Hilary Bell: Turning Biography into Opera

In the process of adapting a person’s life to the stage, the very first thing one must do is sever any ties to historical fidelity. The only fidelity that’s important is emotional truth – both in terms of the inner lives of characters, and in terms of your, the creator’s, relationship with the piece. To faithfully reproduce the events of a person’s life, in chronological order, is not interesting. A life doesn’t have a dramatic arc; there’s no three-act structure; no single Great Antagonist or Defining Moment; not even an overarching goal. And these are all things drama needs in order to satisfy, and to make a point.

Give twenty different writers the same raw material, and each will find their own story to tell, because within it are untold numbers of themes. What matters is that as a writer or composer, you connect in some personal way with the material. And you follow this thread through the random detritus of a person’s life, finding every moment where it’s articulated, and then making these the cornerstones of your adaptation. (I avoid using the word ‘biography’, preferring the phrase ‘a person’s life’, because any biographer worth their salt imposes the same personal passions and interpretations on the uncut footage.)

In a case such as the life of Victoria Woodhull, this rejecting of the less-significant was difficult because she was such an extraordinary woman, and lived such an outrageous life, that every incident is boiling over with dramatic potential. We had to lose her childhood of traveling carnivals with her snake-oil-selling parents; her becoming a child-bride to an alcoholic doctor; her dotage as an English aristocrat spent roaring around her mansion grounds in a sidecar; her various seductions and scandals and flauntings of convention, in favor of honoring what, to us, was the most conflicted and beautiful and doomed action of her life. And despite having cast off these innumerable characters and events, they by no means went unused. As mentioned, people were reassembled into a single character and events were alluded to, as well as playing an important part in the overall texture and color of her life and the times.

Another important aspect to adapting is that one balances one’s admiration for one’s subject with objectivity and even criticism. (This of course is as true in purely fictitious work.) Unchecked, you can end up with a puff-piece. While we both had great respect for Woodhull’s achievements and courage, there was no denying the cost to her children, and with the aid of retrospective vision, the fact that her passionately-advocated ‘free love’ turned out to be no liberator of women, but a different kind of sexual exploitation. Similarly, with characters you find completely unlikeable, there needs to be something compelling, or sympathetic, or sexy, or somehow attractive about them to give the argument complexity and power. And if you’re working with real life, then you may have to invent such attributes.