Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?
I trained initially as a cellist and although I had a number of other interests, it was clear to me from an early point that I would pursue a career in music and also do something with writing or language, perhaps as an avocation. As I was completing my Master of Music degree in performance, it became obvious that the chronic pain I experienced was not going go away, and that I wasn’t going to be able to practice and perform as I had hoped. It turned out that I have fibromyalgia and some related conditions – mostly invisible disabilities that precluded, in my case, being able to practice and rehearse several hours a day and other necessary activities for professional performers. I turned to musicology and theory instead, areas in which I’d always been interested but hadn’t to that point pursued with much depth, and have been very happy and successful working in those disciplines. My PhD work encompassed a number of multi- and interdisciplinary approaches that made me first think that I could expand my writing career into one that drew upon both scholarly and performative elements. Developing a creative practice in addition to my scholarly work has meant that I’m able to work with both music and language at the same time professionally as a musicologist and music theorist and as a librettist and lyricist.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
Dealing with chronic, often debilitating illness means I have less energy and time available to work than I would like. I have to be careful about pacing myself and getting work done when I’m feeling well.
What led you to start writing libretti?
I had been writing poetry for about three years and had always had an idea that eventually I’d like to collaborate with composers. As a performing musician and later a scholar, I’ve always been interested in opera and the relationships between word and music. Then I read an anecdote about Marie Curie visiting the seaside with her grown daughters and asking them to teach her to swim, and it was immediately clear to me that this could become the basis for an opera – I saw and heard the text of the first scene right away. It became my first opera libretto, ‘Marie Curie Learns to Swim’.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a libretto?
One big challenge is to create a text that singers can perform effectively and well. Libretti need a good balance between language that is very poetic and language that is more prosaic. I’m always reading my text out loud to make sure that I have this balance. I also have to be constantly aware of how my words sound: whether they elide, if they are easy to enunciate clearly, if they require a certain pace or technique to reach the audience. It’s also crucial to have text that moves at different speeds and conveys different emotions. While I’m writing, I think about word length, patterns, breathing, and other aspects of speech and singing. And while all of this is a challenge, it is also one of the things I enjoy most about writing text that will be set to music. I love working with language and words and finding just the right way to phrase things.
How do you approach writing libretti?
I do a lot of research first. With ‘Marie Curie Learns to Swim’, I read biographies of Curie and her family and histories of science and materials about the work she did. I had to make sure words I wanted to use were in existence for the time period of the opera. I’m often doing research all the way through as I’m writing – I always find new things I want to look up or understand better as I’m working. Then I create an outline of acts and scenes and determine how the opera will move from a beginning through various points of tension and activity to a peak and then resolve. I usually start with the beginning of the libretto, but sometimes as I’m writing one section I’ll have ideas for later parts, so I’ll put those in a file to use as I get to the later scenes. I do a good bit of rewriting, sometimes as I go and sometimes after I section is finished and I’ve had some time away from it. The composer can also ask for rewrites or changes, and I’m always open to those.
Is it all about the text, or does the music influence you as you write?
I sometimes have an idea of the kind of soundscape I’d like as I’m working on a scene, but really the music is up to the composer. For a set of song lyrics, my ‘Four Songs for Lady Macbeth’, I did have certain song forms in mind as I wrote. The first song is a shout dirge, which combines a slow, funereal march with the shout-out aspects of gospel music; the last song text is based on the Coventry Carol and composer Jessica Rudman gave it a setting that is rhythmically similar to the traditional carol but melodically very different. In ‘Marie Curie Learns to Swim’, there’s an aria for Pierre Curie that I wanted to have the feel of a patter song—he’s extolling the (dubious) virtues of radium and gets carried away and should sound like a stereotypical used car salesman—and so my concept of the kind of music to which the aria would be set helped shape and color my text.
How do you work?
While I’ll sometimes write out ideas or make notes by hand, I mostly work in my home office using a laptop with an external keyboard and mouse and two monitors. My disability sometimes prevents me from typing easily, so I use dictation software at times. The dual monitor set-up lets me do research while I have documents open and makes working more efficient. If I’m writing free verse or working on scholarly projects, I can listen to music while I work, but if I’m working on something with a strict metrical form, I work in quiet. When you have an office at home like I do, it can be easy for work to spill over into the rest of life, so I keep to a regular schedule of working during the day on weekdays only.
In your creative process, which part do you enjoy the most? And the least?
I most enjoy the actual writing – working with words, finding the best ways of describing or communicating things – and the research. As part of the research process, I’m continually learning, and the new knowledge I acquire opens up new expanses of language for me, and I find that exciting. I suppose the aspect I like the least is feeling disorganized about projects. I like to have very well-organized work times and spaces, even in my mind, and when I have too many things going on at once or am over-committed, it’s an unpleasant feeling, like I’ll somehow lose ideas or phrases because I can’t put them down as they develop.
As someone who works in the sphere of music, what is your definition of success?
If a performer or audience member or reader tells me that my words have moved them, or affected them, or made them happy, or taught them something, or that they enjoyed reading or singing or hearing my words, that’s success.
How do you view the current position of women in music and academia, and what are your hopes for the future?
I think that while there is increasing awareness of the bias against women and the problematic ways women are treated in music and in academic music departments, we have a long way to go. I want to see a world in which women and non-binary people and composers of colour are represented on every concert program, in which both the academy and the concert world acknowledge the importance of inclusivity, in which everyone acknowledges the inequities of the past and is invested in changing the culture.
What is your present state of mind?
Optimistic. I’m seeing and involved in a number of projects that are addressing the problems of inequity in music, and am encouraged by the enthusiasm with which these initiatives are being met. I’m also working on scholarly and creative projects that seek to reframe our understanding of creative histories, and speak to audiences in fresh and, I hope, revelatory ways.
‘The Harbingers’ by Rossa Crean premieres in Chicago on 31 October 2019. The new work, which was written by Kendra Leonard, tells the story of different cultural figures of death who convene on Halloween Night to pass judgment on the fate of a recently deceased soul. More information and tickets
Kendra Preston Leonard is a musicologist and music theorist whose work focuses on women and music in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; and music and screen history, particularly music and adaptations of Shakespeare; and a librettist and poet.