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Reminiscences on A Midsummer Night's Dream: Robert Holliston recalls Pacific Opera Victoria's 1993 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which remains one of his all-time favourite experiences with POV. Find out why – and discover some of the reasons he loves this opera with its three marvellous sound worlds.
Britten: The Composer as Outsider: Although he was the most successful opera composer of the last 70 years, Benjamin Britten was very much an outsider, alienated from the crowd by moral, political, and artistic differences. Robert Holliston discusses the ways in which, despite his public success, he didn't fit in.
Designs for Dream Characters: A Midsummer Night's Dream lends itself wonderfully to theatrical colour and whimsy. Here is a glimpse of some of the costume sketches designer Judith Bowden has created for the characters in this production.
2016/17 Season: Subscriptions are now on sale for the 2016/17 season. Here's a brief overview of the three operas on our main stage next season, including the company première of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra; a new production of Mozart's enchanting The Magic Flute; and Les Feluettes, a new opera co-commissioned and co-produced by POV and Opéra de Montréal
La Voix humaine: POV presents Poulenc's one-act psychodrama May 12 to 22.
Spectatular Musical Gala: POV and the Victoria Symphony join forces for a magical evening, Sunday, April 10.
Pacific Opera Victoria's 1993 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream remains one of my all-time personal favourite experiences with the company. In most 19th- and 20th-century operas there is no keyboard part, meaning that the répétiteur is no longer required after the last piano run. It feels a bit like helping (a lot) with the preparations for a wonderful party and then not being invited to it.
But Britten's operas generally do have keyboard parts, and prominent ones. Dream is very special in requiring a harpsichord and celesta, both contributing to a soundscape that revolves among three distinct sound worlds: those of the Fairies, the Lovers, and the Rustics (or Mechanicals – the working class) as they act and interact in the supernatural ambience of the "wood outside Athens," where most of the opera's action takes place and where only the Fairies are truly at home. The sound world changes very definitely when we move into the palace of Theseus, and yet again (many times) during the parodic play-within-a-play, Pyramus and Thisbe.
There is not enough space to list the entire very fine 1993 cast by name, but three in particular deserve a mention: the Helena of Newfoundland-born soprano Joanne Hounsell, for many years a leading voice teacher here in Victoria; the Lysander of tenor Benjamin Butterfield, now Head of Voice at the University of Victoria; and the Snout/Wall of Patrick Corrigan, who has since assumed a different position within the world of opera production at POV.
Some orchestral composers write within the established conventions of instrumentation, but Britten is not one of these. The richly varied colours in the Dream score are due at least in part to the composer's understanding not only of what instruments do, but of what they can do. As one Victoria Symphony player remarked in the McPherson Theatre pit all those years ago, It's as if Britten took a course in orchestration and proceeded to do everything he was taught not to do. Instruments are called upon to play in extreme ranges, and with extended techniques, and in unusual combinations. Listen to the unsettling sequence of major chords and the string portamenti that create the other-worldly, slightly threatening sound of the wood – and its not-always-benevolent inhabitants, the Fairies:
"Over hill, over dale" from Glyndebourne, 1981. Damien Nash is Puck, with Ileana Cotrubas as Tytania, and James Bowman as Oberon. The London Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by Bernard Haitink.
It is probably the world of the Fairies that I've always loved most in A Midsummer Night's Dream – and not only because of the bewitching way in which the celesta (one of my instruments) contributes so strongly to it. The role of Oberon, King of the Fairies, was written for countertenor Alfred Deller, at a time when this voice type was rarely heard even in Baroque music and hardly ever in contemporary works. Thus the very sound of the voice suggests something a bit alien to human experience. In addition, the vocal writing – which was tailor-made for Deller's vocal sound and range – is beautiful (again in a slightly bizarre way) and matches the words perfectly, especially the spine-tingling melisma on the word "eglantine," which also drops the interval of a major tenth at the end of the vocal line:
"Welcome, wanderer ... I know a bank" with American countertenor David Walker
"Welcome, wanderer ... I know a bank" with countertenor David Daniels at Teatro del Liceu, Barcelona, with conductor Harry Bicket
The Lovers present themselves to us in pairs, starting with Lysander and Hermia. Because they are genuinely in love with each other, their lyrical vocal lines interweave, conveying an ardently seductive romanticism – but underneath, a series of slightly dissonant chords, played by the horns in a subtly unsettling rhythm, reminds us that, to borrow Lysander's words, The course of true love never did run smooth. The sparring of Demetrius and Helena finds the mismatched couple singing mismatched lines of music. Each of the four will have, from time to time, beautiful lines of music to sing – and as a quartet completely at odds with one another, they share a scene of great hilarity.
