The Complete Shakespeare Experience
ome 200+ operas are based on Shakespeare works, including a half a dozen which are among opera’s finest achievements.
Many other operas also reference Shakespeare, his characters and plays, less directly, but quite obviously nonetheless,
giving the Bard a significant role in contributing to this other, more musical, form of dramatic play.
The Fairy Queen (Henry Purcell, 1692) is regarded as the first Shakespearean opera although it only incorporates interludes within an abbreviated version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Other works include Nahum Tate’s King Lear (1681), David Garrick’s The Tempest (1756) and Gioacchino Rossini’s Otello (1816). Often, operatic pieces were appended to the plays, such as George Frederic Handel’s Acts and Galatea, performed as an afterpiece to The Tempest in 1724.
As opera prospered in Italy with the opening of the first public opera houses in Venice in 1637, Puritanical London was shuttering its theaters. It wasn’t until the early 18th Century that opera reached London with works, such as Richard Leveridge’s A Comick Masque of Pyramus and Thisbe (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream), in 1716. English audiences remained divided about the suitability of opera for genteel society. An example was Francesco Gasparini’s Ambleto (Hamlet) which was staged in London in 1712 but was quickly shuttered, a fate also suffered by Francesco Maria Veracini’s Rosalinda—As You Like It (1744).
On the continent, however, opera based on Shakespeare continued to delight, including Mozart’s Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor (The Merry Wives of Windsor) and Hermann Goetz’s Der Widerspenstigen Zähmung (1874, The Taming of the Shrew)
Women in Opera
As women sopranos came to the stage (taking over from
the castrato males used to date), opera composers could give more credence and weight to the female roles in Shakespeare’s plays.
For example, Desdemona in Rossini’s Otello (1816) was poised against three tenors (Iago, Rodrigo, and Otello) as well as her basso father, Brabantio. Hector Berlioz’s Béatrice and Bénédict (1862) was based on a subplot of Much Ado About Nothing and his Roméo et Juliette choral symphony (1839). In fact, Romeo and Juliet inspired more than 20 other operatic works, including Daniel Steibelt’s 1793 Roméo et Juliette, I Capuleti, and Charles Gounod’s 1867 production.
The pace of opera, affected both by the singing of dialogue and arias, makes literal transposition of the plays difficult. Still, many works took their inspiration from Shakespeare’s works including Otello (1887, Giuseppe Verdi), Falstaff (1893, Giuseppe Verdi, based on The Merry Wives of Windsor), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960, Benjamin Britten), Sir John in Love (1929, Ralph Vaughan Williams) and At the Boar’s Head (1925, Gustav Holst), both based on The Merry Wives of Windsor, A Village Romeo and Juliet (1900-
Other, more contemporary musical works based on Shakespeare’s plays include Kiss Me, Kate (1948, Cole Porter, based on The Taming of the Shrew) and West Side Story (1957, Leonard Bernstein, based on Romeo and Juliet).
The Enchanted Island based on The Tempest.
A scene from Romeo and Juliet.
Scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.