In 2003, two playwrights premiered works inspired by personal experiences, one expanding their family story into a historically-inspired portrait and the other a mythological tableau. Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel bowed in February of that year at Center Stage in Baltimore, and, a few months later, Sarah Ruhl presented Eurydice at Madison Repertory Theatre. New York engagements and several regional and amateur stagings of both works have followed—as have accolades for both playwrights (including a Tony nomination and two Pulitzer finalist spots for Ruhl and a Tony nomination and two Pulitzer wins for Nottage). Now, 17 years since their premieres, the two titles take a different kind of stage, and with a wildly different sound.
Ruhl and Nottage have adapted Eurydice and Intimate Apparel, respectively, into operas.
Ruhl premieres her collaboration with composer Matthew Aucoin at Los Angeles Opera (the Mary Zimmerman-helmed production runs through February 23), and Nottage, with composer Ricky Ian Gordon and director Bartlett Sher, readies for the world premiere of their adaptation at Lincoln Center Theater (performances begin Off-Broadway February 27). Both are co-commisions with the Metropolitan Opera.
Ruhl’s play and opera explore the myth of the title lover and her Orpheus, specifically through the female-driven lens of Eurydice as she renews her sense of agency. Set in New York City in the early 1900s, Intimate Apparel tells the story of an African-American seamstress as she searches to feel self-love. Both playwrights cite ubiquitous "love and loss" as their primary meditations, and both recall a profound and personal loss that influenced their process.
Both libretti draw on the initial text, but the two writers make those words sing in different ways. With Eurydice, Ruhl focused on condensing her already lyrical language into a music-friendly length. Nottage, however, learned she needed to open her play up to embrace the form; prose expanded to lyrics, renewed with a palpable rhythm and an occasional rhyme scheme.
In the collected interviews below, the two Tony nominees share insights from their newfound perspectives of the opera world. What’s more, Nottage and Ruhl each preview an exclusive page from their script, including custom annotations that shed light on the development of the scene, from what stayed and what changed to how their respective composer’s work informed their words.
What's the first step when you're going from script to libretto?
Sarah Ruhl: I think the first place I start is with cuts, or what I might call distillation: taking the script and shrinking it, thinking that it takes about four times as long or twice as long to sing a word as to say a word. So thinking, “How could I shrink the current play without missing any crucial elements from the story?” We went movement by movement; I would write a chunk of the libretto and shrink, and Matt and I would talk through passages.
Lynn Nottage: In adapting it, I consciously wanted it to feel different than the play, even though it honors the play. I wanted it to feel independent of the play—like it was a new piece of art.
Is there a secret ingredient to the collaborative relationship with your composer?
Ruhl: I think it's chemistry. If you find the right collaborator, it can be pretty seamless. I'm really lucky that I felt a deep kinship, and that Matt has a real sense of humor. I was worried that opera wouldn't be able to contain humor, or opera would be an elephant sitting on top of humor. But Matt really understands how to rhythmatize language to elicit humor. Even in a form like opera which I think has much more potential for heaviness than musical theatre. So the chorus of Stones, for example, retain their function. In the play, whenever the emotion gets too much, the Stones come in and hopefully make you laugh.
Nottage: When I first began writing the libretto, I turned it in, and Ricky literally said to me, "You have [just] rewritten the play." And so I went back, I did it a second time, and he's like, "You've rewritten your play again." He sat me down, and he really gave me a lesson in how to write a libretto [which is not a re-write], and what he as a composer desired from his collaborator. When you're writing an opera, your composer is doing 50 percent of the work. And what music can do is get you to the emotion with incredible economy and efficiency. I was able to strip away some of the expositional language and allow the music to take on that role.
Do you consider your writing to have an inherent musicality to it?
Nottage: Perhaps it's a question for Ricky. One of the things I've always struggled with as a writer is that I don't think I'm a natural poet. And that doesn't tend to be what I lean into as a writer. I think about Sarah's writing, and she is a poet. Her writing always has this lyricism that I envy. I don't think of myself in those same terms.
