6 March 2017
ENGL 438 Performing American Literature
GILGAMESH: AN OPERA
- Field Survey
- Literary Sources
- Musical Sources
- Outline of Project Portfolio
- Musical Concept
- Scenic Design
- Lighting Design
- Costume Design
- Project Limitations
Opera is a relatively new art form—it dates from just 1600—but the power of its storytelling and the scope of its dramatic media dispose it to tell the oldest human stories. Gilgamesh is one of these: among the oldest works of literature, it is an original and enduring story that has been told and retold since 2000 BC. Its more recent adaptations—in the past century—have included two Turkish operas, a Czech oratorio, and the 2006 English verse play of Yusef Komunyakaa and Chad Gracia, among many others. This project explores the possibility of adapting that play, Gilgamesh, into an opera libretto, and then a fully composed opera, that could be staged and performed in English.
My final project will take the form of a portfolio that proposes, describes, and illustrates the composition and production of an opera based on the Gilgamesh epic. The production concept will draw on a direct reading of the translated epic, while the proposed libretto would be based on Komunyakaa’s text, which is distilled and stylized in a very operatic direction.
While I will obviously lack the resources—of money, manpower, and time—to actually create or perform this opera, I hope that I will be able to develop, first, a literary and musical outline of what the work itself would look like; and second, a comprehensive design concept for a production of the work. That is to say, the result of this project will be the complete blueprint of a production for an opera that doesn’t—or doesn’t yet—exist.
2. FIELD SURVEY
2.A. LITERARY SOURCES
Gilgamesh is not a single literary source but a constellation of stories, variously preserved and translated, understood to contribute to one of the oldest recorded works of literature. I will use as a sort of “primary source” for the story Benjamin Foster’s comprehensive translation for the Norton Critical Edition, The Epic of Gilgamesh. I have also been in touch with the Babylonian Collection at Sterling Memorial Library for access to the digital imaging of Yale’s own Gilgamesh tablet; while I lack the expertise to read this version of the story directly, I hope to keep the original medium of the story very close to the operatic project as the latter takes shape.
The most relevant version to this project specifically, however, is the 2006 verse play that we read at the beginning of the semester, with poetry by Yusef Komunyakaa and concept and dramaturgy by Chad Gracia. Although the nature of the opera libretto will depend upon the project’s research—especially consideration of the musical sources below—the Komunyakaa Gilgamesh is an important starting point for an English libretto of Gilgamesh. In fact, it could likely serve successfully as a libretto in something near its current published state.
2.A. MUSICAL SOURCES
Several operas of the Gilgamesh story already exist, although none has achieved any significant production or prominence in the repertory, and there seem to be no works in English. Curiously, there two Turkish-language operas by different composers, written at almost the exact same time. It appears that Nevit Kodallı, a relatively minor 20th-century Turkish composer, first composed the opera Gılgamış (“Gilgamesh” in Turkish) in 1964, but almost immediately another Turkish composer, Ahmed Adnan Saygun, began the same project and completed his own Gılgameş after a much longer composition process. These details are from very short Wikipedia articles on the respective operas, which draw from Turkish-language sources; I will have to figure out whether it is possible to learn more about these operas, which likely have little or no record in English.
The Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů wrote a German-language oratorio called Das Gilgamesch-Epos (“The Gilgamesh Epic”), which premiered in 1958. This work has been more widely performed and recorded than the operas, and a score is available from the Yale Music Library; I will likely, therefore, draw most heavily from the Martinů oratorio as a point of comparison with my hypothetical Gilgamesh.
Another operatic version of Gilgamesh is Gilgamesch by René Clemencic (b. 1928), a living German composer. Gilgamesch was premiered in 2015, and video footage of a production is available on YouTube. Several articles and review of the article are available online in German, and, although my German skills are rudimentary, I should be able to gain some sense of the project from these.