But it is after all conflicts have been resolved by Oberon and his magic potion and the couples have been properly united – when all is as it should be – that these Lovers are given their most sublime music – a passage of ingenuity in which distant horns awaken them from a deep sleep and gradually bring them back to the reality of Theseus's court – where they will never again be given sung music to sing, or indeed such words to speak.
And I have found Demetrius (fair Helen/Lysander/sweet Hermia) like a jewel. Mine own, and not mine own.
Rustic Bottom is altered by the woods as well – not only because of the ass's head he unwittingly sports, but because of his contact with a world of enchanting delights he only dimly remembers. As a group the Rustics – working class chaps who retreat into the forest to rehearse unobserved for the play-within-a-play – are unique in that we never see them in their natural habitat. They are therefore always slightly uncomfortable and out of place.
During Pyramus and Thisbe (the play-within-a-play in Act III), their music parodies a number of targets from Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire to Donizetti's bel canto mad scenes. (It has been said that Peter Pears, who played Flute in the original 1960 production, gave a ruthlessly precise impersonation of Joan Sutherland during this sequence, which is reminiscent of Lucia's flute-accompanied mad scene.) Readers may be interested in seeing a contemporary parody of Shakespeare's version of this scene, the characters being portrayed by celebrities from quite a different genre of 20th-century music:
Mechanicals' Play with the Beatles
It is entirely fitting that A Midsummer Night's Dream ends where it began: in the mysterious world of the Fairies, with a slow and solemn dance and a final coda from Puck.
[If our 1993 production benefitted from a first-rate cast, it was also beautifully designed, costumed, and lit – as well as led by POV's favourite team: stage director Glynis Leyshon and artistic director Timothy Vernon (who campaigned indefatigably for years to bring this masterpiece to the McPherson stage). An equally distinguished team is on its way to mount our 2016 production – and, like most of you, I suspect, I can't wait!]
Robert Holliston is Curator of Public Engagement for Pacific Opera Victoria. He has given POV's pre-performance lobby lectures since 1993 and has previously served as our Répétiteur, Chorus Master, and Principal Coach. He hosts POV's INSIDE OPERA, Opera Motifs, and Artist Lounge events.
Benjamin Britten is the most successful post-war opera composer. However strongly certain musicians and critics may advocate on behalf of others, the fact remains that between 1941 and 1963, Britten composed no fewer than 17 works for the stage. More importantly, most of these works have been revived and recorded many times since their first appearance, and throughout the opera-going world.
No composer during Britten's lifetime – or, so far, after it – can begin to match these dual achievements. During the last half of the 1940s he produced his first operatic masterwork, Peter Grimes, following it with two "chamber" operas, Albert Herring and The Rape of Lucretia. (The reduced performing forces required for the last two works fulfilled a need for quality repertoire suitable for small companies with their limited resources, and contributed to the early success of the English Opera Group, founded in 1947, as well as the Aldeburgh Festival, founded in 1948.)
Peter Grimes seems at first look to have been an unlikely smash success – after a decade and a half of deprivation brought on by the Depression and the war, a darkly violent story with a grimly taciturn title character must have seemed inappropriate to at least a few Sadler's Wells board members (a number of whom even described the score as "cacaphonic"). Add to that the expense – Grimes requires a massive performing force, with a large cast, large chorus, large orchestra, all of them advanced enough to learn and memorize a score that was – is – technically very difficult.
However unlikely, though, the opera was a triumph for Britten, as was its central role for his lifelong companion Peter Pears, who first articulated a theme that was to prove central to many of Britten's stage works: the outsider against the crowd.
In three fundamental areas of his life, Britten considered himself an outsider, alienated from the crowd by moral, political, and artistic differences.
In April, 1939, Britten and Pears moved to the U.S.A., at least partly to distance themselves from the impending European war. Their absence during a time of understandable patriotic fervour was noticed, and their friends W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood were openly denounced in Parliament. When the two musicians returned to England in 1942, it was to a society not yet willing to embrace their pacifist philosophy: As conscientious objectors we were out of it. We couldn't say we suffered physically, but naturally we experienced tremendous tension. Not until the peace movement of the 1960s would Britten find himself, albeit unwittingly, in sync with the socio-political spirit of his time.
