Sunday, October 28, 2012

Met Scene: Thomas Adès' The Tempest

As the city prepares for the arrival of Hurricane Sandy, a perfect storm already made its entrance at the Met on Tuesday. As the New York Times described The Tempest: "One of the most inspired, audacious and personal operas to have come along in years."

Reading Shakespeare is not my cup of tea, but it is no wonder his plays have inspired countless operas over the years, from Verdi's Otello to Gounod's Roméo et Juliette.  Out of Shakespeare's whole oeuvre, it seems The Tempest is one of the most popular.  There have been movies (like the one with Helen Mirren), ballets (eg. Rudolf Nureyev's) and of course operas.  The Enchanted Island, the successful pastiche created by the Met itself last year, was loosely based on The Tempest.

Courtesy of the New York Daily News - Ken Howard
The Tempest now playing at the Met is the actual story (well, almost), composed into an opera by Thomas Adès with the help of his librettist Meredith Oakes. Adès wrote the music when he was just thirty-three in 2004, and the opera has had no less than six different productions since then.  I personally found it marvelous to be listening and watching an opera which was being conducted by its composer.  How often does that happen?

The cast was stellar as well, with Simon Keenlyside in the role of Prospero, a role into which he has been cast multiple times before.  His voice has something je-ne-sais quoi, and I was immediately transported to a desert island, this time being transformed into the old La Scala by the magical hands of Robert Lepage.  Making his Met debut was Alek Shrader as Ferdinand, which you may remember from the movie The Audition.  He was a Grand Finals winner in 2007; he is just one of about a hundred National Council participants and winners on the Met stage this year.

Present at last week's Met Talk were Peter Gelb, Thomas Adès, Simon Keenlyside and Robert Lepage. Five years ago Peter Gelb approached Robert Lepage and Thomas Adès to start the process of bringing The Tempest to the Met stage.

Question 1 to Thomas Adès: Why did you choose The Tempest as an opera?

Covent Garden commissioned Adès to write an opera for them for the 2004 season.  He had been contemplating many subjects, but The Tempest stuck in his mind.  As he wrote the music, he asked Meredith Oakes to write the libretto.  The original words as written by Shakespeare would not work in an opera.  This Tempest is a new way of speaking Shakespeare; a simplified language which makes it contemporary, without emptying it or making the story devoid of meaning or character.  There is a flow to the words, mainly established through the use of couplets.

Question 2 to Robert Lepage: What is the nature of the production?

The story of The Tempest is no stranger to Lepage, who has directed many plays over the years.  However, this is the first time he was asked to direct an operatic Tempest.  He uses the old La Scala as a theatrical metaphor for Prospero's magic.  He recreates an exact replica of the old La Scala, which is of course where Prospero is from as he was The Duke of Milan.  Just as an opera house is able to use magic and tricks to make people believe things that are not real, Prospero uses his magic to shipwreck his 'estranged family' on his island and exact his revenge on them.

As the story progresses, the audience gets to see a different perspective of the opera house.  In Act I, the action takes place backstage looking out towards the audience.  It's almost as if you are watching yourself.  Act II is a view from where the audience is sitting, instead you are not watching the Met, but La Scala.  The opera concludes in Act III with a cross section of the opera house: part audience, part stage.

To Lepage, The Tempest has a colonial aspect. Prospero, the Duke of Milan, arriving on the shores of an island in Bermuda (?), takes a lot from the island but gives nothing back. Ariel is the slave who does all Prospero demands of her, and Calliban is the rebel who gets banished and has to sleep below the stage, even though he is the rightful heir to the island.

Ariel, sung by Audrey Luna, plays a major role in the opera.  Everyone who has read The Tempest has a different idea on who or what Ariel is.  To Lepage, Ariel is a man, created from air, who uses his music to do what Prospero instructs him to do.  Luna does appear like she is made of air, because the acrobatics this role demands are amazing, and so are the vocal capabilities. This is redefining the principles of what a coloratura soprano is.

Question 3 to Simon Keenlyside: What are the challenges of the role?

Keenlyside has been singing the role for seven years, but that doesn't mean it gets any easier.  Not only is it a very demanding role, but it can also be very difficult and nerve-wracking to sing in front of the composer.  However, if you have truth in your heart and you completely live in the character, it works out perfect.

Question 4 to Thomas Adès: How do you start writing an opera like this?

Adès wrote the opera in chronological order, starting with the beginning and finishing with the end. Act I was the easiest to write and took the least amount of time. Act II took nine months to write, especially since that entailed the most difficult part in his opinion: the entry of the court. How do you go from just five people singing in Act I, to a whole court/chorus on stage in Act II? Once this hurdle was overcome, Act III only took three more months to finish.

An important aspect when writing an opera is figuring out the relationship between the different characters. In order to make these relationships understandable to the public in an opera setting some changes were made to the original Tempest story. These changes were also necessary to speed the action along. Even though the opera is only about 1/3 of the length of the play, it still takes over two hours to perform. The text has to be shorter than the original because singing takes much longer than just speaking.

Calliban was one of the major changes in the opera. From a contemporary viewpoint, Calliban is a difficult character; he is usually comical. Normally, he only interacts with a few characters in the play. To make him appear more comical and integrated in the story, he becomes part of the chorus in Act II as he runs into the stranded court and decides to help them.

I find the audience is the best critic of any new opera.  If you want to know what the public thinks of a performance, you can either go to the bathroom and listen to people's reactions or you can stay for the curtain calls and watch people give their approval (or disapproval).  Prospero certainly did a trick on me, and I gave this new Tempest my most heartfelt of approvals, together with the rest of the audience which went absolutely wild.