TNC Interview | 2020
"This project came about quite organically. I was in production on another project for The New Yorker prior to the coronavirus ramping up, and the editor I was working with asked me if I had any story ideas related to the virus."
The Sins of the Cities of the Plain
Premiered at the Espacio Turina in Seville on May 25, 2019.
The Sins of the Cities of the Plain is an avant-garde opera based on the homonymous book which was first published in 1881 by William Lazenby and republished by Leonard Smithers in 1902.
Hi Fabrizio thank you for talking to TNC, how are you holding up during the lockdown?
Thank you so much for having me. Thankfully, I’m well and safe in my home in Rome. As a freelance writer, the lockdown hasn’t really affected my routine (which says a lot about my social life), yet – just like for most people – it has been a challenging couple of months, particularly since Italy has been one of the worst-hit countries. However, I’m holding fast to the belief that we are learning from all of this, and humanity truly has a historic opportunity to reconsider our social, cultural and economic dynamics and build a fairer future. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the only thing worse than a crisis is to waste it.
Is this time providing you with some new creative inspiration?
Yes! In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been more productive. I finished the theatrical adaptation of my opera The Sins of the Cities of the Plain, (re)wrote a monologue which had been dumped unfinished on my desk months ago and completed a new libretto on the psychobiography of Vincent Van Gogh (which, in hindsight, was not the lightest of topics for a lockdown). I’ve also been working on several new operatic projects which I’m very happy about. And I’ve even rediscovered Instagram (which turns out it’s a great social tool after all).
During the first phase of lockdown, it all felt so chaotic and unreal: I guess I focused on my work mainly to not lose balance.
What influences your work?
I find it increasingly tricky to pinpoint specific artistic influences since we receive and process so many inputs on a daily basis and influences constantly mutate as we grow (both personally and professionally). Yet, I’d say that my work is mostly influenced by the neurotic estrangement of postmodernism and the anti-normative aesthetics of queer culture. However lately, I’m sourcing more and more from neorealism and In-yer-face theatre as I’m on to explore the narratives around dysfunctional relationships and family.
In regard to my creative engagement with contemporary opera specifically, I guess it stems from my passion for modern literature (including librettos) and the philosophy of language as well as my interest in queer theory and culture to describe non-normative narratives and identities.
This queering approach is to be understood in its broader academic terms and embraces the social, economic, political and cultural aspects of these identities. Representation has always been crucial to me and my work. And it’s interesting to challenge the status quo through what is now vastly regarded as one of the most classist and elitist (and thus heteronormative) art forms.
With regard to libretto-structure, I look at the music of György Ligeti and Luciano Berio as well as the work of Allen Ginsberg, Arrigo Boito, W. H. Auden, Kostantinos Kavafis, Lorenzo da Ponte, Salvadore Cammarano, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, W. B. Yeats, the Chinese Misty Poets and Edoardo Sanguineti.
In 2019 your opera The Sins of the Cities of the Plain premiered at Espacio Turina, what was this experience like for you?
It was an extraordinary and enlightening journey. Even more so as I shared it with some wonderful and talented artists and friends. I had been longing to write this opera for a very long time but the opportunity only materialised when I was living in Seville. I shared my idea with my friends Pedro Rojas-Ogáyar and Gustavo A. Domínguez Ojalvo from Proyecto OCNOS ensemble (which then produced the opera) and they immediately rounded up an amazing creative team which included composer Germán Alonso and singer Niño de Elche. Soon, they also applied for funding at the Institute of Arts and Culture of Seville (ICAS). Next thing you know, they select our project. I had already got back to Rome at this point and I was in a bit of an existential crisis which led me to quit my then 9-to-5 job and completely focus on my writing (best decision ever). The next day I quit my job, they gave us the news (the universe, uh).
As producers, Proyecto OCNOS made sure everything went smoothly and it did. The composer and I really hit it off. Plus, I was already a fan of Niño de Elche so having him sing my words was pretty mind-blowing. I also took care of the directing and the staging (much like a librettist would have done way before regietheater) with the help of Daniel Blanco Parra. I was never present during the first rehearsals but I went back to Seville for the general rehearsals, which was very emotional for me as that was the first time I went back after I had left. The night of the premiere was nerve-racking, I was just shaking from beginning to end. But it all went well and the premiere was a success; the audience was really enthusiastic (though fairly shocked) and I felt blessed for all the love and support from my friends in Seville. The Sins really has been a landmark, both in my professional and personal journey.
"However, as Polari doesn’t have a huge vocabulary and as it is a dead language, a bit of creativity is needed to make the most of it."
When did you first discover The Sins of the Cities of the Plain?
Funnily enough, I’ve been trying to recall the exact moment for some time now but I just can’t remember when exactly. It was when I was living in London though; probably sometime at the beginning of 2016.
What was it about this text that connected with you so much?
The queerness of it. It was just the most unapologetically queer and pornographic work of literature I had ever read at that point.
What inspired you to write the text for The Sins of the Cities of the Plain completely in polari?
I have always been interested in and fascinated by languages and the norms that govern communication (which then led me to study Linguistics and Oriental Languages as my BA). Polari was just something that merged two of my favourite things in the world: language and queer culture. By the time I discovered and fell in love with The Sins of the Cities of the Plain, I was already acquainted with Polari and its queer status as an anti-language.
I soon found out that that book was an extremely important and historical work of literature and sociology; whilst reading and studying the book I wondered if Jack Saul would have spoken Polari and sometimes I even noted down short translations on the pages. So, then I just connected the dots.
