A New Opera, Shakespeare, and Me
For sixty-five years I have been working, in one way or another, but steadily, with Shakespeare. The first stage production I saw of one of the plays was King Henry IV. Part One. Bewildered by much of what I saw, I was nevertheless convinced that something greatly important was going on. So, I took to acting as Leontes in Winter’s Tale.
In a couple years, there came those two films by Laurence Olivier, his Henry V and Hamlet. It is utterly impossible to describe the impact those two “movies” had upon us. No one I knew had ever seen or even dreamed of such things. They were for us the music of which Caliban dreamed and waked to dream again. They taught us so much and moved us so deeply that we were forever changed.
I was soon to begin directing plays and was dedicated to serving what I thought were the intentions and needs of the playwright. I was a devotee. And so I remained through the years, preaching to my actors that they worked in service of something and someone greater than were we. And that was the abiding authority of the playwright, of Shakespeare.
Of course, during the upheaval of the sixties, in the momentous days of the Movement, we took liberties with our Shakespeare the better to serve our political, social, and economic agendas. We wanted his plays to help us change things, even end a bad war.
And, in one degree of another, we never relinquished that freedom. We were less and less in service of the playwright. And so we find ourselves today, still mounting some straight productions from the repertory, but also lots of wildly free-wheeling productions, some of them revelatory and others just plain misbegotten.
So following this recitation, here I am today, having behaved myself reasonably well over the years, having tried to be faithful to the play qua play, even when I was playing somewhat fast and loose with it-- as teacher, director, actor, critic. I wanted to be a champion of Shakespeare’s words, his verse, his poetry and the music of if. In retirement, I and my old theatrical friends even went so far as to establish a producing company, of a radically different sort, that would present the plays, 98% dedicated to speaking those words well and clearly.
But lately I’ve been feeling this new thing creeping up on me, an awareness of something that I believe might be good for us, a new hold on the old art of Shakespeare-- still in good faith.
So, yesterday, Betty and I were sitting in the local cinema for the Metropolitan’s new production, The Enchanted Island, a pastiche “new” baroque opera depending on Shakespeare’s Tempest and Midsummer Night’s Dream, of them but not them. It’s a delirious, magical (I use that word carefully) combination of baroque arias, recitatives, choruses, and orchestrations. It makes a huge spectacle of seventeenth century stage technology with cybernetic emphasis. With superb singing actors going hell for broke, all of it hung on a Shakespearean scaffold. Tempest, but not the Tempest, into which blunder the four confused youngsters from Midsummer Night’s Dream who have no idea in the world what’s going on.
This, then, is what I have learned, what has been sneaking up on me of late. Call it heresy if you will.
I see, here and there, Shakespeare being used quite outside formal production of the plays. I see bit and pieces of Shakespeare everywhere: quotations direct and indirect, take-offs in satire and tribute, of other plays-- and operas like this-- where Shakespeare is the inspiration and the background. I see him programmed everywhere, deeply into the cultural fabric. Even in advertising, for god’s sake. And I no longer get upset!
When it comes right down to it, is it not his characters and their predicaments that he has left us, without which we would scarcely know how to think? How, for instance, can a modern young man be a modern young man without Hamlet and his predicament infusing his sense of his situation?
The pearl of greatest price, then, is this bunch of characters and their troubles that are the wildly excited, disruptive, and indispensable school-house of our way of life.
They are a vocabulary, if you will, for talking, acting up, and dreaming our lives. They are the ingredients that we mix up, over and over, like an alchemist, into discoveries of How to Live.
Prospero and his Caliban are a code, a formula, a system, a reference point in our effort to get out of a similar jam. And here comes the Met’s new “show” as in an alchemical retort into which to toss Sycorax, the Great Mother, too hot even for Shakespeare to handle in his proper play. It's our reconciliation with Sycorax that allows the entire company to REJOICE at the end, singing their fool heads off about it, in such utter happiness.
In a way, The Enchanted Island is The Tempest corrected.
I believe now that Shakespeare’s characters and their defining predicaments can be lifted free from their plays and used in endless and quite astonishing ways. Often they will succeed and sometimes fail. But more often than not they will work to save our souls.
Look at it this way, think of what has become of Chaucer. His late medieval or earliest modern English, has become unreadable except by experts. Nor can our ears any longer hear his sweet music.
I’ll bet that Shakespeare, in less than half a century, will have fallen into that same linguistic obscurity: his great plays will have become opaque in the theatre, classroom, and home. Perhaps, like Chaucer, they will need translation….
Will all be lost? I think not and that’s a big relief. We shall be able to hold on to those characters and their situations well beyond their useful life in the theatre or classroom.
I think, now, that they can remain as ingredients of our practical, daily thought and feeling for as long as we need them. The Enchanted Island seals this new faith for me and makes it possible to rejoice with the performers. There are so many ways for it to happen.
It’s a coup de theatre in this production when, almost at the end, Prospero breaks out of the opera and steps to the apron of the Met’s great stage and speaks, not sings, Prospero’s “Our revels now are ended….” The thrill of those words spoken, that sound, those images: they caught me up in a sort of summary of all that I have thought and felt about life and art. It was the entire play in an instant.
It was plain to see-- or hear-- that Shakespeare had not only supplied us with all this food for thought and living, he had also given us the tune of it, its perfect music, to continue to play to that inner ear of the spirit. Those “loyal cantons of contemned love” that Viola promises us in her play.
After the music, the drama, and the stunning images, after the actors, working as only actors know how to work, what is there left for an old man to do but REJOICE? I would join the actors and meet the audience head-on, dazed and happy, at the curtain call, when they signal to the audience that they will return to do it again, hand in hand with our myriad-minded Shakespeare. Then it’s off with the make-up and home to dinner.
Flash! This just in! The way in which that remarkable film Melancholia uses the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde shows how this notion bothering me can work for Wagner too. A palimpsest of Wagner’s opera breathes on the film.