Operapedia: Opera and Summer
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Operapedia: Shakespeare

Henry Stewart explores the influence on opera of history’s foremost dramatist.

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AKG-Images

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The Basics

Approximately 270 operas have been based on Shakespeare’s plays, though only a handful have found a lasting place in the repertoire. Still, “Shakespeare has proved the single most popular source of inspiration for opera,” according to The Grove Dictionary of Opera , “ahead of such fashionable but perhaps dated playwrights as Goldoni, Goethe, Schiller, Hugo and Racine.” 

 

The Earliest Example  ▶︎  

The earliest opera was performed in Florence around 1598, when William Shakespeare was about thirty-four and writing Much Ado about Nothing. The art form didn’t become particularly popular with British audiences until English composers developed “semi-operas,” spoken plays with musical interludes. Matthew Locke composed music for Macbeth and The Tempest in the 1670s, but the best-remembered Shakespearean semi-opera was Henry Purcell’s Fairy Queen, a 1692 adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

 
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© Todd Heisler/The New York Times/Redux Pictures

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Musical Shakespeare 

Music was not uncommon to the English theater in Shakespeare’s day; many of his plays include songs, for which the Bard wrote the texts, such as “It was a lover and his lass,” from As You Like It. Some scholars have attempted to reconstruct the original musical settings, but many productions instead commission composers to write new tunes. For example, comedian and banjo extraordinaire Steve Martin wrote bluegrass accompaniments for the 2012 Shakespeare in the Park production of As You Like It.

 
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Sportsphoto/Alamy (Midsummer poster); AKG-Images/Picture-Alliance/DPA (Pears/Britten)

The British

Shakespeare’s fellow Brits didn’t establish a homegrown opera tradition until the twentieth century, really, most notably through Benjamin Britten, who adapted A Midsummer’s Night Dream , in 1960, with a libretto adapted by his partner, Peter Pears . He and Britten “had been scrupulous about retaining, while cutting and rearranging, Shakespeare’s language,” Neil Powell writes in Benjamin Britten . Michael Hoffman directed a Midsummer  movie in 1999 whose soundtrack samples copious operas and classical music—including Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March,” from his Midsummer incidental music—but no Britten. 


 

Bootlegs  

“Most of the Shakespeare operas in the nineteenth-century … were taken from the plays indirectly, from parallel sources or from poor translations,” Gary Wills wrote in 2011. The libretto for Bellini’s 1830 Capuleti e i Montecchi, by Felice Romani, was more influenced by Luigi Scevola’s 1818 play than by the Shakespeare original. And Rossini’s 1816 Otello, with a libretto by Francesco Maria Berio di Salsa, was based not on the 1603 English play but on a 1792 French adaptation by Jean-François Ducis, Othello, ou le More de Venise. 

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© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd./Richard Hubert Smith


The French 

One of the most enduring operatic Shakespeare adaptations is Gounod’s 1867 Roméo et Juliette, though the text for one of its hits, Juliette’s waltz-y Act I aria “Je veux vivre,” doesn’t come from the Bard. Much more in love with the poet himself was Berlioz, who attended a performance of Hamlet in 1827. “The lightning-flash of his genius revealed the whole heaven of art to me,” he wrote in his Memoirs. In 1839, he adapted Roméo et Juliette as a “dramatic symphony,” an orchestral work with voices. In 1862, his last opera had its premiere—Béatrice et Bénédict, a pared-down version of Much Ado, performed at Glyndebourne in 2016.

 
 
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The Germans 

Even the staunchly Teutonic Wagner adapted Shakespeare, turning the Avon native’s 1603 tragisexcomedy Measure for Measure into the 1836 opera Das Liebesverbot, or “The Love Ban,” an early exploration for the composer of Tannhäuser of the conflict between sexual repression and liberation. (Director Simon Godwin’s 2017 production of the play in Brooklyn was reached by strolling through a fabricated sex club and toy store.) The opera’s premiere in Magdeburg, Saxony, was disastrous, and it wasn’t performed again in Germany until 1923, forty years after the composer’s death. Along with other early works, Die Feen and Rienzi, it’s now officially noncanonical: it’s never performed at the Wagner festival he founded in Bayreuth.

 

The Italians  ▶︎

Verdi’s appreciation of Shakespeare was almost unrivaled, and he transformed that adoration into estimable art. His  Macbeth Otello  and  Falstaff  (a mashup of  Merry Wives of Windsor  and both parts of  Henry IV —not unlike  Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight ) are the gold standards of Shakespeare operatic adaptations. Verdi involved himself closely in the librettos, even though he didn’t read English (his wife did); he labored over translations. Channeling his hero, he even wrote the actual verses for Lady Macbeth’s show-stopping “La luce langue,” in the 1865 revision of the opera for Paris. 

 
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Louis Melançon/Metropolitan Opera Archives


The Americans

Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra opened the Met’s new home in Lincoln Center in 1966, with a libretto adapted by Franco Zeffirelli and Leontyne Price  in the Liz Taylor role. It was a notorious flop; the Met performed it eight times that season and then never again. Many other American Shakespeare musical adaptations have been more lighthearted, from Cole Porter’s 1948 Kiss Me, Kate (adapted from The Taming of the Shrew , like the nonmusical 1999 teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You ) to Michael Friedman’s pop-rockin’ adaptation of Love’s Labour’s Lost , whose second song begins, rather un-Shakespeareanly, “Young men are supposed to have sex and get drunk and sleep in on Sunday morning ’til brunch!” 

 

 

Where He Is This Season

This month, Roméo et Juliette pitch woo at SFO and Macbeth returns to the Met. Brett Dean’s celebrated Hamlet adaptation, unveiled at Glyndebourne in 2017, plays in Cologne in November, a few seasons before it’s expected at the Met. Washington Concert Opera offers Ambroise Thomas’s 1868 take on the Gloomy Dane that same month. spacer 


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