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An opera tells a story in music, gesture, visual effects and words. The libretto is an integral part of the opera, but it remains a text in the same sense as any other spoken or written piece of literature. A librettist uses the traditional tools of literature: structural forms, characters, plot and action, as well as various rhetorical tropes. A libretto, even in its abbreviated form, is able to create a fictional world that entertains, informs, confronts and changes those who enter into it. All new literature develops out of existing forms of literature: texts do not exist in isolation. A libretto, like any text, exists in relation to a time, an author, and a society.
On first reading, an opera libretto may appear to be simple or perhaps fragmented as a dramatic unit, showing abrupt transitions and gaps in logic. Many librettos develop away from their literary sources through adaptation or abbreviation, and are then labeled as substandard texts. A libretto, however, can carry its literary unity into the context of the opera, especially when the historical source of the text is known by the audience. The libretto adapts its form in order to interact effectively with the music. In so doing, it becomes more than a text without losing its purely literary value. Though words may be deleted, concepts and dramatic configurations remain intact. What it does not state in words can be expressed by implication, by acting and gesture, by music, or by visual effects. Therefore no effort is wasted in describing fully all of the literary qualities of a libretto, even those that exist only by association or by implication.
The literary development of the opera "Doktor Faust" (1925) by
Ferruccio Busoni, including the libretto and other aspects related to interaction of text and music, is a fascinating story. A composer who uses words is creating in a different voice, creating literature yet also aware that these words are written to be sung. The critic who describes and responds to the text can treat it as literature with great reward, yet must keep in mind that a libretto is meant to be part of an opera and therefore it always exists in relation to music. Having heard an opera, it is nearly impossible for the critic to avoid interpreting language through musical sounds. For that reason it can be intriguing to begin research on the libretto before listening to a performance. After analyzing the text and designing an interpretation based on that material, inclusion of the musical element adds another dimension. As the object of a literary analysis, the libretto of "Doktor Faust" proves to be a good drama. Considered anew as part of the opera, it then carries a wealth of semantic and expressive potential that might otherwise have remained hidden.
The written record of an opera consists primarily of notated music and text, as well as stage directions. One of the most powerful effects of combining these two art forms is the ability to express several thoughts or actions simultaneously. Once achieved, the effect transcends the sum of the elements. Music is able to bear meaning, and words express more than they could in isolation. The interdisciplinary study of this complex, composite art form is fraught with paradox, elusive frames of reference, and difficulty in describing operatic effects that are either deliberately confusing or simply defy description in words because of their complete engagement with music. The interdisciplinary critic who undertakes an analysis of a libretto must consider aspects of the opera from several different perspectives: literary, musical and dramatic. Both music and literature can create drama, each in its own way.
The opera carries the subtitle, "Dichtung fur Musik," a "poetic work for music," reflecting Busoni's interest in words: he was both composer and librettist for "Doktor Faust". Busoni published the libretto twice before completing the musical score, for reasons that were perhaps less than noble in operatic terms: he predicted that a performance "would demand so much of eyes and ears that no room could be left for the comprehension of the text." Normally such an opera would fail miserably on stage or, if it did succeed, would rely entirely on musical and visual elements. Busoni's prediction was too self-critical: in fact, the words are quite comprehensible in a good production. Taken positively, however, his concern about the content of the libretto only strengthens the case for attempting a literary analysis.
In this study of "Doktor Faust", Chapter One explores the history of the libretto using early manuscripts and printed versions of the text. Chapter Two looks at the libretto as part of the "Faust" literary tradition, citing specific sources and influences. Chapter Three gives a literary analysis of the libretto with a focus on its effectiveness as drama. Chapter Four describes interactions between text and music that are relevant to the drama.