With the sole exception of the Polari translation of the Bible and the script for the short film “Putting on the dish”, no other literary or theatrical text – let alone opera – had ever been written entirely in Polari and I felt it would have been wonderful to be a part of the history of this extraordinary (form of) language as well as contribute to queer culture. Also, the thought of introducing something like this into the classical world excited me. It was all so thrilling!
Did you know much about polari and its history and usage before you started writing The Sins of the Cities of the Plain?
Yes, a friend of mine told me about Polari a couple of years before then. I was so mind-blown and intrigued that I immediately started doing research! I studied the vocabulary as well as the books and the academic investigations of scholars such as Paul Baker, I fell in love with Julian and Sandy from Round the Horne, read the Polari Bible (produced by the Manchester House of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence) and listened to songs in Polari. Then in 2015, the short film “Putting on the dish” also came out (no pun intended) and it was a great illustration of how Polari would have been used in everyday life.
What are the biggest challenge you face creating a new opera using such a unique secret almost forgotten language?
What worried me the most was the truthfulness and historic accuracy of the language I was to use: I needed to make sure I did Polari (and The Sins) justice. During the creative and writing process, I drew on multiple cultural, artistic and academic sources such as The Polari Bible, Paul Baker’s Fantabulosa: A Polari Dictionary, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams, Brian Fairbairn and Karl Eccleston as well as older English homosexuals who still had a recollection of the language. However, as Polari doesn’t have a huge vocabulary and as it is a dead language, a bit of creativity is needed to make the most of it.
Yet, I feel like I wasn’t as daring with the libretto as I was with the theatrical adaptation. On this occasion, I played more with words and stretched further their semantics, morphology and phonetics to invent and generate new lexemes. I even consulted with Paul Baker. I also borrowed words from Cockney rhyming slang and back slang whilst keeping the influence of Romance languages to the most basic and cliched words and phrases that would perhaps have been known by an early 20th century Polari speaker in the UK who had not actually been “abroad” but wanted to appear sophisticated and knew a handful of foreign words (especially, terms employed by theatre or opera performers).
Have you always had a passion for opera and the theatre?
Yes! Theatre came first. When I was younger, I really enjoyed performing and took acting classes. But then, I slowly switched to the role of spectator and explored other interests like literature and music. Despite being born and bred in Rome is unquestionably something that ignited my interest in opera and shaped my ideas on its aesthetics, narratives and consumption, it was when I moved abroad (mostly when I was in London) that I basked in contemporary opera and began to study its components. I believe the ritual and artistic totality of opera produces a very powerful catharsis for the audience. At least, that was the case with me. Which is why I wanted to be a part of that ritual. And as I learnt more about contemporary opera, I discovered there was, in fact, a beautiful and vibrating community of incredibly talented librettists and composers.
Has your style and approach to your works changed much since your debut production?
I don’t believe they changed that much but I’m definitely more aware of them now than I was then. And that really helps me improve my writing.
How important is it for you to push the creative boundaries when creating new opera like The Sins of the Cities of the Plain?
Very. Especially since most of the opera world is still floating in its atemporal and elitist bubble and only a tiny fraction of brave opera entrepreneurs and music institutions are promoting new ground-breaking operas. I feel most opera houses don’t trust but in fact underestimate their audiences and are scared to lose their grip to tradition (or better, the idea of tradition). I believe this – fairly recent and contrary to what opera has been like for centuries – approach has led the general public to regard this art form as inadequate to fulfil some of their needs and to reflect their identities and new tastes. And I think it is very important to push the creative boundaries in order to change their perspective whilst acknowledging that new audiences want new content too.
"At the end of the day, I believe the goal of art is to make us feel less alone."
Where did the idea come for your 10 point Manifesto aimed at Librettos?
I felt the necessity to define what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. I thought that the main reason young people were turning their backs to opera was mainly due to the fact that they didn’t feel it was relatable to them. In the XX century, the decline of new operas has been proportional to the establishment of an operatic canon and the rise of regietheater. I believe that more operas dealing with our urgencies and our contemporaneity need to be produced. We need operas that discuss gender, homelessness, racial prejudice, microaggression, economic inequality, capitalism, football, Beyoncé…
At the time, I was reading Tristan Tzara and that inspired me to do something along those lines. Also, the manifesto was tailored around a satellite project that I’m now slowly merging with my own work and that I called “The librettist”. I have been promoting a social platform through events and digital spaces where I could raise awareness of the role of librettists.
Now our undivided devotion goes to composers. However, over the centuries, the different parties involved in the making of opera have taken turns leading the show. At first, it was the librettist, then sometime during the Romantic Era they were outshone by the composer, then came the conductor and finally the stage-director. Whilst the general public retains some affection towards composer, conductor and stage-director, they’ve forgotten about who wrote the text they cry to, laugh to and get upset to. I’m trying to contribute to making opera more accessible and inclusive whilst revitalising the role of the librettist.
What has been the best piece of advice you've been given?
Start. It doesn’t matter how but start somewhere; a page, a line, a dialogue, a non-paid gig, an event, a random collaboration… Just start doing what you love and see where that takes you…
And finally, for any aspiring Librettos or playwright do you have any advice you would offer them?
As someone who has just put his foot in the door, the only advice I feel I’m qualified to give is that you bask yourself in your trade; read, listen and watch as much as you can but also reach out to and network with like-minded writers and – most importantly – composers. Then, force yourself to start somewhere (even if you don’t know just yet where you’re going with it) and believe in your work. It’s vital that you believe in your voice; that you believe that what you’re writing and how you’re writing it matters to someone, even if it’s just you. At the end of the day, I believe the goal of art is to make us feel less alone.