3. OUTLINE OF PROJECT PORTFOLIO
I will organize my process according to the various departments of a production team that create the concept: musical direction, dramaturgy, scenic design, lighting design, costume design. An opera is most importantly a musical work, and my concept of this Gilgamesh’s musical nature will involve much further research into the extant Gilgamesh music dramas listed above as possible stylistic influences. I have not determined the most rewarding avenue for hypothesizing the music for this work: I could discuss the literary material and its musical translation with a variety of musicians and music directors that I know, or even potentially solicit samples from student composers at Yale. Alternately, and pending availability of recordings and scores, I could familiarize myself with the various musical Gilgameshes, and compile samples of scenes and orchestration that might suit my project. These works’ original languages—mostly Turkish, Czech, German—may pose a difficulty in my understanding and synthesizing them.
Chronologically next in the process, my scenic design concept will evolve from the music and the text. Here the process diverges from a standard production, because I will not have the actual text and music of an extant opera, but rather the parameters of what that work might look like: its musical mode, dramatic scope, its intentions. Based on these, rather than on a close study of the actual work, I will conceive a scenic design that proposes a physical manifestation of the opera. Ideally, I will be able to construct a set model.
Once the scenic design is outlined, I will describe a lighting design concept. This might be the least realized element, as it becomes still further removed from the reality of a due production process. I will have to decide if I should specify to the production concept to a particular venue, and create a literal lighting design: if I imagined using the University Theatre, for example, I could potentially draft a hypothetical light plot and create the parameters of an accurate and executable lighting design. Alternately, I could describe more abstractly the intention of the design, and what lighting Gilgamesh would hope to achieve. I have reached out to the Babylonian Collection to learn more about the imaging techniques for digitizing cuneiform tablets, and I hope to incorporate this modern digital imaging technology into the artistic concept of the opera’s lighting design. Costume design will follow, and then—imagining the role of director—I will synthesize these elements into a single production concept for the opera Gilgamesh.
3.A. MUSICAL CONCEPT
This is perhaps the most important unknown in my project. How can you propose an opera without a means to its music? Where recordings and scores allow, I will explore the Gilgamesh operas that exist—by Nevit Kodallı, Ahmed Adnan Saygun, Per Nørgård, and René Clemencic—and the oratorio by Bohuslav Martinů. I think that I will be able to lift certain effective scenes, motives, or styles from these works, and use them to suggest what an English text setting might sound like. There are several audio recordings of the Martinů oratorio; the Clemencic opera is videotaped in recent production on YouTube; and Yale’s subscription to the Naxos Music Library provides an audio recording of the Per Nørgård opera. More extensive research will hopefully yield scores or recordings of the other operas. Where translations are not available, however, I may be limited by not speaking Turkish or Czech, and unable to analyze the operas more specifically than by orchestration and overall impression.
An essay on the project’s dramaturgy could adapt and expand the field survey above, providing the research background of the original forms of the epic, and the history and possibility of various adaptations. Dramaturgical research for the production will also be folded into each design concept, and could be exported afterward to create a written compendium of the research that added up to the project.
3.C. SCENIC DESIGN
For the scenic design, I have begun from an idea that the physical form of Gilgamesh, on ancient clay tablets, is a powerful dimension of how we understand the story. The set will scale those tablets back up to expanses of earth-clay, so the stage surface is geographical but also textual. This concept integrates the story’s history and textuality into the set: this story only exists in the world, so many millennia later, because of the physical sturdiness of its medium. We were able to go and look at a thick chunk of this story in Sterling Memorial Library. The text is tiny and indecipherable to most, but it has persisted through an incomprehensible scope of history, humanity encoded. The medium of cuneiform on tablet is materially and formally evocative of the landscape in which the story unfolds. Komunyakaa explores this sedimented textuality in his verse Gilgamesh, between two choruses:
Chorus I: “And etched on the rocks / is the Great Flood’s blue- / black watermark.”
Chorus III: “And on the cuneiforms / are written hundreds of begats / alongside the rising / and setting of Ishtar.”