And not until 1967 would England legalize homosexual acts between consenting adults – meaning that throughout most of their time together, Britten and Pears were outside not only society's mores but also its laws. Of course the nature of their relationship was widely understood – despite Britten's refusal to acknowledge it publicly even after 1967. That they were clearly accepted by admirers, colleagues, and even members of the Royal family (Queen Elizabeth II was among the first to send a letter of condolence to Pears after Britten's death in 1976) did not protect the couple from narrow-minded bigots or from barbed remarks like Stravinsky's, who referred to the couple contemptuously as "Aunt Britten and Uncle Pears."
Most importantly, Britten felt that the idiosyncratic style of his music alienated him not only from those who preferred more conventional fare but from avant garde composers who considered his work irrelevant and anachronistic. To a younger generation of artists experimenting with electronic music, total serialism, and musique concrète, the very idea of writing for opera houses seemed like pandering to the public. Indeed, since opera went public in 1637, it has always depended for its continued existence on satisfying the tastes of those who buy tickets at the box office. Many composers of the 1950s doubted that the audience's needs should ever be taken into account. Britten's own contention, that the artist should speak to or for his fellow human beings; that it is insulting to address anyone in a language which they do not understand, seemed risibly old-hat. Yet between the extremes of conservatism and radicalism, Britten's public was enthusiastic and large enough to guarantee Britten two enduring operatic successes in the 50s: Billy Budd and The Turn of the Screw.
By the early 1960s – with the successful premières of A Midsummer Night's Dream and the War Requiem behind him and the yearly Aldeburgh Festival firmly established as a major cultural event – Britten's stature within the profession was incontestable. On the occasion of his 50th birthday in 1963, Britten was lauded by the Austrian-born British critic Hans Keller as the greatest composer alive, one who had not only re-established his country's musical reputation, but who had solved the problem of contemporary music. In July of the next year, Britten travelled to Colorado to receive the first Robert O. Anderson Aspen Award in the Humanities, established in 1963 to honour the individual anywhere in the world judged to have made the greatest contribution to the advancement of the humanities. The citation read,
To Benjamin Britten, who, as a brilliant composer, performer, and interpreter through music of human feelings, moods, and thoughts, has truly inspired man to understand, clarify and appreciate more fully his own nature, purpose and destiny.
In his acceptance speech the composer expressed his thoughts about himself and his work:
I want my music to be of use to people, to please them, to enhance their lives ... I do not write for posterity – in any case, the outlook for that is somewhat uncertain. I write music, now, in Aldeburgh, for people living there, and further afield, indeed for anyone who cares to play it or listen to it.
Today, 40 years after the composer's death, companies large and small throughout the world continue to produce Benjamin Britten's operas season after season. Avant garde composers and critics here and there continue to treat them condescendingly, just as the occasional audience member continues to wish the music was a bit less complex and a bit more hummable (many a Broadway musical lover has been heard saying the same thing about Stephen Sondheim).
The works themselves continue to challenge and bewitch, with their unique orchestral soundscapes, gloriously imaginative (and often quite hummable) melodies, and flawless (if frequently surprising) word setting. And the pervasive theme of the outsider's treatment by an often uncomprehending society continues to resonate with audiences of all persuasions, professions, races, and tax brackets, just as it always did with Britten himself.
One of the joys of A Midsummer Night's Dream is that it is jam-packed with possibility. Its three intersecting worlds – Fairies, Human lovers and Rustic tradesmen – confer marvellous scope for theatrical colour and whimsy.
Director Tom Diamond and Designer Judith Bowden (who in 2010 teamed up for POV's delectable Cinderella) are preparing yet another magical production – as you can see from this glimpse of some of Judith's charming costume sketches.
The Fairies include the slightly sinister king, Oberon, who exacts a spiteful revenge on his wife Tytania by foisting on her a love potion that will make her fall in love with the first creature she sees. There's also Puck (aka Robin Goodfellow), the mischievous sprite who gives Bottom a donkey's head just for the fun of it, and whose scrambled spells cause most of the accidental chaos in the opera.
The rest of the fairies (including Moth, at left) are small and adorable (played by a chorus of boy trebles), but their mission is to serve and protect their queen, Tytania, fending off snakes, hedgehogs, spiders, and all other threats.
The Human lovers include Theseus and Hippolyta (at left), the duke of Athens and the queen of the Amazons. Theseus has won his bride by defeating her in battle. She doesn't seem to mind. Their pending nuptials are the impetus for the Rustics' venture into show business.
