previous chapter
Chapter Sixteen— The Twentieth Century Takes on Shakespeare
next chapter

Chapter Sixteen—
The Twentieth Century Takes on Shakespeare

Why even bother trying?

Verdi pulled it off, more or less, three times. But the annals of opera are littered with the corpses of failed musical versions of Shakespeare's plays, from forgotten seventeenth—and eighteenth-century masques, through Italian bel canto tragedies and French romantic mush, to Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra .[1]

Shakespeare's thirty-six-plus plays have held the spoken stage with unparalleled strength and endurance primarily because of their author's uniquely conjoined skills. He could make the English language perform magical tricks through newborn diction and lavish imagery, through outrageous insult or tearful understatement, through silence or surfeit, through his ability to manipulate and interweave the language of many different classes and types of people. He was a master plotcrafter who could create characters more subtle and complex (or, when called for, more winningly simple) than those of any other playwright. And his theatrical imagination—his ability to make and dissolve whole worlds within a "wooden O"—was no less wondrous than that he gave to Prospero in The Tempest .

None of these qualities is readily recapturable or reproducible on the operatic stage. Verdi's two tragic versions (Macbeth and Otello ), for all their grand music,


are, as drama, Italo-Victorian reductions of their originals, with truncated plots and characters simplified to nineteenth-century opera dimensions. The ingenious musical-dramatic synthesis and concision of Otello make it one of the most moving and powerful operas ever written. But only in Falstaff , I believe, was Verdi able to equal, even occasionally exceed, the rich human comedy of the plays from which he drew.

To fit a Shakespeare play into an opera timetable, you must first cut from one-half to two-thirds of the lines. This, and the fact that Shakespeare's stage permitted him numerous and instant scene changes impossible in opera, will force you to reduce and probably rearrange the plot, to omit characters, scenes, and subjects. Your actors, then, will be obliged to sing their scraps of these intricate lines—over an orchestra, yet. It is enough of a challenge for most stage directors of Shakespeare to get their actors to enunciate intelligibly the spoken lines.

Music, of course, can do magical things of its own, as Shakespeare was the first to acknowledge. (Prospero confesses that he requires "some heavenly music . . . to work mine end upon their senses.") But all of the odds would seem to be against any composer of a Shakespearean opera being able to preserve more than a handful of the very things that make his source sublime.

Composers of this century (or at least of what music historians call the "post-Puccini" era) are faced with an additional challenge in trying to turn Shakespeare into opera. For all of his exuberant innovations, Shakespeare worked with and within strictly conventional forms: five-act structures, iambic pentameter rhythms (or prose for low comics), rhetorical set pieces, inset songs, line-for-line exchanges, and so on. So did most opera composers, up to about 1920. The trick, which Verdi accomplished fairly well, Bellini, Rossini, and Gounod less well, is to translate Shakespeare's conventions into your conventions.

But now there are no accepted, agreed-on musical conventions. Try to compose in the successful idioms of earlier times, and you doom yourself to emotional falsity and transparent contrivance. But the supposedly more "honest" musical styles of our time—atonal rows and note clusters, fragments of disconnected rhythm, bizarre orchestration, notes played or sung at random—have in general proven ill-suited to the deep and sustained human/dramatic wholes one looks for in opera, and especially in Shakespeare.

One could cite many contemporary attempts to make operas out of Shakespeare, by composers and librettists rash enough to have rushed in where their betters feared to tread. I'd like to consider just three: Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960), Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra (1966), and Aribert Reimann's Lear (1978)—which is, in my opinion, the most artistically successful of the three.

Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream is the best accepted, most often performed modern operatic version of a Shakespeare play. Premiered at Britten's own Aldeburgh Festival in June 1960—in a hall seating 316—his Dream was taken over by


the Royal Opera at Covent Garden (2,250 seats) in 1961, with a larger orchestra, a starrier cast, and a Gielgud/Solti production. It received its U.S. première in San Francisco that same year and has since been performed hundreds of times in dozens of cities. Particularly memorable productions since the first have included Walter Felsenstein's in East Berlin (1961–1964), conducted by Kurt Masur—like almost all of Felsenstein's operas, it was meticulously rehearsed for several months and stage-imagined with incomparable intensity; John Copley's Covent Garden revival of the 1970s; a 1978 Jonathan Miller version for the Welsh National Opera; an abstract/modern, Peter Brook-influenced Aldeburgh revival (1980); and what may have been the best recreation so far ("What a pity Ben never saw such a production in his lifetime," wrote the editor of Opera ), a Peter Hall-produced, Bernard Haitink-conducted dream of a Dream mounted for Glyndebourne in the summer of 1981.

