Meet the composer taking Shakespeare’s ‘bad, undesirable 1st Quarto’ as inspiration for an operatic Hamlet
“ . . . or not to be.
To be . . . aye, there’s the point.
To die, to sleep — is that all?
No, to sleep, to dream —
For in that dream of death
when we’re awaked
And borne prior to an everlasting judge
From whence no passenger ever returned
The undiscovered nation, at whose sight
The content smile and the accursed damned”
“To be or not to be”, 1 of the most popular lines in world literature, is “not to be” in subsequent summer’s globe premiere production of Australian composer Brett Dean’s Hamlet, the first new opera commissioned by the Glyndebourne festival in practically ten years. The words above are element of the new, option version of Shakespeare’s tragedy written for the opera by Canadian librettist Matthew Jocelyn.
Neither will there be any “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or require to “shuffle off this mortal coil”.
Why the urge to take such liberties with the famous words? Given the want to minimize the text of the play by some 80 per cent, Dean explains when I speak to him at his studio in Berlin, “We felt we had to place that iconic phraseology aside, to create the piece as we wanted it to be. We couldn’t dwell on the fame factors in the text — that’s just rabbit in the headlights stuff.”
Dean’s lateral thinking appears capable of throwing up suggestions that straight theatre directors rarely have time to consider, trapped as they are by the text.
However, he admits, “there have been limitations set by my own dauntedness of the topic matter. That took time receiving used to.” It is the purpose why this part of Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary celebrations is not happening till year 401.
Dean has tackled the play ahead of, even so, in his 2013 String Quartet No. two, which is subtitled “And as soon as I played Ophelia”. With the assistance of Jocelyn, he created a text for a soprano that employed not only that place-upon character’s words but also lines about her from Hamlet, Gertrude and Polonius.
1st for Ophelia’s quartet and now for the opera, Dean says he has identified considerably “joyful hope” in the Initial Quarto: “[It gives us] an uncommon spin . . . and perhaps a particular freedom. It is familiar but various sufficient. And it is a lot shorter!”
That 1603 Quarto is still the topic of academic debate. Was it a reconstruction from memory by an actor trying to beat the official publication of the play into print and failing to recall it all? Or was it Shakespeare’s 1st draft? Dean prefers that thought, finding the text “familiar but pithier”, generating the librettist’s job of condensing the play considerably less complicated.
Dean emerged as a composer around 1999 from the heart of the orchestra. Fifteen years as a violist with the Berlin Philharmonic had offered him wide expertise of the way music is constructed, and outstanding contacts. The orchestra’s resident conductor at the time, Simon Rattle, talked Dean by way of Wagner’s scores “to push me via the large learning curve of balancing orchestra and singers in an opera, a important preparation for Bliss, my very first opera,” Dean says.
“He also advised me about Glyndebourne’s well-known dinner interval you have got to give them one thing truly powerful each to end the initial half and restart the second. So we’ve gone for Polonius’s murder ahead of and Laertes’ return afterwards.”
On Laertes’ furious return, he is accompanied by “his team”, due to the fact one more of Rattle’s wisdoms was to take advantage of the excellent opera choruses obtainable by way of Glyndebourne’s young artists programme. So an opera that Dean describes as “focusing on a dysfunctional family with most of the geopolitics taken out” typically extends beyond its ten-character cast.
“But why is it the Home of Claudius rather than the Residence of Hamlet?” the composer wonders. “Why wouldn’t Hamlet have followed his father on to the throne of Denmark, and does he feel diddled? It’s disquieting.”
Dean and his artist wife Heather Betts moved back to Berlin from Australia six years ago, getting “grown up right here together” in their twenties. “We missed the place, our daughters are each in Europe [in music], and the access to musical encounter here is outstanding, such as the privilege of playing my viola sometimes with the Berlin Phil, which is nevertheless family members,” he explains.
Dean throws up ideas that straight theatre directors can not consider, trapped as they are by the text
From Berlin he’s been “obsessively” pouring out music, including a trumpet concerto, “Dramatis Personae”, written for Håkan Hardenberger and premiered by the BBC Symphony Orchestra with Dean conducting, and The Annunciation, a operate commissioned for the 800th anniversary of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig for Christmas 2012.
He also has working relationships with three orchestras: the Toronto Symphony Orchestra enlisted Dean to curate its New Creations Festival this year the Sydney Symphony has him as artist-in-residence and the BBC calls him an artist-in-association. He’s won both the Grawemeyer Award and the Stoeger Prize.
Bliss, based on the novel by Peter Carey, won its Opera Australia production an award at the Edinburgh Festival in 2010 and subsequently got a new production in Hamburg courtesy of fellow Aussie Simone Young, then intendant of the Hamburg State Opera. It was that production that encouraged Glyndebourne to commission Hamlet.
“I’m thrilled they’re that confident in the operate,” admits Dean, “also that there was no issue in persuading them that Neil Armfield [the Australian who also directed Bliss] should direct.”
The cast will incorporate the Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, making her Glyndebourne debut as Ophelia, and the Australian David Hansen as a countertenor Rosencrantz.
“So it’s a bunch of colonials coming to the heart of England to challenge the Bard’s 400th anniversary with a bitter, humoristic version of their greatest play,” Dean says.
Holding the fort for England, the British tenor Allan Clayton will take the part of Hamlet, fellow Brit mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly sings Gertrude, and the legendary British bass Sir John Tomlinson appears as the ghost of old Hamlet. Clayton will premiere music from the opera, the 20-minute Hamlet Diffraction, at the Barbican in London in November.
“I love the English tenor voice-type,” says Dean. “It’s not a dumb tenor, it is a nuanced, sympathetic tenor — which reminds me that my initial huge vocal setting was of EE Cummings’ Winter Songs for tenor and wind quartet.”
There’s some doubt as to whether or not Dean has written 87 or 91 operates in his 17 years as a composer. He sounds shocked by the numbers. “That’s pretty incredible — I need to stop it. But men and women do hold asking me, I’m afraid.”
‘Hamlet’, Glyndebourne festival, June 11 — July six 2017
Photograph: Ina Shoenenburg
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