When Benjamin Britten decided in the summer of 1959 to write a new opera to open the Aldeburgh Festival June 1960, and to inaugurate the rebuilt Jubilee Hall, he was setting himself an almost impossible task. Later Britten said, “As this was a comparatively sudden decision there was no time to get a libretto written, so we took one that was ready to hand. I have always loved A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
It is extremely unlikely that, in fact, Britten decided to tackle turning a complex Shakespeare play into an opera because of a shortage of time. But he and his life partner, the tenor Peter Pears, came up with a workable libretto in remarkably short order. “The play already had a strong verbal music of its own,” Britten explained. “The first task was to get it into manageable shape, which basically entailed simplifying and cutting an extremely complex story…I do not feel in the least guilty at having cut the play in half. The original Shakespeare will survive.”
The opera begins with Shakespeare’s second act — in the woods — and there are only six words in the libretto that are not in the original play. To clarify why Hermia and Lysander are fleeing Athens (one of the major plot points in Shakespeare’s first act), Britten and Pears added the line, “compelling thee to marry with Demetrius,” for Lysander to explain Hermia’s plight.
“One of the things I like about Britten’s adaptation is that he starts in the woods,” says Edward Berkeley, director of Aspen Opera Theater Center. “The music at the beginning has the feeling of threat, of something ominous going on. In the play, and the opera as well, the Shakespearean tangle is actually a place where people go to essentially resolve inner issues that they can’t resolve in society. So the Shakespearean wild is like a place of psychological nightmare.” By starting in the woods, it means that only the final scene of the opera takes place elsewhere — after the characters have resolved their dilemmas.
“The music Britten wrote for the opening of the opera, plus a lot of the Fairy music and for Oberon and Tytania, has a sense of disorder,” Berkeley points out. “I think the best of the lovers’ music comes when they start fighting, and the music is at its most disorderly. There’s the sense the lovers have left organized society, ready to battle it out. They’ve had to go to another place. It’s as if we have to leave society to resolve things.”
The orchestral music with which Britten opens the opera immediately places us in the woods, the glissandos in the muted strings — repeatedly moving up and down the scale — suggesting the breathing of someone deep in sleep. Or perhaps it is the sound of the wood at night, with creaking branches; or the sound of the magic spell that is on the wood and everyone who comes within it.
Britten’s music brilliantly depicts the three different worlds of the play – the world of the Fairies, the world of the human lovers, and the world of the Rustics, as Britten called Shakespeare’s “rude mechanicals” – by giving them each a distinctive musical signature. The fairies have a rather delicate sound from the orchestra: harps, harpsichord, celesta and percussion. Oberon, King of the Fairies, is a countertenor (see sidebar), his Queen, Tytania, is a coloratura soprano, and the fairies are sung by a children’s chorus. Puck is a speaking role, accompanied by drum and solo trumpet, though the exact rhythm of his words is notated in the score. “I got the idea of doing Puck like this in Stockholm where I saw some Swedish child acrobats with extraordinary agility and powers of mimicry,” Britten explained.
The human lovers are accompanied by a normal orchestra of strings and woodwinds. The Rustics have their own orchestral sound, made up of bassoon, brass and lower strings.
Aspen’s production of the opera is rooted more in the musical world Britten created, rather than in the original play. “We’re taking off on some of the Japanese and Asian influences in the music,” Berkeley says. “The fairy world is Asian influenced, it’s exotic, but knowable.”
In addition to the humor of Shakespeare’s original play (brilliantly realized in the music of the opera), Britten also added his own bit of humor in the final scene when the Rustics present their play to the court. His operatic version of their play “Pyramus and Thisbe” is a brilliant take off on Italian bel canto opera, complete with mad scene. At the time of the first production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, the now legendary soprano Joan Sutherland had just set the operatic world on its ear with her brilliant performance in the title role of Donizetti’s Lucia at Covent Garden. Peter Pears, who was singing Flute/Thisbe at the première, did a wicked imitation of Sutherland’s Lucia mad scene. George Malcolm, who conducted the second performance (Britten conducted the première), claimed Pears was so funny “I could hardly keep my place in the score for laughing.”
Midsummer Night’s Dream was a hit at its première, and it has been a strong presence in opera theaters ever since. In the London Times, critic Frank Howes raved about Britten’s new work, calling it “a major opera of the size and quality to follow Peter Grimes around the world, for it contains music as imaginative as the text to which it is set….The impression made by the performance…was that of being gripped by a spell, of being subjected to a dose of Oberon’s own medicine.”
Like any great comedy, there is a serious resolution to Midsummer Night’s Dream, and for Edward Berkeley, that is one of the strengths to the opera. “One of the things I love is that everyone finds each other, so we have a quote happy ending. But the way to the ending is actually through mystery and magic, rather than through reason. It’s not through human logic that we find peace, it’s actually through some sort of mystical or divine blessing. The way Britten sets the end of the opera, the final Fairy chorus is truly divine. When they sing ‘Now until the break of day,’ it feels like the angels in Hansel and Gretel have descended, to bless not only the house but to bless the world inside the theater.”
MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM — An aside
When Benjamin Britten was writing the music of Oberon, King of the Fairies, he knew exactly whom he wanted for the role — the man most responsible for the mid-20th century revival of the countertenor voice, Alfred Deller. On August 18, 1959, Britten wrote him, “I see you and hear your voice very clearly in this part.”
Deller, however, was worried that his lack of operatic stage experience might be a problem. He had been a choral singer most of his life, most notably connected with the Canterbury Cathedral choir, and in 1950 had formed the Deller Consort to give historically informed performances of English Renaissance and Baroque music. His singing of Henry Purcell’s “Come, ye Sons of Art” on the BBC had made him a national figure. Purcell, himself, had sung countertenor, and Deller was an important part of the revival of interest in Purcell’s music. But despite his vast experience in concerts and recitals, he had almost no experience in opera. Peter Pears assured Deller that he was perfect for Oberon. “Your height and presence will be absolutely right ( – so will your beard!)”
Deller was thrilled with the music Britten wrote for him and, in addition to creating the role of Oberon at the première, he can be heard on the recording of Midsummer Night’s Dream conducted by the composer.
Today countertenors are common in opera. They have moved into the parts composers like Monteverdi and Handel wrote for the castrati, as well as assuming many male roles composers wrote to be sung by women, such as Orfeo in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. But at the time Britten’s opera was written countertenors were still a novelty for many in the audience. In his biography of Britten, Humphrey Carpenter tells a story he credits to the tenor Robert Tear. After one of Deller’s concerts the countertenor was approached by a German woman who demanded, “You are eunuch, Herr Deller?”
“Madam,” Deller replied, “I am sure you mean unique.”
This article first appeared in the program book of the Aspen Opera Theater.