Our Libretto Conundrum
I think about the great man’s biography sometimes. Few photographs exist of his days as a shepherd, but the story is so familiar—has become such an ingrained part of our country’s story, our aspirational dream—that I can imagine it quite easily. Or maybe it’s because I myself am an opera composer that I can picture him out on the prairie, riding his motorcycle, herding sheep, writing libretti. His legendary ingenuity was intrinsic to his way of doing things even then; he knew that his best ideas always came to him while he was out herding—out in the vast landscape of our country’s northern plains; out in the solitude of that hard and lonely work—so he took an old lap desk he’d found abandoned behind the town library and attached it to the space between his motorcycle’s handlebars. An intellectual, an artist, a man of the land, he could do his work and create his art without risk of harming anyone. He would be ready for inspiration whenever it hit. If the future president fell deep into a spell of creative output, writing while riding, the only possible victims of his distracted state were the sheep themselves; and the great man, being legendarily thrifty as well, would always eat the sheep he accidentally ran over.
Later came the great man’s spectacular, breathtaking—erotic, some are even compelled to say—rise to power. He ran for mayor of an economically battered but politically critical northern-plains city. His budget was pocket change; his custom of symbolically wearing a blindfold while debating his opponents generated his earliest mentions in our national press. After that, his fame felt unstoppable, essential, natural, inevitable. An enterprising journalist revealed that all the libretti of the three operas that were revitalizing the theater district of our capital city had been written pseudonymously by this handsome, modest, rugged, upstart shepherd-mayor from the sticks. Then that serendipitous day: on a visit to the city for the theater community’s annual awards ceremony, he singlehandedly guided a sinking ferryboat filled with elderly tourists out of danger and safely into our capital city’s harbor, using only his wits and his knowledge of motorcycles. The commercial triumph of the opera he subsequently wrote about the episode—The Great Ferryboat Rescue—quickly outstripped the successes of all his previous works. The shepherd-librettist never fell in with the capital city’s political handlers and talent managers, no matter how much they begged; he and a small team of writers and ranchers from his hometown managed all his affairs, both in opera and in politics. In nearly everyone’s eyes—to everyone’s astonishment—he stayed true to his prairie values.
After that came his ascension to national office, in spite of the hate-filled campaign launched against him. The opposition party didn’t just cast doubt on his leadership potential, but essentially damned all creative work, and all ranch work, as feminine, destructive, and evil; the lipstick, they whispered, that was painted on the mouth of hell. It was a problem, we knew—the hate dragged us all down with it—but one that would be gone after the inauguration.
It was only after his first six months in office that what our real problem was started to become apparent. The writing of libretti had become enormously popular with young people during the campaign, but half a year into the president’s first term, the specific combination of motorcycles and opera started to take off as the favorite hobby of seemingly everyone in our capital city. Hence, our current two-part nightmare: First, the incredible rise in libretti in need of being set to music. Some composers claim that this is a boon, as it means that any composer, regardless of talent, is suddenly able to charge outrageous fees. But my most talented colleagues, the genuinely good composers of my acquaintance, call it a nightmare. The sheer volume of work being thrust at us—mailed to our agents, handed to us in person at restaurants, left in unkempt piles on our stoops—means it’s impossible to separate the good writing from the awful.
The second part of the nightmare is the incredible rise in motorcycle accidents, resulting in a terrible rise in traffic fatalities, as well as paper cuts among passers-by. The president’s political party, off the record, calls it a conundrum: were he to stop writing libretti on his motorcycle—and he often retreats from the capital to his beloved prairies to clear his head, to think about policy, and to write—he might save lives. But if he were to do so, the shepherd-librettist might lose his defining characteristic, his chief quality, which might mean his party would lose power.
I think about the great man’s biography sometimes; times like right now, as I sit in a traffic jam that I am confident has resulted from yet another motorcycle-libretto crash. It’s times like these that I wish that the president would indeed change his ways—or do something, anything, to make this problem go away. I stick my head out the window of my car and crane forward, looking ahead to see if I can spot what the matter might be; sure enough, up ahead, I can make out two helmeted men arguing, poking each other in the chest with their pens, a flurry of pages at their feet.
As an opera composer myself, I could probably dispatch the problem quickly and easily if I just got out of my car and approached the two. But these days, I keep my composing skills a secret. I have very nearly abandoned my art; I have almost completely despaired of ever composing another opera again. This is my failure as a citizen. The social contract needs me, needs my staves and clefs, and I refuse it. I’d like to think that this failing is not intrinsic to me; but today, at least, I am not a great man. I join in the chorus of all the cars around me, leaning on my horn as hard and long as I am able.