Backstage at San Francisco Opera > February 2013 > From Book to Libretto
From Book to Libretto
Adapting Frances Hodgson Burnett's beloved novel, The Secret Garden, as an opera, has been a joy, for two main reasons. One is the strength and beauty of the book, and the other has been the delight of working with a brilliant composer, Nolan Gasser, who has been as encouraging, flexible and astute a collaborator as any librettist could wish for.

In regards to the adaptation, many adaptors today seem to think that the more famous the book the greater the need to make it "their own." I've always worked on exactly the opposite principle. As the author of over two hundred original plays, scripts and novels, I have had plenty of opportunity to indulge my own imaginative flights. To my mind, what a great work requires from an adaptor or translator is faithfulness, and in that capacity I have always stayed as close to the original as possible—if the original is strong! And The Secret Garden is. The musical that was made from the book some years ago took liberties, inventing characters and plots not to be found in the original. This left me free to be different—free to be true to Frances Hodgson Burnett.

The greatest challenge was technical: it was the matter of length, and the quantity of time that elapses in the novel as the children—its main characters—go through a kind of chrysalis period of slow self-discovery before emerging, in the garden of the title, as the healthy, heart-whole young people they deserve to be. Burnett takes her time leading the reader through this evolution—and we love every minute of it. It's one of those books that you never want to reach the end of. Burnett is able to go into the secret inner lives of the characters; on stage, we can only dwell for so long on this process, and yet at the same time we cannot rush the gradual stages of development that mark the logic of Burnett's story and create the desire in us for its fulfillment.

Music can do wonders of compression, and can take us straight to the heart of a scene—literally, to its emotional core, conveying what pages of dialog could only struggle to evoke. So I had to restrain my instinct, as a dramatist, to tease out the drama in words, and let the music tell the story too. David Gockley, our supremo, and Patrick Summers, of the Houston Opera, have helped Nolan teach me how to tailor libretto scenes, and this has been a marvelous journey of discovery. Every cut was a benefit! And never fear, there's plenty of drama left, and wonderful, wonderful music. Please come and enjoy it with us!

Storyboard images by Visual Designer Naomie Kremer.

Posted: 2/11/2013 1:15:50 PM by Carey Harrison (Librettist, The Secret Garden)
Filed under: 2012-13Season, SecretGarden


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