In his new book, Il Vagabondo: An Urban Opera (Guernica 2021), Glenn Carley introduces a new avant-garde genre – literature as installation art. Written in libretto form meant to be read as operatic recitative in a style called sing/speak, the book also brings a unique perspective to the Italian-Canadian immigrant experience. Anna van Valkenburg interviewed Glenn Carley for Accenti.
Il Vagabondo is a libretto based on your novel Polenta at Midnight. But it is also installation art, an “urban opera.” You’re asking the reader to enter the opera and become a participant. Can you tell us about how you arrived at the idea for this project and how it relates to the form of the work?
GC: When I started writing Polenta, I had not conceived of the form. The basic theme was this notion of a Canadian man marrying into a south-central Italian-Canadian family and slowly becoming immersed into a completely new cultural experience. At the third week mark of writing, it dawned on me that all life is an opera rusticana, and that living is a dialect of love. The form of acts, scenes, intermissions, curtain calls and surtitles created a beautiful frame and the book practically wrote itself over three months. The form allowed me to explore deeper relationship aspects of narrative and experience, and there lay the gem of Polenta. From there, I began to think about dimension in literature, of performance art, of “the garage door as a threshold of stage,” how so many of our narratives are operatic and installations for how we live. I grew up listening to classical music, and both of my parents loved opera. At the time of writing that piece I listened to a lot of hard bop and free jazz as well.
The mediate step was to see Polenta performed as an urban opera by a professional troupe. I designed a series of “frescos” to speak from, considered who the target audience might be, and had several coffees with a baritone opera star on the Canadian scene. He was so gracious in sharing his journey. On one occasion, he brought an old libretto for me to look at that helped me understand the fusion of self, character, scene, music, and setting in a raw form. This led me to conversations with Michael Mirolla at Guernica and he helped create a meeting with a few good people to generate ideas on funding/sponsorship. I was able to share my vision of the preferred future for the performance of the work and not a soul in the room threw tomatoes at the artistic idea. At the end of the conversation, Michael pulled me aside and, having looked at the frescos said to the effect, “It is all well and good to speak from an idea but you need to get something written down.”
The next step became a kinetic re-working of what was to become Il Vagabondo: An Urban Opera. It meant stripping the original work down to its bare bones and reconstructing it as a multi-dimensional piece. I brought the characters to the fore, gave them dimension, added “chorus,” and saw that a two-dimensional piece of literature could be given so much more dimension. The evolution was quite beautiful, and I saw the work now as an “opera rusticana,” for the people, of the people, by the people. I began to think of octaves in music and saw the “urban opera” as a new sub-form in literature, capable of replications by others. It is called a libretto to separate it from our traditional notion of novel and to allow the form to fuse with performance art and incidental music. The audience can then interact with the work and take it to a different dimension and self-meaning. The possibilities, like the experience of marrying into a new culture, are enchanting.
Which one did you find easier to write, the novel or the libretto?
GC: There is an enchantment in the writing of both. Both works required a different set of skills. As mentioned, once I conceived of the operatic form for Polenta, it was easy to lay out the framework of acts and scenes, intervalli, curtain calls and surtitles. From a writer’s perspective on method, I usually take three months to complete a “first take” or draft of my work. I was much more intentional on the libretto. I spent a month deconstructing Polenta and taking the work down to its “root notes” and intentions. There is a natural lyricism to my writing that makes it easy to distill from prose. I began to think of performance art in a multitude of expressions all flowing from the roots of form and language. During this time I was listening to all the traditional and modern opera I could. I inherited so many specimens from my parents. My mom was an aficionado and used to ask me to find specific recordings with specific principal sopranos and tenors. My first cousin is a professional musician and she loaned me a collection of modern operas. And I needed to hear librettos sung in English, as well. I combed through used CD stores and found specimens of avant-garde opera. I went to used book stores and bought books on the making of an opera, librettos, costume and stage craft. I jokingly call this “stumblebum research.” To keep myself from going crazy, I always pick a jazz muse when I write a new work. So in-between beautiful arias, our house was filled with Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy, and I was forced to go to headphones while composing the libretto. I suppose you could call it method art or method writing.
What are the advantages of presenting a literary work in the form of urban opera/performative piece?
GC: Fusion in literature and in installation art created such new freedoms for me. The coopting of the term “libretto” instead of novel was purposive and meant to show both the plasticity, the fusion, and the relationships between the arts and the audience/performer. This is not a gimmick. The root story is actually quite powerful and filled with majesty, and the tragedy of loss, and the power of mourning against a backdrop of love. The sub-form of “urban opera” is replicable and gives the artist new possibilities by enlisting the reader, if she chooses to perform the work, individually or in an ensemble. When the reader performs, they are in freedom to change the work subjectively; simply by their choice and style of engagement. There are parallel freedoms in hard bop and free jazz performance. In other words, there is a basic “melody” in Il Vagabondo: An Urban Opera that resonates with Polenta at Midnight. I intended Il Vagabondo to go much further. In other words, as installation art, the reader/performer may choose to read it silently or out loud in the traditional book experience or reading sense. By turns they can read it out loud in the company of others. Parts may be taken by the reader and then shared in ensemble with the freedom to improvise, change words or voice tone. Here the experience gets further dimension, and the reader/performer may choose to use Singspiele or “sing-speak” to experience the story either alone or in performance with others. The notion of opera rusticana – opera of the people, by the people, for the people – can now be explored, with the garage door opening as stage curtain, or a backyard subbing in as “stage.” Finally, there is room for a professional performance by community groups or modern opera companies. In short, an “urban opera” is meant to be a more dynamic experience within the frame of literature, but not limited to it and with more possibilities of dimension.
