Monday, February 5, 2018


Listen to or read this downloadable podcast by General Director Aidan Lang. To kick off Seattle Celebrates Shakespeare, we're proud to offer our first-ever opera by Hector Berlioz: Beatrice and Benedict, an operatic amplification of Much Ado About Nothing. Conducted by Seattle Symphony's Ludovic Morlot and directed by ACT Theatre's John Langs, this one-of-a-kind, all-new and all-Seattle production plays for only seven performances, February 24-March 10.

Hello, everyone, it's Aidan Lang here, and this time I'm here to talk about Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict.

We do like to give our audiences in every season one opera they've never seen before. This is the first time not only that Seattle Opera will be performing Beatrice, but also an opera by Berlioz. To give something of a rarity is a great pleasure, to give you a really new experience. Why this piece? We are just at the beginning of a six month celebration of the works of William Shakespeare here in Seattle, under the guise of "Seattle Celebrates Shakespeare." So when the entire arts community came together to discuss the idea of this festival, it struck me that this was an opportunity to go into a collaboration with one or two of our sister organizations here.

What piece should we do? The obvious suspects are three of the Verdi-Shakespeare operas, Macbeth, Otello, or Falstaff; maybe Romeo and Juliet, which we haven't seen for a while, maybe A Midsummer Night's Dream of Benjamin Britten. But the interesting thing is that despite there being well over 200 operas written to the works of Shakespeare, there are only a very small handful which might be said to have entered the standard repertoire. The problem, I find, is that many of them are what one might loosely term 'adaptations of Shakespeare' rather than giving a truly Shakespearean experience. European drama it tends to be very well defined in terms of whether things are tragic or comic. And the great beauty of Shakespeare is the mixture of genres within the same piece.

I hit upon Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict as an opera by which we could not only make a really interesting contribution to the festival per se, but it also gave us great scope to collaborate with, in this case, two of our sister organizations. Ludovic Morlot was thrilled to be able to conduct Beatrice. Berlioz is one of the composers most dear to him; he even shares a birthday with Berlioz! So he leapt at the opportunity to make his debut with us in this piece. And sitting over at ACT Theatre was John Langs, who is also a very distinguished Shakespeare director. It seemed a wonderful opportunity to ask two of the leaders of major organizations here in Seattle to join us at Seattle Opera to make this production.

When I've seen Beatrice and Benedict performed, it has always been performed with what one might term a 'take' on it, a directorial take. Somehow, the piece needs a bit of a helping hand. So, why is this? When Berlioz first planned this opera he intended it as quite a short piece, a one-act. And then he kept adding bits in as people said "The work is too short," so he added more and more material.

Berlioz made a very conscious decision to ignore the darker subplot to Much Ado About Nothing in favor of making a very sunny, if compact, operatic evening. What he does: he takes out the entire plot-level where the daughter of Leonato, the governor of Messina, is slandered on her wedding-day due to an evil plot designed to compromise her. If you look at Much Ado About Nothing, what seems a very bright and happy play, full of good humor and jesting, verbal word-play, suddenly takes an entirely different turn, in terms of tone. The delight of the opera is the way that two seemingly avowed opponents of the concept of marriage, i.e. Beatrice and Benedict, are brought together through the course of the action. But in the opera, they're brought together purely in terms of what is known as the "Gulling" scenes.

Shakespeare's play, Much Ado About Nothing, hangs on a pun implicit in its title. The word "Noting," in Shakespearean terms, implies both eavesdropping and also spying on, or observation. And the mechanics of the play are based around a lot of this observation being either false, or characters being tricked into overhearing conversations, be it deliberately or by accident. So in the case of Benedict, for example, three of the characters—Leonato, the governor of Messina; the prince, Don Pedro; and the young Claudio—set up a conversation, knowing that Benedict is hiding, and listening to them, in which they claim that Beatrice is in love with him but hides that love behind a façade of banter and wit. That is, she's really disguising her feelings. So a rather complex and delicious situation is set up. And the same thing happens to Beatrice as well. So the two characters are set in motion to discover their true feelings through a playful deceit.

