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the verbal text of a work of musical drama, such as an opera or operetta and, in the past, of a cantata or oratorio; a ballet scenario; a brief summary of the content of an opera, operetta, or ballet. The term came from the fact that in the late 17th century, opera librettos were often printed for theatergoers in the form of little booklets.
The libretto is the literary and dramatic basis of an opera. Until the mid-18th century, librettos were composed in a fixed pattern following standard musical and dramatic conventions. Thus, the same successful libretto was often used repeatedly by different composers. Later, the libretto was usually written by a librettist in close collaboration with the composer, and sometimes with his direct participation, ensuring better unity among action, words, and music.
In the 19th century, outstanding composers with literary and dramatic gifts began writing librettos for their operas themselves, including H. Berlioz, R. Wagner, A. Boito, and M. P. Mussorgsky. Such 20th-century composers as S. S. Prokofiev and K. Orff continued the practice.
The main sources of subjects for librettos are folk poetry, legends, fairytales, and professional works of literature. Literary works are usually significantly different in libretto form—for example, the basic concept of Pushkin’s Queen of Spades was revised in P. I. Tchaikovsky’s opera. Only in exceptional cases have dramatic works been used intact in librettos—for example, Dargomyzhskii’s The Stone Guest, based on Pushkin’s drama, and Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, based on Maeterlinck’s play.
Librettos vary greatly in content, structure, application of a verse or prose text, and presence or absence of subdivisions of the text. The history of the libretto is inseparably linked with that of opera itself in all its generic and national varieties. Every type of opera in musical history has a corresponding type of libretto.