Love/Hate – a Librettist’s View

by Rob Bailis

With the upcoming 2012 World Premiere of Love/Hate at San Francisco’s ODC Theater, I thought it would be fun to talk a little about this project and how it came into being.

Opera of any stripe in this day and age is ambitious – new opera takes that ambition to the edge of unreasonable, but somehow this story of two unlikely lovers-to-be is capturing support and attention coast to coast. With early investment from American Opera Projects, through their Composers and the Voice program, and subsequent development at Manhattan School of Music’s Page to Stage project, dramaturgy from award winning playwright Albert Innaurato and acclaimed opera director Sandra Bernhard (HGO Co.), scenes from Love/Hate have already enjoyed terrifically well received outings at Galapagos Space in Brooklyn, and at the Philly Fringe.  Now with the entrance of Sheri Greenawald and the Adler Fellows of the San Francisco Opera Center, and support from the Zellerbach Family Fund, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and ODC Theater’s Director’s Fund, Love/Hate is gearing up for its debut as a fully formed new opera, built on contemporary realities, complex relationship dynamics with which we all can identify, and a groundbreaking approach to music making that draws on more than just contemporary/new music aesthetics, but brings in the true value of contemporary theater – that is to say nothing is sacred.

Love/Hate is ultimately about a man and a woman who have been fixtures in each other’s morning commute for months. Each has noticed the other. Well, more truthfully, each has desired the other, but neither has said a word. Our opera is all about what happens in the minds of these two lovers-to-be as each takes the breath directly before uttering the word, “hello.” Bookshelves full of self-help manuals, two decades worth of complicated relationships with other people, exhausting careers, the increasingly comfortable embrace of solitude, the inexplicable twisting of fate, let alone the likelihood of profound rejection, all of these ideas come dancing to life in fantasy and memory as our two protagonists try to meet. Love/Hate is hopeful, ultimately, and full of humor and romance, but tinged with the complexity of contemporary life. These are protagonists not in the sweet bloom of youth, but well acquainted with the world. And yet that world seems to change faster than either can adjust. The jump-cut of modern life, the free association of web-browsing, the pointing and clicking and tweeting and pointing and clicking is both familiar to these heroes and is also beyond them. Their fantasies play out as if in a movie but live on stage. And yet their ultimate goal is to “hold hands, and wait for the bus.” An old paradox, a new era.

Making this piece, for the both of us, has been a huge and thrilling challenge. We went into it with a desire to truly make the work together. While both composition and playwriting are somewhat remote and solitary tasks, we decided to do as much as we could from the get go to stay in it together. This has turned into many hours together with the script at the piano, haggling over line readings and chopping away at the excess. It has been a ton of laughter as we realized that we should do what Opera has always done – draw on the popular and contemporary idioms of the characters in the piece. If Carmen gets a Habanera, no reason why our forty something protagonists shouldn’t have some “Dust in the Wind.” It has been a process of willingly embracing the improbable, and letting the theater of the music come to the front. Jack’s fluid relationship with all musics, be they the most remote and rarified, or the most available and accessible, has found a totally gripping and original rendering in this work, perhaps brought on by the importance we both placed on making a truly excellent piece of theater. It’s an opera all right, no doubt about that – just ask the singers! But it challenges what opera can be. We can’t wait to share it with you!