But in the play, crucially, the reason they come together is because of their outrage at the slander of Hero, who is the cousin to Beatrice. They don't come together because they've been set up; they come together and find a real human bond due to a much deeper emotional response to what's going on.

So as Berlioz takes out that whole plot-side to Much Ado About Nothing, he leaves us with a piece which can appear rather inconsequential at the end. And we the audience are asked to believe that two people who've said they'll never get married suddenly get married because they've overheard someone say someone loves them. You know—it stretches it a bit. But when you see Shakespeare's play, there's a real feeling that the marriage at the end between Beatrice and Benedict has come through both of them in a way suffering, just as Hero and Claudio have been through a passage of suffering. And that the marriages which are both celebrated there are going to be far more fruitful because each couple has learnt some sort of life lesson, and they go into that phase of their lives as if you like more mature people.

For me it was very important to somehow bring this darker side to the play. But another important decision was: what language do we perform this piece in? We made the decision to perform in English. Yes, it was written in French; but the very next year Berlioz saw a production in German, in a translation he sanctioned. He was a practical man of the theater, and he understood the importance of an audience understanding what was going on. Berlioz's dialogues are a French translation of Shakespeare, and really quite accurate. But then of course we wouldn't do an English translation of Berlioz's French translation! Of course this gave us the opportunity simply to return to Shakespeare's original text.

And then it became clear that what we could do was add in at least part of that darker subplot, to give a much richer experience. So over many months—nearly two years, I think—John Langs, Jonathan Dean (our dramaturg) and myself bounced around ideas and worked hard to compress the play in such a way that we could get its full momentum but without giving the entire text.

This gave us an opportunity to add back in the characters which Berlioz cut: Don John; his henchman Borachio; Borachio's lover, Margaret (who's the unwitting tool of the dark plot); and we also added in the character of the Messenger and the Friar, Friar Frances, who finds a clever resolution to the dilemma later in the play, as well as needing an actor for the spoken role of Leonato. With John on board it meant we could go to ACT Theatre and enter into a wonderful collaboration with them, whereby some of their Core actors came to join Seattle Opera.

So once we'd made the outline of a new spoken text, it then became very clear that what we had done was create an evening which required some moments to be amplified by opera. Ludovic, together with Phil Kelsey, on our music staff, looked at Berlioz's many and varied other vocal writings, and came up with some pieces to which Jonathan Dean very craftily added Shakespeare's own words, which would help to amplify the dramatic moment but still be Berlioz. And there's a precedent for this; one of the pieces we've chosen is the Shepherd's Chorus from Berlioz's oratorio, L'enfance du Christ. But that piece itself was never written for L'enfance du Christ! It was actually written as a sort of elaborate practical joke. Berlioz wanted a riposte to several of his critics, so he wrote this piece and published it under an assumed name. And his critics all fell for the ruse, saying "Oh, this is a marvelous piece! Berlioz could learn from this piece—Berlioz could never have written this!" And of course it was written by him. And later on Berlioz added that into L'enfance du Christ. What we're doing is very much in the spirit of the man himself.

And now we're in rehearsal, we're all tremendously excited at what seems to have emerged! It is Beatrice and Benedict, a new version. We're offering our audiences an experience which is much more Shakespearean, much more in keeping with the flavor of the festival. I know this works. I myself did this idea of putting the Shakespeare text into a production of [Nicolai's] The Merry Wives of Windsor, which I did a few years ago at the Buxton Festival. The whole evening felt heightened in a way that sometimes dialogue operas can feel that the energy level goes down as soon as the singing has finished. Here, we felt there was a bite and drive to the entire evening which was occasioned by the elevated nature of the Shakespearean text. So I think we have the nuts and bolts and the means to make a really interesting, if you like, a new piece out of Beatrice and Benedict, but one which is governed not by a directorial concept, which might actually diminish the piece or put a very deliberate 'take' on the piece, but one governed by a real desire to make a truly Shakespearean evening for our audiences, and one which I actually think Berlioz would rather relish.

