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Difference between a libretto and a script

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Mario Friscia

Mario Friscia

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Libretto and script: preliminary definitions

What is the difference between a libretto and a script?

Before providing an answer to this question, I think it can be helpful to give a definition of these two terms.

The word “libretto” derives from the universe of Italian opera and can be translated as “small book” while by script we refer to the written text pronounced in the context of a stage play, movie or even media broadcast.

The person who writes a libretto is called “librettista”and does not coincide generally with the music composer.

Within a libretto you find all of the words that are musically intoned by the characters of a given opera.

A playwright is someone who composes a play script for a story to be enacted, not sung, by actors on a stage, while a screenwriter creates texts for people that appear on TV shows, movies and other types of video productions.

When we say libretto we must bear in mind that this word does not apply only to the words sung during the enactment of an opera but it can be also used to refer to the texts of a cantata, oratorio, operetta or musical.

 

Main differences between a libretto and a script

One of the main differences between a libretto and a script is this:

the words contained in the libretto of an opera are generally less descriptive than those included in a script designed for a spoken drama.

Why?

Because a composer can express, amplify or stress out the emotional meaning of the words uttered by his characters through a series of musical factors such as the melodic profile, harmony and the timbre variations provided by the orchestra.

As a result, the libretto writer can keep from dwelling on long and detailed descriptive passages.

In addition to that, a libretto differs from a script in that words are selected, first of all, in view of their musical rendition.

It is important to emphasize again how most operas don’t rely on spoken dialogue, which means that the quality of a libretto is judged primarily on its rhythmic and melodic potential.

When a librettist assembles different words together to tell a story, he knows that is not completely autonomous and has to obtain the final approval of the composer.

With some exceptions, the lines of dialogues included in a libretto serve as the raw material from which the music composer will start giving form to the various characters, their thoughts, hopes, dreams and fears.

 

Overall structure of a libretto

As you can easily imagine, with thousands of musical works available it is not that simple to come up with a definitive list of features shared by all the libretti (plural form of libretto) that have been set to music so far, from the dawn of melodramma to the latest Broadway musicals.

Therefore, for the sake of this blog post, I’ve decided to rely on two masterpieces coming from two completely different periods in the history of opera:

Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607) and Puccini’s La Boheme (1893 – 1895).

Based on the analysis of the above mentioned operas, here is a list of the main features that characterize a libretto:

 

• the names of the music composer and librettista both appear
• list of the main characters/roles, sometimes accompanied by the vocal register assigned to each (baritone, tenor, soprano)
• setting (time and place where the story begins)
• sections (prologue, Act 1, Act 2 and so on)
• description of the scene, that is, what the stage should look like
• name of the character/singer followed by the lines of dialogue
• stage directions: specific indications for the characters, that is, what they are supposed to do while singing or how they are required to interact one with the other on the stage
• actor directions: instructions on how a given line of text is to be sung

 

As you probably might have noticed, Orfeo’s libretto is quite simple and doesn’t provide many indications regarding how the characters should behave on the stage.

On the contrary, Boheme’s libretto is more detailed when it comes to specifying what the roles have to do while acting and singing.

When it comes to the lay out, a libretto is generally structured as follows:

Act
Setting description

CHARACTER 1
lines of dialogue
(singer or stage description)

CHARACTER 2
lines of dialogue
(singer or stage description)

 

Main features of a stage play script

Moving to the features of a stage play script, I’ve summarized them as follows:

 

• title of the play and author’s name
• cast of characters, where each is briefly described both physically and temperamentally
• setting
• synopsis
• name of the character followed by the words to be recited
• specific indications for the actors, that is, what they are supposed to do before, after and while reciting the words assigned to them and how they are required to interact one with the other on the stage. These information are written in italics and in brackets.

 

In terms of formatting, a stage play script can be organized in two different ways:

 

Standard format to lay out a play script

Setting

CHARACTER 1
(actor directions)
lines of dialogue

CHARACTER 2
lines of dialogue

(stage directions)

 

Alternative format to lay out a play script

Setting

CHARACTER 1: lines of dialogue (actor directions)
CHARACTER 2: lines of dialogue
CHARACTER 1: lines of dialogue (stage directions)
CHARACTER 2: lines of dialogue

and so forth…

 

Conclusion

So, just to summarize the differences between a libretto and a script outlined in the previous sections of this article, we can say that:

 

• the Italian term libretto indicates the collection of texts sung during the performance of an opera, cantata, oratorio, operetta and even musicals, while the word script is used to refer to the words spoken within theatrical shows, movies and TV shows.
• the quality of a libretto is judged on how well it facilitates the musical work of the composer, while the efficiency of a script is measured on how it matches the style and personality of the actor
• a libretto is generally less descriptive than a script since the words are empowered by the combination of the melodic profile attached to the verses with the atmosphere created by the orchestra

 

 

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Mario Friscia

Anthropologist of sound
music teacher

“Open your doorway to music cultures and listen to the world with gentler ears”

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