Britten wrote the part of Oberon, king of the fairies, for a countertenor, which puts many people off (including me: that cold, eerie timbre simply cannot convey changes of emotion). But all of the best countertenors around have had a go at the role, including Alfred Deller, Russell Oberlin, and James Bowman. Walter Felsenstein persuaded the composer to let him use a baritone instead, singing the part an octave down, as other producers have done with Handel and Gluck. Oberon's consort, Tytania, is a sort of queen-of-the-night coloratura who gets the opera's most ravishing vocal music. San Francisco first heard Mary Costa, then Jennifer Vyvyan, who created the role. Gielgud and Solti used Joan Carlyle; Hall and Haitink, Ileana Cotrubas. The other key solo role, the low-comic Bottom the Weaver, has been most memorably performed by Owen Brannigan (Aldeburgh, 1960; San Francisco, 1971) and Geraint Evans (Covent Garden and San Francisco, 1961). (San Francisco's first Hermia—a relatively minor role—was Marilyn Home.)

Britten was fascinated with the possibilities for musical rendering of sleep, dreams, and supernatural beings, and he clearly loved the play. He enjoyed casting young boys in his operas (here, Puck and the four fairies) for the pure, "church choir" timbre of their unbroken voices. Oberon's countertenor and the unique orchestral forces and chords Britten assigned to each of Shakespeare's three character groups (the courtly lovers, the fairies, and the "rude mechanicals") further enriched his musical palette.

Britten and Peter Pears, his life companion and tenor of preference, skillfully and felicitously cut and rearranged Shakespeare's text themselves; nothing that matters seems to be absent. They added only a single line of their own, to explain the omitted first act. Unfortunately, this doesn't mean that one hears all those magical words. Tytania's and the boy fairies' enchanting songs, in particular, and some of the rustics' rapid exchanges are often impossible to understand.

One great problem post-tonal composers have in creating long narrative works is that of finding credible sources of coherence and unity, barred as they believe themselves to be from the old games of set-piece arias and ensembles, expected


repeats, and harmonic progression. Britten, the most popular modern opera composer, leapt happily into this challenge with an ingenious arsenal of the most various, eclectic, and nondoctrinaire devices. Some of these suit Shakespeare's own imaginings wonderfully well. Others blunt, thwart, or bury them. All of them together yield a work of considerable musical appeal.

For the enchanted wood by moonlight in Act II, Britten created a haunting, mounting series of pianissimo chords (the first for muted strings, the second for muted brass, the third for woodwinds, the fourth for harp and percussion) that keep returning in varying fashion to ensnare the whole cast in a magic web of sleep. Each character or group of characters is provided with a "motivic" set of instruments all its own. I especially like Puck's tootling trumpet and ratatat drum, and the silver-bell celesta that accompanies his and Oberon's spells. The quarrel among the four courtly lovers grows into a rousing, "operatic" quartet. All of the otherworldly scenes are kept chromatic, although tonal (i.e., in shimmering semi-tone progressions, à la Wagner). For the finale in Duke Theseus's court, we return to old-fashioned diatonic keys and chords. In fact, for the rustics' inset "Pyramus and Thisbe" skit in this scene, Britten wrote a full fourteen-number mock bel canto Italianate opera in miniature. Flute/Thisbe's "mad song" on discovering her dead lover ("Asleep, my Love? What, dead, my dove?") is an allegro grazioso takeoff on Lucia , which Peter Pears sang to a fare-thee-well at the première (and for the recording). Some critics take offense at this as a knowing sophisticate's in-joke. I find it a perfect counterpart to Shakespeare's own mockery of the ranting Senecan tragedy he helped to displace.