Ruhl: Because I started as a poet, I was always mindful of leaving a lot of white space on the page for the listener—and for future collaborators—to fill in the silence. So I think there's a lot of room for music. And oddly enough, for Eurydice, there already was a chorus of Stones and it was structured in terms of movement. In some funny, subliminal ways, I do think in terms of music.
It’s been 17 years for both of you since these plays premiered. Has that time changed how you connect to the material?
Nottage: It's helpful in the rewrite, because I can approach it with a certain level of distance, where when I initially wrote it I was right inside all those emotions. I could step back and look at the narrative and look at the language and think, “What did I want to say here? Am I saying it in the most efficient way? What did I leave out?” I could fill in some of the holes and I could cut out some of the fat in a mercenary way, because those emotions were now so remote.
Ruhl: It's been 20 years since I wrote Eurydice, because it took about three years of development. How does the life of an artist change in 20 years? It's kind of massive and seismic cycle in one’s life. To have the opportunity to go back to a younger self is moving. And—I think because I'm collaborating with Matt, who is more or less 20 years younger than me...he was about the same age when he started writing the opera as I was when I started writing the play—there's something about Eurydice that is drawn deeply from young love and young loss. Things that a young person experiences in a different kind of way. I'm at a point in my life where I'm consciously trying to rid myself of the ingénue in my work and in my life. To go back to it now is fascinating and moving.
These plays were written, in part, as responses to losing a parent. Does that grief hit differently during the adaptation process?
Nottage: This is the play I began after my mother's death. I really wrote it for her. I think, as a result, I poured a lot of my emotion into it in ways I have not in other pieces I have written. I wanted to write something she would enjoy, that she would connect to, that would move her and her friends. When I'm sitting in rehearsal [now], or even when I was writing the libretto, I was not thinking about that grief because I'm at such a different point in my life. Perhaps when I see it, some of those feelings will be reconjured....
Ruhl: With the death of my father, you think, "Oh, that door is closed. It's been such a long time." But then you set it to music, and you’re just crying again. I do think there's a profound sense that the work belongs more and more to others the longer it's in the world and the more productions that have been done where other people have had their souls mingled with the work. You're releasing it to others to have their own experiences of grief or joy. Working on an opera feels like yet another way of releasing it and giving it away. Every experience has an aspect of virginity; opera is a whole new form.
From a technical standpoint, what’s the toughest adjustment going from playwriting to libretto writing?
Ruhl: Is the music communicating the right emotional tenor? And are you spending the proper amount of time on each event in terms of musical time, which feels different than regular stage time? In a way, it's getting used to suspended time, and how the composer is creating a pathway that normally an actor would create for themselves.
Nottage: The toughest transition has been in the process of putting up the opera. I'm so used to being in the room on a regular basis and, if something is wrong, I can make that adjustment. But because it's such a tight machine that requires so many different elements to be in motion at the same time, I don't have the same freedom to interject and change something. I’d be disrupting this entire mission.
Is there a moment in the opera's libretto that unfolds differently than in the play's script that you're particularly proud of?
Ruhl: One big shift is the moment where Orpheus comes down and sings at the gates of Hell. In the play, that's a silent moment. He stands and opens his mouth and there's a visual moment. But it seemed like such a lost opportunity in opera. I went back to the idea of a dead language—that he would have to speak in the language of Stones—in order to get through. There'd be some opacity to the language, and it'd be just a little bit out of reach for the audience. Almost like a Catholic Latin mass, there's a mystery you can't quite penetrate. I used a little fragment of a poem by Boethius, and then it shifts into English once the gates are opening to him. That's one change that I think was successful that I never would have anticipated.
Nottage: My conceit for writing the play was that every scene took place with two characters over a bed. I did that deliberately because I wanted to see how that level of intimacy disrupts relationships. When I began writing the libretto, I realized I could think more expansively because I'm approaching this in a very different way. I could invite more people on that stage and give them voice, and I could also take people outside of the bedroom. I could put George in a craps game. I could put Mayme in the bar room; I could allow her to sing in front of customers. I found it liberating to break from the rigid rules that I had set for myself when I was writing the play.