Chorus I: “But thousands of begats / are only written on air.” (Komunyakaa 15)
The geographies that Gilgamesh crosses to search for Utnapishtam are the macroscopic furrows of ancient writing, the clay is the same clay. The characters are stories in microcosm, then, swollen by their age into what we call an epic, the first epic. If epic can indicate a certain wild abandonment to inappropriate scale—or the wager that an outsized scale can be justified, redeemed by the strength of the story—then the scenic setting for the Gilgamesh opera can play with those scales by dwarfing the humans with large cuneiform. I think that opera can make a similar wager to “epic,” by abandoning the conventions of human communication—art as artifice, song as a nonreal mode of communication—and leaping into an emptiness and trusting that the music will convey the truth of experience.
3.D. LIGHTING DESIGN
The concept for my lighting design is inspired by the imaging techniques that we saw in the Babylonian Collection at Sterling Memorial Library. The custom-built reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) dome creates high-resolution composite images of the Babylonian tablets by taking many images of the same object under shifting light conditions, as forty-five lights in the dome are variously illuminated. This creates a dynamic photo in which the viewer can drag the shadows around, viewing the tablet with a manipulable light source, which allows one to see into each small semantic crevice in the old object. I have requested access to the RTI imaging that the Babylonian Collection has made of the Yale Gilgamesh tablet, so that I can model the set’s cuneiform tablet elements from the actual Gilgamesh tablet, and use the manipulate lighting to work out a lighting design for the opera.
The scenic concept bring this cuneiform tablet onto the stage, turning the clay back into the earth that the characters move across, but retaining the linguistic impressions that have turned it into a story. In one sense, in the way that the tablet has been scenically scaled up to a human-encompassing size, the actual instruments of the production’s light plot become a large-scale version of the Babylonian Collection’s RTI technology: the characters play out their scene within the imagined dome of this modern tool, moving across the small inflected surface of their own story. Of course, the light plot has to be somewhat normalized, to provide a well-balanced and utilitarian lighting of the bodies onstage. A full system of cool light (I might choose Lee gel L161, a beautiful and functional cool blue shade) could be overlaid as the representation of this RTI imaging technique. In moments of physical stillness onstage, and musical stillness in the orchestration of the scene, the light could shift as it does in the manipulable RTI image, carving different meanings out of the shadows of a contoured form, allowing us to see shapes in different relief, and as an immobile audience—like the researcher looking at a digital image of the Gilgamesh tablet—still realizing the capability of tilting the tablet in space, reaching light into and out of certain impressions.
3.E. COSTUME DESIGN
Unfortunately, I have no real experience or expertise with costume design. I have not given much thought to the costume concept for this project, but I will consult designers that I know, and either solicit original sketches for potential design directions, or curate a portfolio of source inspirations, in order to complete this component of to the production design.
4. PROJECT LIMITATIONS
The most obvious limitation of this project is that everything must remain hypothetical to some extent. Concept development for an opera production depends so heavily upon a comprehensive and even visceral understanding of the work, as a union of music and text, that building an entire production architecture on an unwritten libretto and an uncomposed opera might end up being a massive steel frame on quicksand.
As I work through the production process, I will discover the ways in which certain processes cannot proceed without the real work existing. I will be able to report these impossibilities as a part of the creative process, and find constructive ways to create the prospectus acknowledging those.
Foster, Benjamin, editor and translator. The Epic of Gilgamesh. W.W. Norton & Co., 2001.
Komunyakaa, Yusuf and Gracia, Chad. Gilgamesh: A Verse Play. Wesleyan UP, 2006.
Martinu, Bohuslav. Das Gilgamesch-Epos (The epic of Gilgamesh) : for soloists (soprano, tenor, bariton [sic], bass), mixed chorus and orchestra. English translation by R. Campbell Thompson, vocal score [by] Karlheinz Füssl. Deutsche Fassung von A.H. Eichmann.
Tiger, Jefrey. The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.
Further sources as they become apparent and necessary.