The Sweat Work of Creativity

For my work at Opera Modesto, I had the opportunity to speak with librettist E.M. Lewis who created Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Fallen Giant. The opera is commissioned by American Lyric Theater and composed by Evan Meier. It will be performed by Opera Modesto this January as part of its Story into Song Literacy Initiative.

Learning a new medium

Lewis is a playwright by trade. For her play “Song of Extinction,” Lewis worked with a composer to create an original song as an integral part of the play. She described the collaboration as “really fun” and “exciting.” It was her first glimpse into the potential of opera.

 Lewis decided to apply and attend a year-long program with American Lyric Theater (ALT). At the time, Lewis had never even seen an opera, growing up in rural Oregon as she did. She said the program, founded by Lawrence Edelson, is so important “because there really aren’t a lot of resources for people who are interested in doing this very specific art form. Music schools often don’t have anything for opera. It requires very different resources, like wordsmiths like me. Writing programs usually don’t have things like libretto writing or even lyric writing because it’s so very specialized, and you’re working with composers.”

Opera can feel like an otherworldly or foreign type of art. So many of the most famous operas were composed over a century ago in other languages in other countries. “It’s not supposed to be an away-art form but a living art form,” Lewis said.

How the opera gets made

As the program advanced, Edelson saw a natural partnership between Lewis and composer Meier. ALT commissioned them to create a family-friendly opera, which will have its world premiere in January at the State Theater in Modesto.

We talked about the rhythm of listening to the muses and putting in the hard, seemingly less-inspired effort that is part and parcel of creative work.

Lewis and Meier began first by discussing what sparked their imaginations as children. They discovered they both loved Sherlock Holmes. Meier was already familiar with “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder” and saw it as an excellent fit for what they wanted to do.

Lewis continually used words like “exciting,” “delight,” and “fun” to describe the process. In speaking with her, it was clear that this opera was built step by step, first by finding the central idea with a twist, then outlining the storyline. ALT offered much support throughout the process. The outline came together as a collaborative effort. It was only when it was completed that Lewis could run with the story and begin creating the poetry of lyrics that would become the libretto. The style, tone, and mood, deciding whether to rhyme or not rhyme, still need to be decided. She said working through those decisions felt “joyful and very creative. It’s coming back to what I love to do most, telling the story of how these characters speak.”

Because of this collaboration, Lewis said Meier was already very familiar with the prepared material before beginning the next step of composing the piano score.

With ALT, the creators listened to the libretto reading, then a piano/vocal workshop, and finally heard their work performed by a full orchestra and eight singers. It was the “culmination” of “years of work together to get to that point. Composers are amazing humans,” she said, reflecting on the process.

From creative-work to sweat-work

From beginning to end, Lewis compared the creative process to a patchwork quilt. “You start with little tidbits, sticky notes or envelope,” like the name of a character or an image of “flowers, beautiful pink flowers.”

“You don’t know why yet. You’re just starting to dream things up, little pieces that are pockets full of words. That is one step of the process, that exciting part is the inspiration, but then it comes to the craft part, which is where the outline comes in.” The outline is what “you do with those pieces.”

It’s a process that comes to artists of all different stripes, moving from art to craft, “inspiration” to “sweat work.” In times when the energy wanes, it is important for those in the arts to keep in mind what it builds into.

Lewis said that by asking, “How do these pieces go together that make something useful, that goes together, that is?” the pieces begin to take their shape and form like a quilt.

“That sweat-work is actually really creative, challenging and exciting and just as artistic in its own way as any other part of the process,” Lewis said.

Eight years after the project began, Lewis and Meier will now see their work on the stage for the first time, the full fruit of their vision, not just for the usual opera-goers but as an entire school program inviting students as young as third-grade from all over Stanislaus County to experience opera for the first time.

      Although I am an employee of Opera Modesto, this column was written separately from that work. Opera Modesto did not sponsor it, nor was I compensated by Opera Modesto for my time writing it. The views expressed here are my own.
Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.