So we have Shakespeare in the dialogue; but the sung numbers are given in a very wonderful translation, a very Shakespearean translation, by the very distinguished writer Amanda Holden. And I think the bridge between Amanda's text and the Shakespeare is also very seamless. It is a big theater, so we will have supertitles for the sung sections; but we will not be titling the Shakespeare dialogues, because actually we want you to listen to what's being said, and to enjoy that wit, rather than looking up above the stage at titles which would (if we were to title them) would be flying past at a completely incomprehensible rate, such is the speed of the dialogue!

The dialogue is mainly in prose. And it's not that difficult a text to readily comprehend. What we want you to do is to listen very intently; but there's no need, I think, to do special homework. We are telling Much Ado About Nothing. By all means, go and rent the wonderful Kenneth Branagh film, which is readily available. But on the whole I think this is one to come along and enjoy!

I mentioned earlier that this is the first opera Seattle Opera has done by Berlioz. Well, who was Berlioz, in terms of operatic composition? He's an original. He didn't train to be a musician. He didn't play the piano. And he made his career both as a composer and as one of the first great conductors, and that became his way of earning a living. We need to remember that we're talking about an age where composers were not on royalties, so surviving as a composer was extremely difficult. Conducting was a way of making a certain quality control over one's own compositions. Berlioz was very worried when he had other people conducting his works that the level of detail and rhythmic precision were lacking in performances, so he wanted to make sure that his works were given due care and attention. But it's clear that he evolved a very strong and clear conducting style, and therefore became called upon as a conductor.

His other great contribution is his work on orchestration. He wrote in his life two treaties on orchestration which became highly influential. I'd ask you to listen out to the brilliance of the orchestral writing, which is why it's so fantastic to have Ludovic, a great Berlioz-lover, at the helm, to really help our wonderful partners in the Seattle Symphony to bring out this incredible writing. Listen out, for example, to the overture, which lasts about seven minutes, and it's a dazzling piece of work. And then, at the end of Act One, there's a beautiful Nocturne, a duet for Hero and her maid Ursula. It's exquisitely beautiful. Again, listen to what the orchestra are doing there. You don't always get this level of orchestral detail and writing.

As you listen to this Nocturne it becomes very clear that the famous duet from Lakmé is a kind of ripoff of it, in terms of structure, in terms of mood. Berlioz was immensely influential on other composers, in many other countries, especially Russia. Wagner respected him hugely. He was an original. His operatic output consists of a sprawling work called Benvenuto Cellini, which needs quite a company in order to bring it off; it's a huge work, very seldom performed for reasons which become very apparent when you look at it. The Trojans, magnificent epic grand opera, but again Berlioz never saw it performed complete in his own lifetime. It is a major undertaking for any opera company in the world to put on The Trojans, especially in one night. The Damnation of Faust is maybe his most performed opera, but it's partly a cantata. It's not an opera in the purest meaning of the word, it's a strange hybrid piece. And then we have Beatrice and Benedict, which is an opéra-comique, an opera with dialogue. So even with those four pieces he writes in completely different styles, and showing new experimentation, or he takes material from much earlier and develops it into another piece. He was always searching for the new, for the original, for new sounds, and thinking ahead rather than looking back to his place in a legacy of tradition. He's a one-off.

Beatrice and Benedict is a one-off piece. So how do I find a comparison to other operas you may have seen? I think it's very hard to do that. It's a comedy, yes, it is; but it's a comedy in the Shakespearean sense, that in a Shakespeare comedy there is also sadness and melancholy. It's a piece which features a character, in Beatrice, who asserts women's rights. We have taken the step to include the song "Sigh no more, ladies," which is going to be sung by Somarone. It's quite fun that Kevin Burdette, who played Don Alfonso [in Così fan tutte], is now going to change his tune and sing Somarone, to sing words which are absolutely opposite the sentiment of Così fan tutte. But it bears a lot in common with Così, in its use of disguise, of a search for hidden identity, and finding people's true natures as the drama goes on. Just as Così fan tutte is as much a tragicomedy as it is a comedy, so I think we should take the word "comedy" associated with Beatrice and Benedict not to assume that we're in for a sitcom, so much as a comedy which takes its characters through a much more profound journey than you would ever hope to find in a thirty-minute comedy on TV. In other words, this is comedy not about having laughs so much as having the warm feeling which comes when a man and a woman finally find themselves, having gone through a turbulent experience of discovery and learning.