Two other young couples – Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius – spend the night in the woods, pursuing
and pursued by one another, getting lost, and, enthralled by the love potion, madly loving now the right person, now the wrong one – until everything is finally untangled.
The Rustics comprise a half dozen tradesmen, whose performance of Pyramus and Thisbe is the opera's comic highlight.
The Rustics include Quince, the carpenter, who is the self-appointed director and casting manager; Flute, the
bellows-mender, who plays Thisbe (aka Thisby); Starveling, the tailor, who plays Moonshine; Snug, a joiner, who plays the Lion; and Snout, the tinker who plays the Wall. Snout is shown here with his tinker's toolbox and kettle (we assume he has just repaired it and is about to
brew himself a pot of tea).
Bottom, the weaver, is Pyramus (but he campaigns to play all the parts, especially the lion). While sporting a donkey's head (at right), Bottom gets the best love scene in the opera when Tytania becomes besotted with him – another casualty of Oberon's love potion.
Luxury casting for this production includes our favourite Scottish bass, Brian Bannatyne-Scott, as Bottom. Rounding out the Rustic thespians are Bruce Kelly, Lawrence Wiliford, Giles Tomkins, Kaden Forsberg, and Andrew Erasmus. Coloratura soprano Suzanne Rigden is Tytania, with countertenor David Trudgen as Oberon.
Making his opera debut as Puck is Toronto theatre artist Daniel Ellis, while Victoria's Susan Platts returns as Hippolyta, with Stephen Hegedus as Theseus. The four young lovers are Adam Fisher and Lauren Segal as Lysander and Hermia, with John Brancy and Betty Waynne Allison as Demetrius and Helena.
Timothy Vernon conducts the Victoria Symphony, and Giuseppe Pietraroia directs the Children's Chorus.
Now is the time to reserve your 2016/17 season subscription.
POV's 2016/17 season opens with Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. Set amid the roiling politics of 14th century Italy, this drama proves how little has changed over the centuries. Affairs of state are still driven by backroom deals, conspiracy, even murder. And emotions – love, grief, vengeance – are often at the heart of political action.
Simon Boccanegra is Verdi at his most humane and subtle: the music is haunting, full of grace and grandeur; the characters are flawed, vivid, compelling. The whole opera is an eloquent call for magnanimity and reconciliation. Todd Thomas, gripping as Alberich in Das Rheingold and Iago in Otello, returns in the title role. Glynis Leyshon directs.
February brings mystery, danger, laughter – and the most enchanting music in the world, with Mozart's The Magic Flute. Director Oriol Tomas, who recently won a major competition to direct a co-production with 16 French opera houses, will work with renowned Cirque du Soleil Creative Director Patricia Ruel to devise a magical universe for this most bewitching of operas.
In April, an acclaimed Canadian play finds new life as an opera with Michel Marc Bouchard's Les Feluettes (Lilies).
This new work, co-commissioned and co-produced by POV and Opéra de Montréal, makes its world première in Montreal this May, followed by the Victoria staging in April 2017. Timothy Vernon conducts the performances in both cities. The cast includes James McLennan, Gordon Gietz, and Aaron St. Clair Nicholson, all recently seen on POV's stage. Among those making POV debuts are internationally renowned baritone Gino Quilico, along with Daniel Cabena, whom CBC has called Canada's next countertenor superstar.
Les Feluettes is a romantic drama set in a prison, where inmates dramatize a decades-old tragedy to draw out the truth of a devastating love triangle.
Australian composer Kevin March evokes a tapestry of musical styles, from waltz rhythms and French Canadian folk music to the sophisticated lushness and delicacy of Debussy, all of it grounded in the splendour of Bouchard's language.
Order your 2016/17 season subscriptions online, by phone at 250-385-0222, or at performances of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
A one-act opera presented in collaboration with Intrepid Theatre's Uno Fest
May 12, 14, 18, 20 at 7:30 pm
May 22 at 2:30 pm
The Baumann Centre 925 Balmoral Rd
Starring Kathleen Brett, with Robert Holliston on piano
Directed by Diana Leblanc
The telephone is sometimes more dangerous than the revolver.
Listen in on the final phone conversation between a woman and her ex-lover.
We hear only her side of the conversation as she tries to win him back and keep him talking.
The opera's themes of technology as a lifeline and a weapon, that both connects and isolates, are more relevant than ever in today's digital world.
Adults: $25 / Students: $15
250-385-0222 or ONLINE