5 Questions to Tracy K. Smith (librettist, Castor and Patience)

Originally commissioned for Cincinnati Opera’s centennial season in 2020, the much anticipated Castor and Patience is finally receiving its world premiere on July 21-30, 2022 after a two-year delay. The music comes courtesy of Gregory Spears, composer of the critically acclaimed 2018 Cincinnati Opera commission Fellow Travelers. Teaming up with Spears is Tracy K. Smith, the Pulitzer Prize winning former Poet Laureate of the United States

Featuring performances by Reginald Smith Jr. and Talise Trevigne, the opera examines the history of Black land ownership in the United States through the lens of the titular cousins. Castor is eager to sell a recently inherited piece of land in the American South to pay off debt; Patience feels called to protect the land from predatory investors. In advance of the premiere, we asked five questions to Tracy K. Smith about writing an opera libretto for the first time and the ways in which poetry and opera can learn from each other.

Is this the first time you’ve found yourself in the role of librettist, and what was it like collaborating with composer Gregory Spears?

Castor and Patience is my first commissioned libretto, and the process of working with Greg from the very first inkling of an idea, through all the stages of research, and into the narrative as it now stands has been an amazing journey. I think the fact that we are old friends has a lot to do with this dynamic. There is a lot of trust and respect there — and there’s also this joy that comes from taking what I have made and handing it to him to transform via this other language he speaks. Greg is such an insightful reader, and early in the process he explained that he seeks, through his music, to give a listener access to the feelings and insights that typically take three or four readings to emerge. Hearing my text unfold in time and pitch — hearing it animated with the life force of Greg’s music and also activated by the vocalists and what they bring to it that’s the most remarkable kind of revelation! Everything is new to me every time, and it ties me to these other people’s investments in a profoundly moving way. 

Tracy K. Smith (Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths) and Gregory Spears (Photo by Dario Acosta)

Tracy K. Smith (Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths) and Gregory Spears (Photo by Dario Acosta)

How involved were you in choosing the subject matter for Castor and Patience, and how was the story ultimately developed?

Greg grew up in the South, and he approached me many years ago with the idea of a collaboration that explored the ways development is rapidly changing the landscape — and by extension, the uses and understanding of history, in that region of the country. So, we started traveling together to places where this dynamic of Black-owned land being sold and turned into gated communities and luxury vacation destinations is very visible. We both felt that these real estate transactions — often framed as “opportunities,” and often tinged with a layer of nostalgia for a romanticized past — were connected to a form of historical forgetting so pervasive in America as to be endemic. It spoke not only to the American South, but to shifting dynamics of place, race and erasure happening across the nation.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that any story we told would need to reckon with Reconstruction, but it was hard, for a long time, to get more specific than that. I had to live a while with this new awareness, and learn to recognize the subtle ways that it has touched or marked the world I know. Finally, the dramatic situation of Castor and Patience started to feel legible to me. Finally, I began to hear Patience’s voice, and Castor’s. Finally they started telling me what was at stake for them. 

This is the most organic or holistic collaboration I’ve ever experienced. It took root over those trips, those questions, those dawning convictions, those conversations with members of distinct communities long before it found its way into artistic output. I’m grateful for that. 

Costume sketch for Castor and Patience scenes set in the 1960s--Photo courtesy Cincinnati Opera

Costume sketch for Castor and Patience scenes set in the 1960s–Photo courtesy Cincinnati Opera

The elegiac and cosmic beauty of your Pulitzer Prize winning Life on Mars radically changed my personal relationship to poetry. How was your writing process different (or unexpectedly similar) when crafting a more narrative-driven opera libretto that perhaps isn’t able to lean into such rich imagery?

There is often a narrative in my poetry, but my sense of the lyric mode in poetry is that its commitment is to momentary revelation rather than narrative resolution. Telling a story via opera was an opportunity to dive more fully into character, place and the many strands of a complex story. It was terrifying! But then it began to feel so exciting to listen to our characters and follow where their voices and needs seemed to point. We also move both forward and backward in time in Castor and Patience — sometimes the past is juxtaposed or interwoven with scenes set in the present. That dreamlike quality feels like an extension of poetry to me, which is oftentimes more faithful to feelings and associations than linear narrative. 

But the aria is the site where poetry and narrative converge! It’s the moment when a character’s most powerful feelings must tap into the formal, intuitive and image-rich terrain of poetry. It’s the moment where a character’s vast interior life flares into relief, and — as in a poem — it allows listeners to discover or recover a piece of themselves, as well. The fact that all of this is happening not only in language but in music and staging as well is, for me, one of the chief pleasures of opera. 

The history of land ownership in the United States is inextricably linked to colonization and racism  the land first violently stolen from Native Americans, then later ripped from the hands of formerly enslaved Africans. How are these themes of ownership and loss explored in Castor and Patience?

These themes are at the heart of our story, and I think Greg’s music and the interplay between history and the present in our narrative keep them from disappearing completely, even when our story is focused on more immediate concerns.  

In fact, the histories of oppression, appropriation, extraction and erasure mark all of our lives in this country, no matter who or where we are, but we don’t acknowledge them fully enough. I think we are afraid to. But that historic through-line — as abhorrent as it is — is also something that binds us to one another. This fact alone is reason enough for me to trust that we do — and must more emphatically — matter to one another.  

Because talking about these things head-on is hard, storytelling is a big part of how collective memory is preserved, and the characters in Castor and Patience tell stories that make these strands of American history feel intimate and private. They remind us how history is not some faraway thing; it’s not even gone. I hope this opera gives all of us more occasion to acknowledge the ways that, like it or not, the past dwells with us, in our houses, our habits and our bodies. 

The histories of oppression, appropriation, extraction and erasure mark all of our lives in this country, no matter who or where we are, but we don’t acknowledge them fully enough. I think we are afraid to. But that historic through-line — as abhorrent as it is — is also something that binds us to one another.

As a poet, what was your perception of the opera world the stories being told, the people writing those stories, and the audience before starting work on Castor and Patience?

My first experience of the art form was rooted in my relationship to canonical works like Don Giovanni (the first opera I saw years ago at the Met) and Turandot (which I encountered via a recording when I was in grad school). Then, it was the music rather than the narratives that spoke to me. As I was coming of age as a writer, I began to discover that poets like Rita Dove and Yusef Komunyakaa, who had been so formative to my development as a poet, were writing libretti; I very clearly remember giving myself permission to one day aspire to do something like that. It felt too high an aspiration to claim outright. But Robert Hayden’s poem Middle Passage, like Elizabeth Alexander’s poem sequences The Venus Hottentot and Amistad, have always felt not just dramatic or theatrical to me, but operatic.

And so, I guess I’ve also long trusted that poetry and opera have something to say to one another. I’m grateful now to move back and forth between these forms in exploration of the undeniably mythic stakes we all live with every day. And working with performers has made me positively ecstatic about the possibilities for exploring the joys and complexities of contemporary Black life via opera. 


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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