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The Tempest

John Henry Fuseli, ArielThe Tempest is a somewhat enigmatic play among the works of William Shakespeare. Tradition tells us that it is Shakespeare's last play, but without any substantial evidence to prove it. Is Prospero, the aging wizard laying down the tricks of his trade, really a stand-in for Shakespeare retiring from the theatrical life? The Tempest is one of the few Shakespeare plays whose precise sources, if there are any, have so far eluded scholarship. The play is at once a rough comedy (with so much prose that its metrical quality is dampened) and a philosophical treatise (on forgiveness and the wise use of power). It is also a remarkably musical play, with what can only be described as court ballet scenes and numerous songs and other music incorporated into the action. It is, in some ways, a masque without being identified as such.

We should not be surprised that such a play is perceived as a natural for operatic adaptation. Representing the lower impulses of humankind, the monster Caliban describes what life is like on Prospero's island:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds, methought, would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.

The Tempest, Act III, scene 3
The earliest musical adaptations of The Tempest were attempts essentially to convert it into a masque, a court entertainment. Dryden did so toward the end of the 17th century, with music by Matthew Locke and others, and David Garrick made an operatic version in 1756. The play has undergone many transformations in the 19th and 20th centuries, including Tchaikovsky's symphonic fantasy (1873) and famous attempts at providing incidental music for the play, including versions by Sibelius and Arthur Sullivan, while he was a student at the Leipzig Conservatory. Composers have already recast it as a modern opera at least four times, in works by Frank Martin (1956), John Eaton (1985, libretto by Andrew Porter, premiered at Santa Fe Opera), Lee Hoiby (1986), Peter Tahourdin (2000), and most recently Thomas Adès (2004).

Are these Tempest operas like the play? That is, a comic frame – a court ballet bit of grotesquerie – with something rather serious at the center? The play meant a lot of to the poet W. H. Auden, who wrote a long poetic adaptation of it in The Sea and the Mirror (so did Robert Browning, extending the play in Caliban on Setebos). I have also reread Auden's lecture on the play, thoughts on Shakespeare collected by Arthur Kirsch, which sums up this dual nature of high and low, comic and serious, in The Tempest:
Comic strips are a good place to start in understanding the nature of myths, because their language is unimportant. There are some famous passages of poetry in The Tempest, […] but they are accidental. Antony and Cleopatra and King Lear only exist in words. In The Tempest only the wedding masque – which is very good, and apposite – and possible Ariel's songs are dependent on poetry. Otherwise you could put The Tempest in a comic strip.
Auden also hits on another comparison that illumines the operatic potential of The Tempest:
There is a significant parallel between The Tempest and The Magic Flute. The problem posed in both works is the nature of education. Sarastro is like Prospero, the Queen of the Night like Sycorax, Monostatos like Caliban, and Tamino and Pamina like Ferdinand and Miranda. How do people react to education? You must go all the way if you start. You can be lowbrow or highbrow, you can't be middlebrow. Caliban might have been his "own king" (I.ii) once, but when he becomes a conscious being, he has to govern himself and he can't.
One editor of the play pointed out something that now seems so obvious, that the name Caliban is a poorly disguised anagram of "cannibal." The one reference in the play that is easily identifiable is that Gonzalo makes a speech based on Montaigne's essay "On Cannibals," which Shakespeare had certainly read in John Florio's English translation. In that brilliant essay, Montaigne recalls the testimony of a man who had traveled among the native cultures of South America. As brutal as some of the practices found among those tribes at war were (roasting and eating the flesh of those who were defeated), he wrote, none was actually more brutal than what was being perpetrated in Europe at the same time, in the name of religion (torturing and murdering people only because they were Catholic or Protestant).

The Tempest is also unusual among the plays of Shakespeare because it observes the Aristotelian unities, taking place quite clearly in one location, in the space of about four hours (2 pm to 6 pm). "The tempest," the storm raised by Prospero's powers, involves a temporary suspension of the normal order of things. Love can flourish, enemies can be forgiven, music can reign. Yes, I think it is a natural fit for opera. The American premiere of Thomas Adès's The Tempest is scheduled for this evening, at Santa Fe Opera. Ionarts will be there.

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