Just as we had two sisters in Marina and Ginger Costa-Jackson singing the sisters in Così fan tutte, we are following a similar train by having a real husband-and-wife pairing singing Beatrice and Benedict! So it's a great pleasure first to welcome back Alek Shrader, who of course did Jupiter in Semele, playing one of our pairings of Benedict opposite his real-life wife Daniela Mack, who's a marvelous mezzo making her Seattle Opera debut as Beatrice. Daniela was so thrilled when we offered her this role because it's a role she's been dying to sing for a long time. So it'll be great to have that sparring couple on our stage.

The cast we're featuring on our broadcast night has Hanna Hipp, who you've just seen as Dorabella, as well as Isolier last season in Count Ory; she'll be giving her first Beatrice opposite Andrew Owens, whom we saw in Maria Stuarda as well as The Barber of Seville, is going to be playing Benedict.

The other roles are all single-cast. Laura Tatulescu, whom we just saw as Despina, and who was Susanna with us a couple of years ago, is staying on to sing Hero, the much-wronged daughter of Leonato.

Claudio is sung by Craig Verm, who again we just saw as Guglielmo and previously as Papageno in The Magic Flute.

Kevin Burdette, who we hadn't seen for a while before he came back for Don Alfonso, is playing Somarone, who in this version has a bit of Dogberry, the Master of the Watch, rolled into his character of Somarone, which is an invention of Berlioz, a sort of choir-master as it were. We're given the feeling that, just as the Watch were part-time (they weren't a professional police force), he's part-time florist in the city, he's part-time choir-master, and he's part-time Constable of the Watch. We saw Kevin's extraordinary comic abilities, so we're looking forward to seeing him play Somarone.

Daniel Sumegi is with us for four of our five operas this season; he wasn't in Così fan tutte, but he's coming back to sing Ramfis in Aida, and he was Basilio and the Bonze; he's going to play Don Pedro.

A wonderful singer who we're delighted to give a debut to is Avery Amereau, who's going to play Ursula, Hero's confidante and maid.

And I mentioned earlier that we have some wonderful actors coming over from ACT Theatre, so it's great fun to have them with us. Marvin Grays is playing the role of Leonato, a spoken role which features in Berlioz's scheme of things; Chip Sherman is playing two roles, he's playing the very important role of the Messenger who sets the events in motion. And he will then return in the second act as Friar Frances, who officiates over the wedding but then provides the solution to the dilemma occasioned by the slander of Hero. Don John, the illegitimate brother of Don Pedro, is played by Brandon O'Neill. The villainous Borachio, his sidekick, is played by Avery Clark. And the role of Margaret, who gets unwittingly involved in the evil plot, is played by Christine Marie Brown. So we've got this fabulous company of singers and actors, and even a day into rehearsal I can see they're all knitting together to make a wonderful ensemble. And with John and Ludovic at the helm I know we have a real treat in store.

Visually, we have costumes set—I guess I'd put it late nineteenth-century. The idea of the men being soldiers, returning from a campaign, is very important, so the opera and the play start off with a celebration that the menfolk have survived the campaign. It's an important theme. So there are these marvelous military uniforms which help emphasize the male-dominated society, the values of honor and battle, costumes which will really give a pop of color. Those wonderful costumes are the work of Deb Trout, who's no stranger to Seattle Opera. Matthew Smucker, who's making his debut as set designer, has come up with an environment which really allows the eavesdropping scenes to speak, but also allows the energy of the piece to be propelled and also to change mood where needed. So I think we're in for something of a visual treat for this one!


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