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Shakespeare in Opera

Dr John Severn, Macquarie University, Sydney

William Shakespeare's plays have been rich sources of operatic inspiration, and studying a score alongside its Shakespearean source can offer insights into both the play and the opera. But operas are not just scores and librettos - visual aspects of staged productions such as gesture, costume and scenery can give us new ways of hearing and understanding Shakespeare-based operas.

Hamlet (Composer: Ambroise Thomas, 1868)
Until the twentieth century, popular staged versions of Shakespeare's plays were often very different from the texts we read today. Shakespeare-based operas were sometimes adaptations of these stage versions rather than direct responses to Shakespeare. At the end of Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet, for example, Hamlet lives and is proclaimed king. This is not an innovative attempt by the opera's librettists to rewrite Shakespeare, but a reflection of a highly popular version of Hamlet that was all the rage with nineteenth-century Parisian audiences.

Watching an operatic version of a familiar Shakespeare play can be like an adventure in theatrical archaeology, allowing us to relive how Shakespeare's plays were often experienced in the past: as something new, highly dramatic, exciting, and with unexpected effects. Note how the subdued costume colours and design in director Cyrile Teste's 2017 production for the Opéra Comique in Paris are carefully calculated to minimise a distinction between the audience and the performers. As a result, the Ghost can surprise everyone by appearing from his seat in the auditorium, where he has been sitting unobtrusively, dressed like other operagoers.

Hamlet, Opéra Comique, 2018, Romantic Opera (1830-1900) collection

Nineteenth-century Paris had experienced an Ophelia craze, and the popular stage version expanded Ophelia's role accordingly. The opera goes even further: Ophélie's mad scene lasts an entire act. In Teste's staging of Thomas' Hamlet, the emotional excitement felt by nineteenth-century audiences at the new singing and acting demands of Ophélie's role is enhanced by film projection. Like Ophélie, we are drawn into the hypnotic image of roiling waves. This immersive operatic Hamlet works by exciting the emotions as much as the intellect.

Hamlet (Composer: Brett Dean, 2017)

If Thomas gave Parisian audiences a familiar Hamlet plot, Brett Dean's English-language Hamlet challenges audiences by reordering some of the most familiar text in English literature. The opera opens with fragments of Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech. In director Neil Armfield's 2017 Glyndebourne production, lighting and chorus staging indicate that this speech occurs inside Hamlet's head, prefiguring a psychologically focused opera.

The opera also challenges the idea that a definitive Shakespearean Hamlet exists, perhaps inviting audiences to experience some sense of Hamlet's and Ophelia's fraught relationships with reality. Most editions of Shakespeare's Hamlet are amalgams of the Folio text and the First and Second Quartos, texts that vary significantly. Dean's Hamlet is based on the First Quarto, the least used and thus least familiar of these texts. Here the Players, presented as possible alternative Hamlets, draw attention to this textual instability as they argue over variations between Quarto and Folio texts. Our sense of textual and character stability is undercut, just as the central characters' sense of their familiar worlds disintegrates.

Das Liebesverbot (Composer: Richard Wagner, 1836)
Wagner's early comic opera Das Liebesverbot [The Ban on Love] adapts Measure for Measure. Although the opera was initially a failure, recent productions show that it can be an enjoyable theatrical experience. Kaspar Holten's 2016 staging for Madrid's Teatro Real incorporates physical and prop-based comedy, revealing the comic potential that is sometimes underplayed in modern productions of Shakespeare's "problem play".

Wagner's score is remarkably eclectic, with influences from French opéra comique, Italian bel canto, Beethoven, Marschner and Weber, among others, and includes music Wagner would reuse in Tannhäuser. Modern audiences might struggle to recognise this musical eclecticism. For them, Holten's staging replicates the score's stylistic mixing in visual form – colourful carnival costumes and neon lights sit alongside austere convent scenery and a plain white habit for Isabella, a cartoon-style prison outfit for Claudio and "realistic" costume and settings for Friedrich the judge. All of this is resolved in a final fancy-dress party featuring costumes from Wagner's later operas - including Dorella as Tannhäuser!

Das Liebesverbot, Teatro Real, 2016, Romantic Opera (1830-1900) collection

Visual choices can also clarify an opera's structure. It's widely recognised that Wagner's score is too long. Its large stretches of recitative contain important plot information but risk killing the atmosphere of drama and comedy developed in surrounding scenes. Holten's staging with its caricature of modern-day life gives the audience necessary plot information by using projected Tweets and text messages. This visual intervention allows the recitative to be cut, tightening the dramatic and comic structure.

Béatrice et Bénédict (Composer: Hector Berlioz, 1862)
Béatrice et Bénédict is an adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing that selects the play's sunnier aspects, and rejects the darker Don John plotline.

Laurent Pelly's 2016 staging for Glyndebourne is modernist in its use of large boxes instead of representational scenery. At the same time it's nostalgic - its black, white and grey colour palette and the often static staging of the chorus conjure up an album of old photographs. But the boxes are not just decorative - they also add to characterisation. The chorus members in large boxes in the opening scene contrast with Béatrice, who appears at ground level, free to walk around. This staging seems to imply that Béatrice is someone unwilling or unable to fit neatly into conventional social roles.

At times, Berlioz uses musical means to recreate Shakespeare's verbal art. Shakespeare's Dogberry the constable provides comedy through his inappropriate use of language. Berlioz cuts this character, but invents a new one: Somarone struggles to rehearse a choir to perform his new piece for Claudio and Héro's marriage. Like Dogberry's language, Somarone's lugubrious music and death-focused lyrics are wildly inappropriate for the occasion. Here, a chorus latecomer, physical comedy and interaction with the scenery and the conductor add visual aspects that reinforce the musical humour, inviting audiences to see this scene as full-on comedy rather than as a rather dry intellectual joke.

Béatrice et Bénédict, 2016, Glyndebourne Festival Opera collection

Shakespeare-based operas don't just replicate Shakespeare's effects: opera has its own strengths. One of these is providing extended passages of sheer lyrical aural beauty that do not advance the plot. In these passages directors who trust their musical material might reduce the visual stimulation of their staging. In this duet for Ursule and Héro, a moment of stillness in a hectic plot, Pelly's production avoids visual distractions from the audience's enjoyment of the music. Note the sets of parallel lines decorating the scenery box as if the box were made of music manuscript paper, a subtle hint that music rather than drama is at the centre of this scene. Sometimes Shakespeare-based opera resists analysis and asks simply to be enjoyed.

Learn more about the opera collections on Bloomsbury Video Library. All performances in these collections have subtitles and synchronised transcriptions.

Image Credits on Homepage Carousel Image: Hamlet, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, 2017