Shakespeare's early fairy comedy is full of musical cues ("Music, ho! Music such as charmeth sleep") that Britten, like Purcell and Mendelssohn, enjoyed picking up on. His Dream is a clever, occasionally a beautiful little opera, which, to be appreciated fully, should probably be studied closely, then seen more than once in a smallish opera house—preferably with rustics who can act as well as Geraint Evans, a baritone Oberon (heresy!), a world-class Tytania, and a stage director with the imagination of Walter Felsenstein or Peter Hall. The orchestra is wonderfully expressive, and the fairy choruses (and all of Tytania's music) are as enchanting as they are unintelligible. But both the lovers and the rustics can seem dull, unromantic, or unfunny for most of the opera—until the lovers are allowed to soar into one of Britten's overlapping-line ensembles, and the rustics get their chance to "act," opera buffa style, instead of jerkily declaiming lines that are meant to be comic.

Britten's short-breathed, discontinuous musical idiom, for all its sweetness and ingenuity, cannot reach the pearl-like purity and magic of the original. It's a prize of an opera, but the delicacy and finesse of the fairy poetry, the wit and humor of the rustics' rehearsals and the lovers' quarrels, and the mind-spinning evocations of otherworldly realms all still beg to be read, and heard, as Shakespeare wrote them.


The story of Samuel Barber's opera, Antony and Cleopatra , is almost a tragedy in itself. First suggested by conductor Thomas Schippers, it was commissioned by Rudolf Bing to open the new $60 million Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center; then hyped as only the Met knows how to hype, and outglittered at its own première (in September 1966) by the diamond-studded celebrity crowd and Franco Zeffirelli's ostentatious production. Totally sacked by the opening night critics, it has resurfaced only three times since, thanks primarily to the efforts of Gian Carlo Menotti, the composer's close friend and sometime collaborator. The first was a production Menotti helped rewrite for the Julliard School in 1975; the second, a Paris concert version in 1980; and the third, a stripped-down staging at Menotti's own two carbon-copy stammer festivals, at Spoleto in Italy and Charleston, South Carolina, in 1983. Barber never attempted another opera—in fact, very little work at all—in the fourteen years of life that remained to him after the Metropolitan fiasco. Devastated by his failure (according to Richard Dyer, music critic of the Boston Globe ), he kept trying to rescore this opera into the success he thought it deserved.

The opening night critics and reporters picked first on the new opera house, then on the distracted audience, then on Zeffirelli's C. B. deMille production ("like five Aidas rolled into one"), and only last on Barber's poor opera. "Paste amid the Diamonds," Music and Musicians called it. Almost everyone was kind to the all-American cast and conductor (Leontyne Price, Justino Díaz, Jess Thomas, Ezio Flagello, Rosalind Elias, Belan Amparan, Thomas Schippers). But "the end impression," wrote Roland Gelatt in High Fidelity , was "of a passionless, uncommitted, Meyerbeerian spectacle—a piece of manufacture more than a creation."

Zeffirelli, who not only directed the production but also designed its sets and costumes and wrote its original libretto, does appear to have something to answer for. To display all of the new Met's stage machinery, he designed golden-cage pyramids that opened and closed, an assemblage of metal rods or slats ("Venetian blinds," everyone called them) that kept rising and descending, a mammoth sphinx that moved "around the stage like a lost locomotive" (on opening night, it crashed into the metal slats), and a full-size floating barge for Cleopatra. He staged the whole sea battle of Actium on motorized toy boats. He so overcharged the Met's new revolve with his legions of soldiers, Roman senators, and Egyptian attendants (and a camel) that it stopped revolving. His costumes were no less grandiose. Winthrop Sergeant, in The New Yorker , called Zeffirelli's production "appallingly pretentious, appallingly arty, and, in most cases, destructive."

But even after the later productions, and the 1983 Spoleto recording, with all Zeffirelli's kitschy pyramids and casts of thousands cleared away, after all of Barber's and Menotti's tinkering with score and text, few critics have found it easy to say many favorable things about this ill-fated work. The best Andrew Porter could venture, on the occasion of the Julliard School revival, was that the opera


deserved "a third chance," preferably not in English, with a carefully reedited score—"perhaps a century or so hence."

Britten's Dream is an excellent small opera that is simply not the equal of Shakespeare's play. Barber's Antony (well, two-thirds of it) is a terrible opera that bears no resemblance whatever, artistic or imaginative, to Shakespeare's original. Granted, Zeffirelli snipped the lines out of Shakespeare. But half of them you can't understand, even on the recording. And almost everything important is gone. The music that replaces it is, with a very few exceptions, lifeless and uninspired.

