How to Sing the Song of the Unsung Hero on Your Team
This article is for you if you’re a behind-the-scenes kind of person – the admin assistant who gets the presentation ready for the guys in marketing but doesn’t get to go to the meeting; the PR pro who writes all their speeches and answers all the complaint letters for the president or CEO; the at-home mother who makes sure the concert pianist practices; the deputy chief whose job description is doing all the things the chief doesn’t like to do or can’t do; or the paralegal who prepares all the pleadings, knows all the codes, and does all the licking and stamping.
Temistocle Solear, Antonio Ghislanzoni, Henri Meilhac, Jules Barbier, Michael Carre, Guiseppe Giacosa, Luigi Illica, Renato Semoni, and Nicola Haym all know what this is like.
Who on earth are these people??
Well even if you’re not an opera fan, I bet you’ve heard of the composers Verdi, Bizet, Mozart, Strauss, Gounod, Handel, Donizetti and Puccini. And I’m sure you’ve heard of some of their operas – Aida, Carmen, Cosi fan Tutte, Madame Butterfly, Faust, and Don Giovanni, for instance.
Did you know that these composers wrote the music for their operas but not the lyrics? Solear, Ghislanzoni and the other individuals in the list are what’s called “librettists.” It is they who wrote the words to the music that tell the story, without which you would be listening to a symphony, not an opera. And we never hear their names!
They’re called “librettists” because the words to the songs, which basically comprise the script of the opera, is called a “libretto.” It’s Italian for little book.
Like Gilbert and Sullivan, the pairs worked together. The inimitable Richard Wagner was the only one to compose all his operas entirely by himself, creating both music and lyrics, which may account for why they are so powerful, so “Wagnerian.”
This is quite a feat because composing music and writing words require different parts of the brain.
Sometimes the composer and librettist met in person, while other times the work was done by correspondence. Strauss worked exclusively with one librettist, after writing his own lyrics for his first opera and finding out he wasn’t good at it, but most other composers switched around, finding the right librettist for the job, or one who was available. It’s not unlike the way a lot of us work these days – long distance and by contract.
Again, grasp the significance of the work these unsung heroes did. The words are so integral to the opera they are never translated. Subtitles run across the big screen on stage, or the little screen on the chair in front of yours at the opera. We read them in our native tongue while they are sung on stage in the original German, Italian, or French. (For aficionados, anyway. Beginners may enjoy translations, such as The Chandos Opera In English series, which translates the lyrics into English.)
What an incredible collaboration an opera is. It takes costume designers as well, because an opera is as much visual as it is auditory. The Grand Opera is known for its elaborate sets and costumes. In “Turandot,” when the mob turns surly and the moon appears, she is personified and costumed in a magnificence dominated the stage for what seems like half an hour, that will keep you transfigured.
One opera I hope to see one day is Verdi’s “Aida,” excuse me, Verdi and Ghislanzoni’s “Aida” at the Bath of Caracalla in Rome, where the Triumphal March of Rhadames features live elephants and horses on stage. Now that’s entertainment!
What we don’t see at an opera is the orchestra, perhaps the most important element of all. They’re listed in the program, of course, and given their bows at the curtain calls, but we only hear them, seated down below in the orchestra pit as they are.
Many elements go together to produce the opera we see that bears the name of one man only. Take “Turandot” for instance. It was librettist Semoni who gave Puccini the suggestion for the opera in the first place, telling about “Turandotte,” a play written by Gozzi, based on a fable from the Arabian Nights.
Puccini had been searching for two years for a suitable plot for an opera, and at the age of 61 began “Turandot,” instructing his librettists, Adami and Semoni to “pour great pathos into the drama.” Puccini was known, incidentally for being extremely demanding, requiring endless rewrites from his librettists.
From his point of view however, the librettists were difficult. We can read his letters begging them to do their work. He wrote frantically to Simoni, in charge of Act III, “The third! The third! The third!”
At one point, he confessed to a friend “Music disgusts me…”, as he evidently had periods of self-doubt and composer’s block. Toscanini paid him a visit and gave him the encouragement to keep going. Every team has their Toscanini; or needs one.
Puccini was justified in urging completion of the opera as he died before the team had completed the third act. The collaboration continued on, as Toscanini found a composer named Franco Alfano, whose name is rarely mentioned, to complete it. The world premier took place on April 25th, 1926, the work of one guiding genius and many hands, hearts and minds.
It isn’t that teamwork and collaboration is new, it’s that it’s newly being recognized. Most of us realize we couldn’t accomplish anything alone, while those behind the scenes who work long and willing hours, long for some recognition. Appreciation, after all, is what tops the surveys when employees talk about what they want at their job, and it’s so consistently there, it’s a wonder it isn’t heeded more.
Richard Montuori, town manager of Bellica, Massachusetts, knows and appreciates his team. “I love [my] job,” he said a newspaper interview. “Every day is different and presents new challenges. Finances are a daily and yearly challenge, but no one person ever accomplishes anything alone. We have excellent department heads and town boards that help keep the town moving in the right direction.”
Isn’t it nice to hear someone publicly acclaim the team that makes him shine? I hope your boss or manager does this for you, and that if you’re the boss or manager, you appreciate and acknowledge – and sing – the unsung heroes in your midst.
But how do you praise everyone? There are always so many.
Here’s a leadership trick I learned from a pro. At the culmination of an anniversary banquet, engineered by many, and funded by many more, the director of the benefited-agency rose and thanked “everyone who helped make it possible to raise the $50,000.” Then he added, looking around the room, “And I’d especially like to thank someone whose name I won’t mention, but they will know who I mean.”
I thought it was me! So did a dozen other people, I’m sure, and that was what the director had in mind, he told me later when I asked him whom he had in mind, because his glance around the room was professionally ambivalent.
It works, and it’s always, always true.