As many of you may already know, this year we celebrated the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, the world’s most widely known playwright, poet, and author. Shakespeare was born in 1564 and died in 1616, aged 52- not a bad innings for the 17th century!
It goes without saying that his influence is well known – a quick Google search will reveal some of the 1700+ words he invented, and how surprisingly common they are today. We simply couldn’t converse the way we do today without the work of this one man. His stories and ideas still inform everything from our favourite T.V. shows, to novels, to Disney movies! I would argue that Shakespeare is so present in our lives today that an understanding of his works and language provides an essential key to understanding most of literature and storytelling in English.
This is all very well. ‘But,’ I hear you ask, ‘this is an opera blog, what does Shakespeare have to do with opera?’ Answering this question was my challenge this week and a chance to indulge my inner Shakespearean nerd. The short answer I came up with is this: Shakespeare the man probably wouldn’t have had anything much at all to do with opera (more on this later). BUT…his immense body of work continues to inspire composers of opera, music theatre, song, choral and orchestral music, and so much more.
This was a pretty easy conclusion to draw, but drawing it opened up a whole new can of worms. To celebrate the life of the man who was Shakespeare, I’d like to share a couple of these new thoughts with you: a bit of personal experience and observation, a little fact-finding, and what it all told me about Shakespeare the man himself and his relationship to music…
To be honest, I don’t remember my very first encounter with ‘the Bard’, but it was almost certainly at an early age, long before I knew anything much about opera. Shakespeare and his stories seem to be an irrepressible force in our culture, whether we like it or not.
I would hazard a guess that most of us are familiar with at least a small portion of his work, probably through having to study one of his plays or sonnets at school. As a budding teenage actor with a taste for highbrowish literature I relished the chance to discover more about the way Shakespeare’s language worked. The simultaneous complexity and immediacy of his writing fascinated me. This view was generally not shared by my peers, and didn’t change much after high school. The mention of Shakespeare in today’s modern Australian society will often elicit a less than enthusiastic response. Upon studying the man’s work a little more I quickly realised a few things:
1. Shakespeare is not ‘highbrow’ in the same way as Tolstoy. He’s just not. He doesn’t even try to be, and that’s very ok. Sadly the complexity of his language has a tendency to cloud this fact in the eyes of a modern-day reader. Which leads me to point number two…
2. Unpacking his language fully was not going to be as clear-cut as I had hoped; in fact it would take a lifetime of dedicated study to unpack every nuance. And even then there would probably still be something.
3. Shakespearean insults are fun, even if nobody understands them. And mastering a Shakespearean speech is incredibly satisfying.
A few years later, as a naïve singer entering the world of opera, I would come across Shakespeare again. Yes, the man is literally everywhere. His words have inspired songs, his stories have inspired operas, and his influence has affected composers and librettists spanning centuries and countless genres.
One of the things I love about Shakespeare is that you can read one of his poems or a piece of his text ten times over and discover something new each time. His ‘magic touch’ seems to extend to the music he inspires too.
Here is a small list of key works and some of my personal favourites. I hope to continue discovering Shakespearean adaptions as I move further into the world of opera. I think Shakespeare plays and texts make wonderful material for vocal music!
Verdi Shakespeare operas – Falstaff, Otello, Macbeth. …Salieri also wrote an opera entitled Falstaff.
Gounod – Romeo et Juliette and Bernstein – West Side Story – both adaptions of the classic Romeo and Juliet story with a few changes! And yes, technically West Side Story isn’t an opera, but it’s still a much loved musical adaption.
Purcell – The Fairy Queen (Masque or semi-opera) loosely based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Britten – A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Both are takes on the source material by legendary English composers. Britten’s libretto was crafted to retain much of Shakespeare’s original text.
Vaughan Williams – ‘Serenade to Music’- Stunning piece for orchestra and sixteen soloists with text from The Merchant of Venice.
Strauss – Drei Lieder der Ophelia – several composers have tried to capture Ophelia through song. Strauss’ set is particularly interesting as an exploration of the character’s fragile psychology.
Thomas Ades – The Tempest – glorious new opera
It occurred to me while writing this blog that the endurance of Shakespeare’s work in our modern society is something of a parallel issue to the survival of opera in a modern-day world. There are certainly those who question the relevance of both to a 21st century audience. It’s easy to understand how both Shakespeare and opera can, if presented in the wrong way, seem inaccessible and too lofty/difficult/boring for the average person. And let’s face it, Shakespeare’s writing today is virtually a foreign language to a new reader, despite the influence he’s had on our current vocabulary!
Whatever your opinion on these matters (and I know here at The O Word we’re keen to find out!), there’s always something to be said for challenging the status quo and questioning accepted beliefs. I think there are as many individual answers to the relevance question as there are individual people, and it’s worth taking the time to find yours. As for my answer- I find both to be incredibly relevant because of the profound universal human truths they reveal and the power they have to move people. And even better still, these pearls of understanding are packaged in incredibly beautiful artistic forms, whether sung or spoken. It’s fascinating and wonderful to think that your own experiences and emotions are echoed by writers, composers, and audiences across hundreds of years.
This occurred to me as an interesting avenue for exploration. It’s highly unlikely Shakespeare would have had a single clue what opera was or what it would become. Shakespeare was writing his plays and coming to the end of his career at around the same time composers in Italy were carving out the artistic form that would eventually become opera. Let’s put this in perspective…
In 1598, the first work historians recognise as an opera, Dafne, was performed in Florence, Italy. Its composer was Jacopo Peri (1561-1633), three years older than Shakespeare, and aged 37 at the time of composing Dafne. That same year, Shakespeare wrote his famous comedy Much Ado About Nothing.
In the years that immediately followed, not a whole lot happened to develop opera. In Mantua, Italy, 1607 the first opera still in the canon of regularly performed works (i.e. supposedly the first ‘good’ opera) was premiered: L’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). That year Shakespeare, now 43 years old, completed Pericles and began Antony and Cleopatra. He would only remain professionally active as a writer for another six years. His final play was a collaboration with John Fletcher entitled Two Noble Kinsmen, written in 1613. At that point, L’Orfeo probably hadn’t been seen outside of Italy.
Opera wouldn’t reach England for quite some time, until the Restoration much later that century. William Davenant (1606-1668) was, as far as we know, the composer of the first English opera The Siege of Rhodes (1656). He worked as a writer and later librettist and impresario, and, unsurprisingly, was highly influenced by Shakespeare. What’s even more interesting is that Shakespeare is thought to have been acquainted with his parents, who ran an inn Shakespeare frequented. Although there is no real evidence, some rumours even state that Shakespeare was Davenant’s biological father!
It’s certainly intriguing to imagine what Shakespeare might think about opera were he given the chance to see it today. Would he like the way Mozart captures characters with clarity, brilliance and insight? Or perhaps he would be a fan of Wagner’s drama and bravery? What would he think about Verdi’s adaptions of his own plays?
For all Shakespeare’s knowledge of opera may or may not have been, one thing we know for sure from his writing is that he understood the power of music, and its ability to transform and transport the human spirit. To round off today’s blog I’ll leave you with two quotes from Shakespeare himself. If you want to find more you might just have to get reading!
Written by Emma Adele Ashton