Barber was not troubled by the Modernist agony of fitting a traditional text to a nontraditional musical language because, in terms of musical style, he never quite made the post-Puccini leap. He could do a few lyrical things very well—elegiac farewells, tenderly aspiring death scenes, solo airs (and one gorgeous trio) that resemble the best of his songs. But all of his arrivals in Rome sound like something off the sound track of MGM's Quo Vadis . When we zap back to Egypt, harps arpegg, woodwinds wail, a bell tree tinkles, antique cymbals clash. In general, his orchestral scoring is thick, plodding, old-fashioned, and obvious. His vocal scoring—a slight gesture to this century—tends to be declamatory rather than lyrical, the notes jabbed out with little audible reference to the words or emotions they are supposedly carrying. Powerful Shakespearean lines are shot out abruptly in off-accent notes; moments of high passion are italicized by swooning strings. Barber's Cleopatra, in the end (despite Leontyne Price's heroic efforts), is almost as flat as his Antony, his Caesar, or his Enobarbus.

That said, I must admit to being moved by the stately, hieratic, musically sustained final act (real vocal lines soar over a weeping continuum of strings and funereal drums), which contains the deaths of the two protagonists. My only suggestion for a revival would be to perform this (with two superb leads) as a one-act opera on its own—perhaps in a triple bill between Puccini's Il tabarro and Schoenberg's Erwartung —to demonstrate Barber's place musical history.

What could, or should, an opera composer have done with Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra?

Left it bloody well alone.

Most of Shakespeare's overreaching global poetry in this play is out of the reach of any composer. So are the wild, inconstant passions and triple-edged emotions of Cleopatra's most famous lines. The characters of Othello are simple and clear. The world of King Lear is unnatural and stark. Antony , by contrast, is altogether this-worldly, as subtle and various as its heroes and locales.

How to portray in music time and space so condensed, passions so mercurial, all of the lies of love? Lose the psychopoetic context, the sense that in these two mixed-up, middle-aged lovers' lives lies the whole world, and you lose all. Composers may conjure up movie-music melodies and follow-the-dots orchestration to stand for Egyptian lust and Roman power. But as I read this magnificent play, I hear, at


most, a few trumpet fanfares, slow background chords, minor string ostinatos, occasional underlinings—in a phrase, "incidental music." The words are far too grand to be taken over by mere music. "The very richness of the poetry," writes Roland Gelatt, "poses an almost insuperable hurdle for a composer to clear. Shakespeare is already operatic without the addition of music. . . . Before we begin laying into Samuel Barber too heavily for his failings, we should pity a composer whose task is to find a musical setting for lines as freighted with their own music as these."

King Lear , by contrast, may be viable as music drama for the very reasons that many drama critics have thought it unperformable on the spoken stage. It overreaches spoken stage realism and seems "too much" in every way. There is too much madness, too much evil, too much cruelty, pathos, insult, suffering, folly. Even the play's strongest defenders have regarded key scenes as "unactable." It can be done on stage (though it rarely is). But it probably works best in an old-fashioned, high-grandiloquent style, like Donald Wolfit's; or in an austere, existential, hyperstylized fashion, like Peter Brook's. In a nonrealistic setting of genuinely inspired and deeply felt music, it is just possible that some of these "unperformable" or "unbearable" effects could be achieved as well as or better than in a spoken, Shakespearean production.

The words are crucial, of course. But in this case one could conceivably lose most of them, "score the subtext" (World in Chaos, Evil in Control), and suffer much less than in cutting a more poetic whole, such as Antony and Cleopatra . There are a few indispensable lines that probably should be heard, particularly in the scenes of "heartbreaking" pathos of Acts IV and V. But Aribert Reimann and his librettist have saved most of these, and stilled the thunderous orchestral cacophony long enough for us to hear them.

Moreover, this seems to me one case wherein the problem of adapting a conventional play to an anticonventional musical language can be, and largely has been, got round. To begin with, King Lear is the most unconventional, the most nearly hysterical, the most outré and outrageous play Shakespeare ever wrote. Its poetic imagery can be so elaborate and so concentrated as to be almost opaque. Whole speeches are uttered in mad, meaningless, repetitive syllables. It is so much a play of the mind, of the timeless, universal, tormented human mind, and so little a play dependent on medieval or Renaissance conventions, that Reimann's shrieking, snarling, crashing, no-holds-barred score probably suits its essence better than any more conventional musical idiom could do.

