Friday, February 26, 2010

H.P. Lovecraft and "Ex Oblivione"

Theater festival paperwork looms as my libretto progresses. In the meantime, a little about why I chose this story...

As mentioned previously, my opera is based on the short story "Ex Oblivione" (full text), first published in 1921. The author, H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), is a major and rather well-known writer of "weird fiction" - now called science fiction, fantasy, or horror. While I am not an avid reader of the genre, there are many aspects to the style and content of this particular story that really get my creative gears turning.

First, the story is light on plot and heavily biased toward the landscapes of dreams, all but mandating an abstract and adventurous brand of storytelling. This is a welcome change after my most recent stage work, The Eden Diaries (2007), a playful yet undeniably conventional musical that predates even this blog!

The text is quite brief, and very little physically happens. A man suffers through an illness then dies; meanwhile, he has vivid, symbolic dreams that lead him to an internal epiphany. Brief indeed! This leaves the music plenty of room to breathe, developing at its own pace.

Despite his brevity, Lovecraft concerns himself with a deeply important human topic - the process of death and our struggles with and against it - without tying himself to any particular ideology. While atheistic or mystical elements are easy to infer from this text, neither are explicit. Because the story deals largely with the basic, earthly elements of existence (as opposed to Lovecraft's later "Cthulhu Mythos" writings), "Ex Oblivione" is compatible with a wide range of personal belief. This is important to me, as this piece is meant as a work of art and not as a statement of faith.

That said, I do find in this narrative an interesting correlation in Buddhist philosophy, which has recently caught my interest. Although certain doctrines are troublesome, there is something beautiful yet inherently practical in the tradition's notion of acceptance. Discussed alongside right mindfulness, acceptance involves observing all experiences clearly without judgment.

This is the small enlightenment that Howard gradually attains. Like the 121 daily haiku I completed recently on this blog, this revelation delivers dense meaning in modest packaging.

In short, Oblivion is an opera about nothing. It is just about a man who dies. And it is about learning to acknowledge the temporariness of being human. This last subject is, I think, suitably grand for opera.


  1. To be honest, when I read the story after you first blogged about it, I wasn't sure how you were going to make it operatic... but now I'm reall intrigued and interested.

    You make a point that I really like, and it's something that I try to do myself, along with being something that draws me to other music: "...this piece is meant as a work of art and not as a statement of faith." One awesome thing about music is it can be incredibly personal, but not necessarily convey the feelings of the composer. As creative artists, we have to be able to put ourselves into other people's lives, thoughts, and belief systems, too.

  2. Thanks a lot, Michael. I know the subject isn't very traditionally operatic, but I wanted something that would force me to be less literal and safe in the music and the storytelling.

    Of course, no one can remove their beliefs entirely from their writing, but as I complete the libretto, I am trying hard to keep it from promoting or proselytizing any one philosophy too much. Difficult when the theme is "acceptance"!