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Librettist teams with BYU composer for opera celebrating Joseph Smith

"Book of Gold" to premiere Nov. 4

To write a script of any type is not an easy task, according to author Glen Nelson, but writing the text of an opera in a short period of time without ever having heard the music is nothing short of insanity.

Fortunately, through dedicated teamwork with composer Murray Boren and a lot of research, Nelson completed the libretto of a new opera, “The Book of Gold,” in time for its Nov. 4 world premiere at Brigham Young University as part of the bicentennial celebration of the birth of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

“To create something of this scale in such a brief period is extraordinary, and more than a bit crazy,” Nelson said. “Usually, grand operas have very long gestation periods. When a major opera house commissions a new work, as much as a decade can pass before it is staged.”

Despite the odds, the long-time partnership between Nelson and Boren, composer-in-residence at the BYU School of Music, simplified matters a bit. Having collaborated together on ten previous projects, the two worked quickly, even though they lived on opposite sides of the country.

Nelson actually wrote the first draft of the libretto without before any music was composed.

“Murray and I have developed a certain shorthand from years of working together,” he said. “I have a fairly clear idea of how the texts will ultimately sound. My idea is that the text is there to serve the music, so I try to balance the demands of getting the story told with the need for the music to expand and breathe.”

After deciding the opera would focus on the emergence of the “Book of Mormon” and the events associated with it, Nelson plunged into exhaustive research in order to create period-appropriate dialogue. He also wanted to make certain that the events portrayed were as accurate as possible.

“It was something I found intimidating,” he said. “Putting words into a historical figure’s mouth is an uncomfortable job for a writer, and in writing about the Prophet, I sensed potential landmines all around.”

The accuracy of the opera became so critical to Nelson and Boren that they decided they would not invent any action for the story that they could not document in historical records.

“This became very important to us,” Nelson added. “I hope that it also frees the audience to listen to the opera without wondering what events the authors simply made up.”

While the coming about of the “Book of Mormon” is the setting for the opera, one of the main themes is the refinement process that Joseph endures. More than anything, writing about this time in Joseph’s life came more naturally to Nelson because he could relate to the feelings of being a newly married man, a young father with a sick child and publishing a book for the first time.

“At the end of the opera, we present a glimpse of what Joseph is to become eventually,” Nelson said. “Emma also sees it, and it is a wonderful and frightening moment for her. They will gain things and lose things; we all will.”

Writer: Brian Rust

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