Although Reimann's Lear is more cacophonous (and certainly louder) than any of the Modernist works (Berg's, Schoenberg's) from which it descends, and is composed around even more intricately thought-out musical structures than theirs, I find myself—most of the time—able to yield to it completely, as I cannot yield to most of the operas of his atonal or serialist predecessors.


Why? Partly, I suspect, because Aribert Reimann's music is broader, more free, and less doctrinaire—although no less intense and unlovely—than theirs. This allowed him the freedom to shift, in some of his interludes and in his final scenes, for example, to soft, clear, almost lyrically expressive music. Here, he will use nonmetrical melismas; there, notes locked into metronome-paced bars. Here, 48 strings are ordered to play 48 separate lines, creating a brain-disorienting cloud of noise; there, a single cello or brass flute will sing a heartrending solo. The double-range music he gives to Edgar/Mad Tom may well enlarge this role beyond anything a speaking actor could achieve. Reimann's Lear orchestra has been augmented by five extra percussionists to keep the din going on seven gongs, six drums, five bongos, five tom toms, five temple blocks, five wood blocks, four tam tams, cymbals, a hanging bronze plate, metal foil and blocks, and wood chips. Be prepared.

The more I listen to this fractured, free, apparently undisciplined music, the more I ponder this mad-looking score (which someone once described as a looking like an army of trained ants marching across the page), the more "right" it all seems, line after clangorous, oppressive, fortissimo line. The manic declamations, the violent coloratura, and the insisted Sprechgesang in the vocal line counterweigh precisely the orchestral frenzy of the world. In the midst of a storm that is clearly as symbolic as it is real, Shakespeare's Lear cries, "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks"—and Reimann's winds do.

Dubious or hostile critics (including me, on first hearing) faulted Reimann's Lear for scanting the positive, redemptive, good-guys' half of the drama: the half represented by the later Lear, Cordelia, Edgar, Kent, the Fool, Gloucester, France, and the good servants. One's overwhelming impression, as the curtain fell, was of a universe totally dominated by, indeed made out of, chaos and evil.

But now I realize that this is also my overwhelming final impression on reading or seeing the play. Decades of Shakespearean scholars have tried to convince us that King Lear is really about Christian virtue triumphing over pagan vice. But it isn't. It's about an ugly, evil, unfair, godless world, which both William Shakespeare and Aribert Reimann knew to exist.

What remains for a contemporary composer who might still want to make use of this richest and most fertile of literary sources?

In July 1985, a new opera based on The Tempest by John Eaton (libretto by Andrew Porter) opened at the Santa Fe Opera. Two other operatic versions of this play were in progress that year, by Lee Hoiby and Peter Westergaard. In defensive advance explanations of his version, John Eaton (a Princeton-trained, Indiana-based composer, whose The Cry of Clytaemnestra was performed in San Francisco in 1981) tried to make his strange mixture of tones and tempi, his overlaying of electronic music and microtone vocalizing with jazz and Renaissance ensembles all


REIMANNLear , Thomas Stewart, San Francisco Opera, 1985.
Photograph by David Powers.


seem reasonable, apt, and "relevant to our post-Hiroshima experience." John Rockwell of the New York Times found the result (as I found Clytaemnestra; I haven't heard The Tempest ) "relentlessly ugly." "The pervasive impression," he wrote, "is of dissonant sludge, the many styles and colors mixed into aural mud."

Other composers, closer perhaps to Aribert Reimann's temperament, may find fit matter for contemporary visions of horror and evil in Shakespeare's more bitter plays, such as Troilus and Cressida (William Walton's opera made use of Chaucer's poem, not Shakespeare's play) or Timon of Athens. Macbeth, Coriolanus , and some of the history plays might be reimagined for our time musically, as many directors have reimagined them for the legitimate stage.

But despite the successes of Britten and Reimann, my last advice is the same as my first. It's probably wisest for a composer to leave Shakespeare alone, and to search for stories and texts among lesser writers, whose genius will not so embarrassingly overshadow one's own.



previous chapter
Chapter Sixteen— The Twentieth Century Takes on Shakespeare
next chapter