Shakespeare and Opera in the Twenty-first Century

24 July 2019
Research into the study of contemporary operatic adaptation of Shakespeare reveals a renewed and growing interest by composers and librettists in Shakespeare as a source for many new operatic works.

Dr Michael Halliwell, Associate Professor of Vocal Studies and Opera 

Dr Michael Halliwell, Associate Professor of Vocal Studies and Opera at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music has over many years researched a major project into the study of the contemporary operatic adaptation of Shakespeare.

Over three hundred operas have been inspired by Shakespeare’s works and new operas continue to be created with the plays lending themselves easily to the art form. Dr Halliwell’s most recent research has focused on three operas in particular - Brett Dean’s Hamlet (2017), Thomas Adés The Tempest (2004) and Ryan Wigglesworth’s The Winter’s Tale (2017).

“I have always been interested in Shakespeare as an operatic source and my interest in the subject gained increased focus with the premiere of Brett Dean’s Hamlet in Britain (Glyndebourne) in 2017.” Said Dr Halliwell.

“I’m also interested in the creative use of new media in the composition of works based on these 400 year-old sources, and how Shakespeare continues to have great relevance for the world of opera, exerting a fascination for contemporary composers. Virtually every year a new opera based on the Bard appears.”

Hamlet, with its tortuously dark plot and twisted characters, has been adapted more than thirty times with internationally acclaimed Australian composer, Brett Dean awarded the International Opera Awards ‘Best Premiere’ in 2018 for his production.

Dean’s contribution to the Shakespearean opera canon produced one of the greatest mad scenes. Layering music woven with long vocal lines and repetitive rhythmic figures, were enhanced to great effect with electronics. Dean, while remaining true to Shakespeare’s text, often redistributed lines among characters, including the infamous ‘To be, or not to be’ soliloquy, to explore and delve deeper into the characters and their motivations.

British composer Thomas Adés tackled The Tempest, producing a powerful and eerie production that received critical acclaim. This was achieved once again through a new interpretation of the text; Adés took charge of the script, reducing it to its essence and modernising the original words, making it clearer. The incorporation of electronic effects to evoke the strangeness of this ‘enchanted isle’ resulted in a dramatic and powerful performance by singers and orchestra alike.

Ryan Wigglesworth’s production with the English National Opera of The Winter’s Tale was the composer’s first opera. It provided a compelling new interpretation of Shakespeare’s tale of love, loss and reconciliation with a contemporary resonance. Wigglesworth preserved the essence of the plot while excluding a few characters in an attempt to tighten the dramatic grip of the story. Wigglesworth’s production is less modernistic and cutting-edge than that of Dean or Adés, but his melodic music captures the poignancy of the play, although losing some of the intensity inherent in the drama.

“What is striking about these three operas, is that the musical idiom of contemporary opera lends itself to a wide variety of musical, and dramaturgical approaches.”

Dr Halliwell believes Shakespeare continues to be an inspiration for contemporary composers as the works are full of archetypal characters and situations that do not confine them to a particular period.

Opera is an exaggerated and intense art form and many of the great plays have larger-than-life characters confronting extreme situations with great emotional intensity, this translates effectively to opera.
Dr Michael Halliwell

While many of Shakespeare’s plays are specific to time and place, they easily lend themselves to the present day – perfect for contemporary operas.

“No playwright confronted the great human emotions of love, envy, hate, revenge, despair, joy, more effectively, and these are the lifeblood of opera. This is what opera has been about since its ‘invention’ over 400 years ago.” Said Dr Halliwell.

Major advances in the use of new media has resulted in the development of live broadcasting to cinemas and streaming of opera performances. Technology has advanced over the last few decades that make the visual and sound quality and innovation in staging of operas, impressive and more engaging. Composers and directors increasingly create new works with these factors in mind, knowing that their work will be seen outside of the opera house in a variety of formats.  

The use of new digital technology re-emphasises the visual essence of opera, challenging directors, designers and singers alike, who are all aware that their work is reaching far beyond traditional opera audiences. 

Dr Halliwell’s research has shown that Shakespeare has not lost relevance for audiences and the growing number of operas based on his works is testament to the interest by contemporary composers.

Dr Halliwell began his career as a professional opera singer in Germany after studying English literature at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. A series of events led to a return to South Africa, where Dr Halliwell took up a position lecturing in English at a local university and a decision to pursue a Masters degree.

“Not really having a topic for a thesis in mind, a lecturer, and potential supervisor asked me what subjects I knew well. Rather stumped, I answered, English literature and opera, and so there was my topic!” Explained Dr Halliwell.

Dr Halliwell completed a Masters on the adaptation of Henry James into opera - later to become a monograph – followed by a PhD on the contemporary operatic adaptation of the novel.

For almost 25 years adaption studies remained Dr Halliwell’s main research area which saw him become one of the leading figures in the field. This growing fascination led to his publication of the first major study in the area, National Identity in Contemporary Australian Opera: Myths Reconsidered (Routledge 2018).

Soon after starting work at the SCM, Dr Halliwell attended the inaugural conference of the International Association for Word and Music Studies in Austria. Dr Halliwell went on to become Vice President, held a position on the editorial board, and saw the organisation become the most significant academic organisation working in this area. In June this year, Dr Halliwell was elected President.

Dr Halliwell continues to teach at the SCM and hopes to help guide and nurture a new generation of scholars.

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