Brett Dean introduces his new operatic version of Hamlet, premiered at the Glyndebourne Festival on 11 June with a starry cast conducted by Vladimir Jurowski and staged by Neil Armfield.
What attracted you to an operatic Hamlet when other composers have fought shy?
I've discovered that more composers have tried their hand at Hamlet than you might suspect; apparently there are something like 14 extant Hamlet operas at the last count. However the statistics of the undertaking were the last thing on my mind when I embarked on the project. I was attracted by the sheer wonder and beauty of the text and the endless theatrical – and to my mind, musical – possibilities of its characters and themes. Now emerging at the other end of the compositional process, I do think that the almost sacred nature and familiarity of the text may well have put composers off over the centuries, especially when contemplating Hamlet's über-famous soliloquy. The one question I have been asked most over the past four years was always: "Hamlet, eh? So how are you going to set 'To be or not to be'"?! Interestingly, the most well-known and widely performed Hamlet opera (although still something of a rarity), that of Ambroise Thomas from 1868, is in French – and with the story changed significantly. Mon Dieu, maybe that's the answer...!
You stuck with the English but why did you and your librettist Matthew Jocelyn opt for the original play text rather than an updating?
Well, if it's not broken, don't fix it. It's the most extraordinarily beautiful 'poem unlimited', with endless varieties of colour, nuance and rhythm. And the at times antiquated nature of Shakespeare's language also adds a sense of abstraction, of 'once removed'; ideal for the rather surreal world of opera. Having said that, although not trying to reinvent the Shakespearean wheel, we of course reshaped the work for our needs much in the same way that anyone wishing to bring Hamlet to the stage must do, given its multiple versions and myriad of possible solutions. We availed ourselves of all the known sources, including the less well-known First Quarto. This helped us to dodge and weave our way around the potentially overbearing "fame" factor of the words. Matthew has – marvellously and beautifully – conflated the text to offer new observations and points of connection, reattributing lines to different characters or to the chorus, even giving 'the Players' their own opportunity for reinterpretation and deconstruction in the middle of our first act.
How did you cut Shakespeare’s longest play down from 30,000 words and find a route through the material?
When we first met face to face, Matthew and I sat down and read every word of the 'standard' Arden Hamlet. It took us over five hours, so we were immediately aware of the dimensions of the task at hand! However, rather than confronting it as a huge block of highly revered stone, hacking at it like novice sculptors searching for a Hamlet-esque statue within, we viewed the process as one of starting with a blank page, only selecting what we felt had to appear there. The very first step of course was determining the larger factors; the size of the cast, the number of acts, the number of scenes, the placement of the interval, etc., and we started fleshing out the structure from there.
What are the key themes in the play relevant for today and most interesting to you as a composer?
Well it's pretty much all there, isn't it? ...love, death, loyalty, betrayal, power, the supernatural, comedy, tragedy, history... and things pastoral. It's got all the big bones of theatre, all the big questions of being human throughout time. So being 'relevant for today', as with all Shakespeare, is a bit of a given, really. And these are themes which I seem to have pursued one way or another in my music over the past 25 years. Above all, it's the centrally tragic trajectory of a noble, good-natured, highly intelligent and humorous young man, forced to deny and, ultimately, destroy his inner self and higher nature. That's the arc of the dramaturgy that – not surprisingly – has fascinated me most.
What did you learn in your first opera Bliss that has influenced your compositional approach to Hamlet?
One of the most important lessons from Bliss was the realisation that, whatever topic one chooses for an opera, it's going to occupy you for several years, often for most of the day's hours during that time, so it better be a good one! In choosing Hamlet, I felt constantly challenged, enlightened, enthralled, entertained, ...but never bored!
Did you write the vocal music thinking of characters or the specific cast?
Mostly it was an immersion in the characters and their emotional responses at any given moment that fuelled my approach to the setting. At the same time, I've felt so inspired by the tantalising prospect of the extraordinary artists that Glyndebourne has assembled for their production – and I had already worked with a few of the cast members before – that imagining specific voices definitely also occupied my inner Hamlet-world.
Are there particular colours in the score that relate to Hamlet and its period?
I've never shied away from referencing music of the past in my works, however I didn't wish to turn our Hamlet into a kind of pseudo-renaissance sound-byte fest. Especially given the ongoing relevance of Hamlet across the centuries, it would have seemed too specific to sonically marry it too closely to its own time. Nevertheless, there are somewhat oblique and passing references to music of the German composer Leonhard Lechner, a contemporary of Shakespeare who composed a beautiful set of 'Kronborg' motets for the castle in Helsingør in Denmark, Shakespeare's inspiration for Elsinore. And Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had to be a pair of countertenors...
Interviewed by David Allenby, 2017
Hamlet (2013-16) 140'
Opera in two acts
Libretto by Matthew Jocelyn after William Shakespeare (E)
Commissioned by Glyndebourne
11 June 2017 (world premiere)
13/17/21/24/27/30 June, 6 July
Glyndebourne Opera House
Conductor: Vladimir Jurowski
Director: Neil Armfield
London Philharmonic Orchestra
The Glyndebourne Chorus
Hamlet: Allan Clayton
Gertrude: Sarah Connolly
Ophelia: Barbara Hannigan
Claudius: Rod Gilfry
Polonius: Kim Begley
Ghost of Old Hamlet: John Tomlinson
Horatio: Jacques Imbrailo
Laertes: David Butt Philip
Rosencrantz: David Hansen
Guildenstern: Christopher Lowrey
Live screening in UK cinemas on 6 July and
on the Glyndebourne and Telegraph websites
7 October-2 December 2017
with Hamlet performances in
Glyndebourne, Milton Keynes, Canterbury,
Norwich, Woking and Plymouth
Photo: Sam Stephenson
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