Big ideas

Elliott Hayes was a playwright & dramaturg, the literary manager of the Stratford Festival for awhile in the 1980s.

A friend of mine introduced me to him, a really big deal I thought, an opportunity to maybe get some input on what I should do, where I should take my work.  I had an operatic project I was working on.  I sent it to the friend who showed Hayes.

I had the one meeting with Hayes, highlighted by a sentence that I resented at the time.  Hayes said –of my confused unfinished libretto fragment—that it contained “big ideas”.

When he said “big ideas” his face contorted somewhat with the words: as if big ideas are bad.  Here I was talking to this great man (I’d just seen his new play Blake), and uh oh I felt as if I had urinated on the floor, except somehow instead of urine, the floor was immersed in my “big ideas” which I couldn’t possibly retract or conceal.

Yeah it was pretty embarrassing.

That one encounter was back in the 1980s.  Unfortunately I never had a chance to atone, to either show him that wait, look here, I really could create small ideas, see?

But as it turned out that conversation was seminal (if you’ll excuse my use of a metaphor that echoes the one I used for the big ideas all over the floor), as I pondered my sense of humiliation, that I wanted to take up the debate about the value of big ideas, hoping to show him..  Sadly and tragically Mr Hayes died an untimely death in 1994, before I could ever discuss it with him.

Big ideas?  Maybe you wouldn’t want to see them in a new spoken word play. But they’re essential in opera.  Opera is a symbolic medium where there’s simply less time for words, so each one much carry much more weight.

I don’t bring this up to debate Mr Hayes, wherever he’s gone.  He was reflecting the conventional wisdom.  Big ideas are unwieldy.  But they are also the essence of the difference between opera & spoken word theatre.

When I think of the most successful original operas over the last 35 years (and forgive me if that number is arbitrary, to allow particular examples), you’ll notice something they have in common.

  • Philip Glass wrote Einstein on the Beach, then Satyagraha, then Akhnaten
  • John Adams wrote Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer and Doctor Atomic

Every one of the operas listed concerns big themes.

I suppose in fairness, all that Mr Hayes sought was the usual outcome any good dramaturg seeks: to fix a bad text and make it better.

I submit that there are at least two things you can do to a text that’s full of holes.  A dramaturg can change it, of course.  But sometimes what’s missing isn’t text.

It’s the music.

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2 Responses to Big ideas

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