A Question of Taste – “Questions and Answers”

By J.D. McClatchy

When William Schuman telephoned, in April of 1987, to ask if I would be interested in collaborating with him on an opera, I said yes at once, without ever having read the Roald Dahl story he’d already settled on as his subject. A few days later, when I’d bought and read the story (a tale, really, rather than a story), I could see at once its possibilities for the stage, and for several weeks Bill and I discussed a libretto. My task would be to “translate” Dahl’s one-dimensional plot into a resonant dramatic structure. Above all, we wanted to avoid both the “operatic” pastiche and the theatrical gimmick. We wanted music theater.

First of all, I wanted to give shape and depth to Dahl’s original, to make an anecdote into a fable. The plot turns on a bet, but I wanted to raise the stakes and change a mere bet into a trial or testing. To that end, I brought the maid’s character into more prominence, changed the beginning, added an ending, and invented a new character–Louise’s suitor, Tom. Coming up with a new character didn’t just add some emotional complexity to the plot. It also added a tenor. It is a librettist’s job, as it is the composer’s, to think in terms of music, of combinations of voices. And my primary responsibility was to give the composer situations and words that prompted music.

We worked together for a year on the opera. (He began composing in June, 1987 and finished the vocal score on April 26, 1988. The orchestration was completed by the next March.) Over the course of that time, there was not a scene, not a line, not a syllable that Bill and I didn’t tinker with or replace, calibrating its suitability for the dramatic moment, the musical line, and the singers voice. At times there were amiable arguments. But one objection was final. If, when I sent him a new page, Bill would call to say, “this does nothing for me,” then I’d start all over again, and we’d work until the words turned naturally into song. (I should add that Bill Schuman’s dramatic instincts are superb. He has a nose for padding and fussiness, and his suggestions were invariably helpful.) Most of the libretto has been written in rhymed verse, for two reasons. The crisp rhythms of verse give the right tone and pace to a dramatic comedy, and poetry’s concise amplitude allowed me, in the cross-stitching of motifs (glasses, for instance), to charge the story with thematic significance it lacks in its original version.

Though some composers have set stage plays verbatim, it remains a crucial fact that a librettist goes about his business with aims and means different from those of a playwright. The score itseIf, of course, provides momentum and tension and color. Music can reveal character or propel a plot in ways that words must strain or belabor. For that very reason, the libretto has to do its work–exposition, say, or character psychology–quickly. Perhaps this is the place for some more detailed reflections on my characters and their background.

Roald Dahl’s story (titled simply “Taste”) was first published in The New Yorker in 1951. Since then it has been endlessly anthologized and translated into many languages. It has also been adapted several times for television, once with Peter Lorre as Pratt. In a letter to me, Dahl explained that he wrote the story when he was just beginning to cultivate an enthusiasm for wine collecting. Nowadays he’s an expert, with hundreds of bottles of claret in his cellar. But back then, he says, “I was so uncertain about the details of the story and so keen to get them right that when it was finished I called the office in London of the celebrated gourmet Andre Simon, whom I had never met and who had never heard of me. He kindly read it through and said it was totally accurate.”

Reading the story, though, I was struck by the improbability of such a bet in a contemporary setting. So I pushed the time back to 1910, not a once-upon-a-time but far enough removed from current attitudes and conventions for a curious fable to unfold. I chose 1910 because it happens to be the composer’s birth year. But that also places our story in New York’s Gilded Age, the era of new money and the robber baron.

Schofield himself, the evening’s host, a solid citizen of 50, at heart a good man and loving father, still betrays the rawness of his upstart class. He can be broad, and is too easily impressed by another man’s wealth or supposed distinction. Business has been his life, and his passion is deals. He may well see in Tom a milder version of his own struggling youth, and therefore oppose any serious interest in his daughter–whom he treats, as he does his wife, as another valuable acquisition. When his family is threatened, there emerges in his character a suppressed but genuine concern. He wants to win and to impress, but expansiveness rather than aggression is his trademark. The money that made him, though, comes close to undoing him.

Phillisto Pratt’s tastes, on the other hand, are much finer than Schofield’s. He has the true connoisseur’s greed. only by possessing beauty can he appreciate it. He is not an impostor but a manipulator, so determined to have what he wants that he would even cheat to ensure it. A refined and knowledgeable man, he pushes his gift too far under the pressure of desire. His romantic ardor–such as it is–may be fumbling but shouldn’t strike one as grotesque.

Not all the adults in this opera are so calculating. Mrs. Hudson, a figure of the devoted nurse or fairy godmother, has long been a source of warmth and wisdom for Louise–and in the end proves to be her savior. Her efficiency doesn’t allow us to see much of her sentimental side (a sentiment based in sorrows), but it exists side by side with her canny ability to assess the heart’s true motives.

The young lovers stand in sharp contrast to the rest of the characters, but social conventions also make them shy of their own feelings and of each other’s. Tom’s timidity sets him apart from Mr. Schofield, and that very difference has been part of his gentle appeal for Louise.

Louise is, literally and figuratively, the heart of the opera. She may seem dreamy at first, but soon enough is revealed as a determined young woman. Though convention expects her to let the men think they are running things, she has ideas of her own. (In this regard, she is an American cousin to several of the heroines in plays by George Bernard Shaw.) The “cage” she finds herself in is partly of her own making. She is unwilling either to defy conventions outright or sheepishly to accept them. But all along she knows what she wants, which is why she is willing to agree to a bet she first finds degrading. When the bet forces her hand, she summons the reckless courage of true love.

Because it would be classed as a comedy, our opera is concerned with rival claims and blocked desires. A series of oppositions–as old as comedy itself–animate the action: young love and adult will, child and parent, servant and master, passion and intelligence, heart and mind, kinds of “seeing,” kinds of “taste.” The opera’s plot is the occasion for them to collide and sort themselves out. Problems are solved, questions are answered–and in surprising ways. Our heroine must risk her love in order to gain it. That love represents all the young couple’s hopes for independence and happiness. Some will think that their future, too, in the end, is “manufactured” by money, that they exchange a “silver cage” for a “golden ring.” But as in Gianni Schicchi, the lovers’ true wealth has long since been laid up in their hearts.

By today’s standards, the bet on which the plot turns may seem preposterous. But what is implausible in life often prompts a comedy, whose ends work out not what is merely usual or correct, but what is a permanent and sometimes inexplicable part of our desires. Love is a taste and a trial, a question that no knowledge but the heart’s own can answer. William Schuman’s exuberant finale–a duet that becomes a trio, then a quartet, then a quintet–celebrates, as music alone can, the very answer it offers.

J.D. McClatchy, the librettist of A Question of Taste, is a poet and critic. His most recent books are The Rest of the Way (poems) and White Paper (essays) His work appears regularly in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Poetry, The Paris Review, and many other magazines.