Il Vagabondo focuses on an outsider “entering into” an Italian family and their culture. You’re also asking the reader to enter the art. I love this obvious parallel and the gesture of inclusion. Since the readers become active participants, you could say that the text ends up being a lot more subjective. What does that do to the text?
GC: There is a parallel to improvisation in jazz. Yes, there is a basic score or framework of notes to organize the narrative… a plot, defined characters in relationship, certain settings, lyrical dialogue and so on… But I think this sub-genre of literature leaves options for the performer to simply read traditionally, read it true to “the libretto,” or improvise on both the character and the text. I think this gifts literature with new dynamic possibilities that borrow from and synthesize with other arts.
Is there still space for the spectator in an urban opera?
GC: Absolutely! There is nothing better than curling up with a good book, and this is such an important “octave” in reading.
What is the purpose of art, in your opinion?
GC: Art has so many forms that are distinct, discrete and specialized; beautiful in their own right, in other words. Installation art, especially in literature, allows for more dynamic opportunities for exchange: to engage and experience the subjective and objective meaning of a work. Participation is essential, be it active or passive, actual or imaginative. My hope in Il Vagabondo: An Urban Opera is to invite dynamic experiences to occur in the resonance of literature to self. I think this allows for a new set of experiential harmonies.
To turn to the subject matter: Il Vagabondo provides a wonderfully evocative portrayal of Italian culture – the family dynamics, the food, the traditions. Can you speak about your inspiration? Is it autobiographical?
GC: The plot of a Canadian man meeting an Italian woman (from Castropignano, Italy), falling in love, marrying and marrying into her family, and the adventures and observations that occur are completely inspired by true events. The curious dynamic about Il Vagabondo is that it takes a micro-look at one pan-cultural experience and gives the experience a kind of universal dimension across cultures. I love both the promise and the possibilities of that in the “sub-from” of libretto in literature. My maxim during the writing was “at what point does a ‘home movie’ get aloft and become a tale of universal meaning?” The notion of reader/performer expands this exchange and gives ample space for subjective memory, engagement, and resonances in their own life experiences. I suppose it is an embodiment of Shakespeare’s meaning in “all the world is a stage…”
David Moratto provided the book’s design. What was it like working with David?
GC: It was a particular delight to work with David on Il Vagabondo. There is a certain alchemy in translating an author’s ideas into reality and David and I were able to harmonize thoughts in a wonderful give-and-take. The cover’s shape and design are actually quite beautiful to look at and touch. David understood this notion of the cover of a book being the physical installation of the overall interactivity of a libretto meant to be both read and performed. The design had to be representative of the operatic form and of the story itself, in other words. David has this wonderful ability to listen, research, synthesize, and render. He saw the front and back cover, the spine and the interior each as a discrete canvas of meaning. We had a good laugh over how many clusters of grapes he looked at. In collaboration, [Guernica publisher] Michael Mirolla came up with the 5 by 10-inch physical shape of the libretto, which allowed for what we called a vertical as opposed to horizontal reading/performing experience. The cover is a rendition of an opera Playbill, and David transposed that design onto an opera ticket “Admit one to the Urban Opera: Sing in the dialect of love!”. This gave the physical installation some dimension – and subs in as a bookmark for the interested reader/performer.
Do you have a favourite scene from Il Vagabondo? If readers could enter only one, which would you recommend?
GC: It is odd to say, but my favourite is the surtitle section at the end. Key words and phrases from each scene in each act are isolated and given new translation and meaning. Some “definitions” are fun and silly, and others are quite poignant and speak to the beauty of being a newcomer to the language, the culture, and the experience. It is what I call “speaking in the dialect of love.” I am not good at languages, and this was my attempt to circumnavigate that and show the inner beauty of words and phrases. Readers might also enjoy Act II, Scenes 1, 2, 3; “Aria: Il Vagabondo and Maria take the children to the hometown.” It is a beautiful, enchanting immersion into a new culture with my wife’s Italian family.
Do you have any words of advice for readers who are encountering a living opera for the first time?
GC: I would encourage the reader/performer to experiment with the installation, however they see fit. Certainly, silent reading, read aloud, and reading together in ensemble are good ways to engage the work. But for those who are ready to take a risk and “sing(speak) in the dialect of love,” you may find yourself enchanted and transported to an imaginary hill town to find deeper meanings in your own tales of gusto and enchantment.
Glenn Carley’s forthcoming books are Jimmy Crack Corn, A Novel in C-minor, and two children’s stories co-written with and illustrated by his son Nicholas: The Long Story of Mount Pester and The Long Story of Mount Pootzah (Rock’s Mills Press).
Anna van Valkenburg is a Polish-Canadian poet and the associate publisher at Guernica Editions. Her poetry and reviews have been featured in The Puritan, Prism International, december magazine, The Rusty Toque, and elsewhere. Her debut collection Queen and Carcass was published by Anvil Press in 2020.