write?

The contemporary composers I’ve written operas with – Elena Langer, David Bruce, Luke Bedford, Ed Hughes – usually I’ve written the words first. Once we’ve worked out the story I write words, then they write music, then we bat things back and forth till we get there or the time runs out. So working with Mozart is entirely different. I absorb what’s in the music maybe 80% subconsciously – and maybe another 10% what I know about the man himself – and I suppose I try to place myself where his first librettists were. Being a pal of his, planning things in a tavern, working to a deadline. Wanting the audience to like it, laugh, cry, tell their friends. And you become conscious of words and syllables being crotchets and minims and quavers and so on, and where to have long vowels, say, or open vowels, or where not to have diphthongs. This is fairly instinctive with me. Because in poetry I’ve always worked with Form – or worked against it, which is the same thing – so I guess that’s my training right there.

What's your favourite part of the creative process?

Looking at the time and seeing an hour went by without your noticing. Which means you gave that hour your all. You literally did your best.

Do you have a daily writing routine?

On a writing day I try to be started by 5.30 am, work on through till lunchtime, eat, glass of wine, deep siesta, then re-emerge at the end of the afternoon to revise what I did earlier. I never do anything creative after 7pm.

You're writing the libretto for our The Magic Flute. Can you share a few of your ideas for this production?

I knew when I took this on that I needed One Big Idea, that was all. A concept, I suppose. I knew I didn’t want a libretto that demanded prior knowledge from the audience. Take the Masonic elements in the opera – they may be relevant to its making, but they’re not essential to its telling. The story is timeless, or deeper than time, of darkness being supplanted or defeated by light. That can be the Dark Ages giving way to the Enlightenment, or old Catholicism to Freemasonry (as Mozart saw it) – but it might just as well be literal – night-time giving way to dawn. So I set it in the course of a night, where a modern-day couple have quarrelled and need to find their way back to their love of each other, which they do through dreams and nightmares. As light grows, love grows, from the personal and private to the love of strangers (which Christians here believed in till about 2010) and by extension grace, tolerance, openness, mercy. You take something universal – sleep, dream, waking – you’ll find its rays might just shine everywhere.

What do you find most challenging as a writer?

Making a living, I suppose, which is at least comfortingly timeless.

If you were on Desert Island Discs, what would be your tracks and books be and why?

This game would be too much fun and therefore take too long, but the track from Magic Flute would be either the Pamina-Papageno duet in Act One, or the Sarastro solo 'In diesen heil’gen Hallen' from Act Two. Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Andrew Bird. The extra book would be the Collected Auden.

How do you think opera could diversify?

I’ve been very lucky in my wholly unexpected opera career – all my work has been with two brilliant and foresightful companies – The Opera Group, who make new opera, and OperaUpClose, who make old opera new again. I think both of these diversify admirably.

You recently published your new book, 'Drinks with Dead Poets'. Of all the poets we meet, who would you most like to have a drink with and why?

I never really got a drink with Edward Lear, cos he passed out – maybe in the sequel.

If you hadn't been a poet, what might you have been doing instead?

I’m kind of a natural teacher, I guess. So I’d have been overworked, undervalued, and depressed.

If you had to give advice to someone wanting to get into writing librettos, what would you say?

As much as you can, write in your English, the English of now, not in a reverent, awed English, so that what you bring is vivid and is something only you can bring.

The Magic Flute will premiere at Soho Theatre on 6 September - 7 October, to find out more click here