Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Finding Text: Writing the Libretto for the Velvet Oratorio

 A note about my process of using found text in The Velvet Oratorio:

Anna Marie Sell (Aide) and
Andrea Gallo (Shirley Temple Black)
The first thing I knew when beginning this project was that I needed to do a lot of research. I knew a fair amount about Czechoslovakia and The Velvet Revolution, because I had done some research before putting together the Havel Festival in 2006, but I wanted more. I wanted to know what it felt like to be in Czechoslovakia in 1989.

I started interviewing Czechs and Slovaks who had been there, and simultaneously I started researching newspaper accounts from the time. One thing became quickly clear: many or most people attending the November 17 march did not suspect they would be participating in an event of great political significance at all. Other demonstrations had had little effect. Why would this one be different?

One reason was the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the changes in the Soviet Union. But of course the speed of the collapse of Communism in Czechoslovakia was something of an illusion. There had been a growing amount of pressure year by year, since the tanks invaded in 1968. Like a floor that suddenly collapses after years of seeming stability, the stress had been almost invisible, until one day the whole thing gave way.

For the found text, I used newspaper reports, especially those in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Baltimore Sun. And as one of the thank you gift for the Havel Festival, Václav Havel had given me a huge volume of correspondence from Shirley Temple Black and her aides at the U. S. Embassy in Prague. I had almost forgotten about it, as it seemed so imposing. It turned out to be a treasure trove.

For the scenes, I also used my interviews. One interviewee told me the story of being interrogated about The Berlin Wall, despite the fact that he had been held in detention and knew nothing of what had happened. Another told me about a former secret service officer who begged to speak in Wenceslas Square. And Havel himself told me a little about the person upon whom be based the original Staněk.

Terrence Stone and cast sing a chorus

My interviews inspired the choruses. I knew that Henry Akona is adept at capturing patterns of speech in his music, so I filled the choruses with quotes from my interviews, mixed with the chants of the protestors. I grabbed some quotes from Havel’s speeches and contrasted with the first-hand accounts of the listeners internal reactions when hearing him speak. I tried to include all the doubts, all the confusion, all the surprise. And for the second chorus, I used allusions to the famous 19th century Czech poem “May,” by Karel Hynek Mácha, to connect with Czech Nationalist and Romantic traditions.

All that went into the mix, along with the body of literature using Ferdinand Vaněk, Havel’s signature character and a symbol of the dissident movement. But perhaps most of all I wanted to bring out the feeling inherent in all of Havel’s work, captured in his first address as president. No matter how great the seeming triumph, there are no easy answers. The world is filled with more questions, and the greatest of all may be: what’s next?