While composers tend to receive the lion's share of the public's praise and recognition, no musical or opera could be created without the work of a dedicated librettist. A particular variety of playwright who specializes in the intersection between text, music, and theater, librettists exist in two fields—opera and musical theater—where they perform slightly different roles. In either case, the librettist's first job is often to create a "treatment": a short document which contains an outline of the characters, story, dramatic structure, and scripted dialogue of the work. If the treatment interests a composer, producer, or director, the librettist might begin to develop a full script—often referred to as the show's libretto or "book"—without which an opera or musical would simply be a staged concert or song cycle.
In the field of opera, most librettists either work alone or in collaboration with an opera composer. A new opera might be an entirely original work, a fresh take on historical events, a response to an existing opera, or an adaptation of a myth, play, book, or other work. Because text generally precedes music in this form, opera librettists are often solely responsible for originating the work and subsequently guiding its narrative direction.
Musical Theater Book Writers
Similar to opera librettists, the book writers of the musical theater industry create the story, dramatic structure, and text for new musical theater works. Lyrics are a special case, and may fall to the musical composer, a separate lyricist, or the book writer—in which case the book writer can be referred to as the show's librettist. While the book frequently predates the music—particularly in the booming field of musical theater adaptation—book writers on new original musicals sometimes work closely with their composers to develop the music and story simultaneously.
Librettist at a Glance
Librettists come from a wide range of backgrounds. Many enter the field through work as a playwright, screenwriter, novelist, or other professional writer. While some are amateur musicians, songwriters, or lyricists whose musical backgrounds help them to collaborate with composers, others don't possess a lick of musical ability—although they do have a vast appreciation for it. Knowledge of, love for, and immersion in either opera or musical theater is in many ways the most important prerequisite for the career. Book writers or librettists might take musical theater adaptation gigs—or turn it into their full-time career.
Finding work as a librettist is a twofold process, requiring first partnering with a composer to create a treatment or completed show, and second connecting with a producer, director, company, festival, or artistic director who is interested in producing the finished work. Receiving a residency or commission from a major company or festival could provide a one-time shortcut through the latter step, but more often, getting a show from libretto to the stage requires extensive networking and pitching.
Cultivating creative partnerships with specific composers can also be highly profitable; historically, many librettists have found success as one half of a duo with a talented composer—Oscar Hammerstein, for example, or W.S. Gilbert.
- Dramatic structure
- Narrative arcs
Librettists are writers and storytellers who are fascinated by the relationship between text, music, and theater. Collaborative skills are key to this profession, which requires responding to and sharing space with the ideas of composers. Good librettists understand that sometimes words tell the story better than music, whereas other times the opposite is true. Because the revision process is essential to producing strong work, successful librettists are sharp, critical editors who aren't afraid to make changes and let go of ideas that don't pan out.
At the beginning of the process of creating a new work, librettists might work independently wherever, whenever, and however they like to write. If working under commission—whichis the exception, not the rule—they have a responsibility to manage their time effectively and meet deadlines. Once librettists partner with a composer and/or lyricist, they may begin group writing and revision sessions leading up to workshop performances. Once the show is finished and entering its first production, the librettist takes on a new role, working with the producing company to clarify aspects of the story and make last-minute adjustments to the text.