Struggling with the multiplicity of stage directions, instrumental and musical directions (primarily for my own reference at this composition stage, those things can be removed later) recitative and dialogue (and spoken dialogue which is minimal) within the libretto, I feel it starting to get a little messy and confusing. I have a rough format, but went looking for more rigid guidelines in this area. As has been the case in many other respects of libretto study, literature is scarce. There does not seem to be an industry standard in the area of formatting for an operatic script or libretto, just as there doesn’t seem to be an industry standard when it comes to choice of notational software, or formatting within that program either. I tried and failed to love Finale (notational software), a decision that was vastly influenced when a more senior compositional colleague of mine told me very confidently that it was the “industry standard”; this statement has since been refuted by many other practising composers who all told me that there isn’t really an industry standard as long as the score is legible and consistent. I made the executive decision to go back to Sibelius (which I understand and use with greater speed and accuracy), and determined that consistency was the key.
I have referred many times to the Ricordi editions of Verdi and Puccini operas, as well as the Bärenreiter editions of Mozart opera scores (to be clear, the Piano/vocal scores or Klavierauszug) when needing to reference issues of spacing, legibility and movement between scenes, right down to the size of the stave, the page turns for the pianist (be kind to pianists!) and singers alike. Again, there are vast differences between the format and presentation of dialogue (if any) in these scores. Of course there isn’t any dialogue in the more through composed Verdi/Puccini operas, but there is quite a lot in the singspiel of Mozart. In these scores the editions contain 2 languages, compounding the layout of the scores. I don’t have this problem (yet!) but imagine if I ever needed to present my score in another language that I would need to decide on an approach to presenting this. Both scores present the principle language underneath the stave for that singer, with an italicised translation in a second language directly underneath. In the contents Bärenreiter presents the two languages with greatest clarity (in my opinion), presenting them side by side but separated by a column and with lines to page numbers. The Ricordi manner I believe is less effective in combining everything into one scene and one index entry. I am willing to concede that this is a personal preference of mine however. The dialogue also in the Bärenreiter is presented in this bi-columned, compact manner. I think it assists greatly in the clarity of presentation.
I have a hunch that similar issues apply to the formatting of the libretto (ie, what is the industry standard, if any), but have been aided greatly by some wise and informed opinions regarding compositional and creative writing best practice in both areas.
I decided to look further afield outside of more academic literature and more toward other composers' and a librettist’s accounts of best practice in this area and uncovered some really helpful tips via blogposts. Again, with no great surprise it was difficult to find a lot of opera specific information in this area, and a hundred different ways to present a libretto across the huge lifespan of the operatic repertoire, so I focussed on the related musical theatre area. Although the focus in musical theatre is the differentiation in the script between dialogue and sung text (generally a 50/50 scenario) I feel that this is analogous to the recitative/aria format in terms of the necessary division of text on the page so not a huge problem to adapt.
Kieran MacMillan (primarily involved in musical theatre libretti) advocates a very sensible approach recommending a departure from one of the more consistent elements of a musical theatre script, mainly the Caps all approach to differentiation between dialogue and SINGING. He notes that
Putting aside the well-known fact that text set in all uppercase is more difficult to read than text set in sentence case, in the 21st Century we have the added drawback that all-caps is the typographical equivalent of shouting (MacMillan, 2014).
MacMillan laments the fact that there has long been an Industry standard for cinematic scripts (right down to a specified font) however there still seems to be lack of definitive agreement in this area for musical theatre scripts. I note that this is the case also for libretti it seems. For instance, the Larder hub for musical theatre writing (Toksvig & Hartmann, 2013) still advocates the Caps all approach to sung sections, with character names centred above dialogue and lyrics (I find this most confusing to read as a performer) but does has some helpful tips such as
Title your scenes so director, designer and actors can clearly see where everything takes place.
Make stage directions italicized and indented, so it’s clear that they are stage directions.
Use separate paragraphs to make them as clear as possible.
Make sure you leave wide margins for people to make notes in as they work on your piece. (Toksvig & Hartmann, 2013)
MacMillan (2014) specifies his own approach to this, an approach I find preferable to the caps all sung sections with centred text in his examples script the “spoken dialogue is flush-left and the sung lyrics are centred” and he also argues
By setting the song title in bold underlined uppercase, and the stage directions in flush-left lowercase italics, those two types of information have their own distinctive look and feel, which encourages faster scanning, interpretation, and comprehension by the reader. And by explicitly stating the character’s name, in bold uppercase, to the left of spoken dialogue and centred above sung lyrics, the speaker/singer is always clear to the reader (MacMillan, 2014 para 8)
He provides some pages from his own work, which was immensely helpful.
Finally, MacMillan makes some excellent points regarding the necessity of an industry standard in this area. He argues that having an industry standard format would achieve several things. For writers the content is the main focus, not the presentation, for producers the standard format aids in the identification of a well informed and experienced writer as well as affording an accurate estimation of duration of a show based on a page count scenario. Finally for actors and directors a “a standard format provides a consistent and comfortable way of parsing out relevant information from the script, as efficiently as possible” (2014 para 9).
All good tips, however without an industry standard so far, I feel it is important to really seek clarity in your format and most importantly, be consistent.
MacMillan, K. (2014). The Perfect (?) Musical Libretto Format. Retrieved from http://kierenmacmillan.info/perfect-musical-libretto-format/
Toksvig, J., & Hartmann, R. (2013). How To Format Your Script. Retrieved from http://anothernibble.blogspot.com.au/2013/04/how-to-format-your-script.html