Shakespeare and opera: Verdi, Rossini, and other composers inspired by the plays

The birth of opera neatly coincided with the life of a man who would go on to hold – and continues to hold – great influence over the art: William Shakespeare.

What is generally considered the very first opera, Jacopo Peri’s Dafne, premiered in Italy in 1597 – coincidentally also the premiere year of Merry Wives of Windsor, which has proven to be one of the most popular Shakespeare plays with opera composers and librettists.

From Italy to England

Largely due to the rise of Puritanism in the early 17th century (and with it, the closing of theatres), it took nearly 100 years after Dafne premiered for opera to make its way to England.

England’s taste makers were initially suspicious of this Italian (‘foreign’) musical drama taking over English stages. For the land that brought the world Chaucer, Marlowe, and – of course – Shakespeare, the fripperies of Italian opera (not to mention its dangerous reliance on the effeminate and unsettling castrati singers) were seen to be beneath the splendor of English drama.

John Bull at the Italian opera. Published by Thomas Rowlandson, London, early 19th century. Folger ART File C277 no.5 (size S)

However, like in so many other cases, it was audiences who spoke loudest, and they couldn’t get enough of this silly, foreign, but highly entertaining art form! But why invest in creating English opera when Italian opera – soon to be taken to new levels of artistry in London by the German immigrant George Friedrich Handel – was packing out houses night after night?

At the end of the 17th century we do see one of the first ‘Shakespeare operas’, Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, though even this is more of a ‘play with music’ than what we consider to be a true, through-sung opera. Just try listening to the opera or reading the score – recognizing that it’s an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not an easy task!

Shakespeare on the 18th-century stage

The 18th-century London stage became dominated by David Garrick’s adaptations of Shakespeare, which often had extensive musical interludes. The vogue for Shakespeare and music was very much aligned with the demand for variety entertainment, packing in as much variety as possible into an evening’s program, and their ubiquity was another reason that native Shakespeare opera in the true definition of the art form was still to find its way.

A notable exception was the English composer Stephen Storace’s excellent Gli equivoci – based on The Comedy of Errors – and written in 1786. Though not hugely popular in its day, in recent years this great Mozartian-style comedy has been picked up by a number of companies. It must be said, however, that Storace spent much of his early life on the continent, developing his craft, and it was there – not London – that the opera was performed. Although Storace was English, the opera was in Italian.

Over on the continent, however, the growing dispersion of Shakespeare’s plays was enabling them to find favor with composers and librettists eager for subjects that would make a mark on an increasingly competitive national and international operatic stage.

In Shakespeare’s plays they found not only compelling dramatic material and a ‘name’ that would help sell tickets, but also some of the foundations for the operatic style and conventions of the time. There were clear set-piece numbers for choruses, clear moments for stand-out arias (solo songs), and clear act-by-act narratives (not that these were always followed, but they offered a guide as to how the standard operatic acts could be aligned with Shakespeare’s).

Otello - a Shakespeare opera
“Opera reminiscences – 1829 – to be continued, Desdemona, Otello, dedicated to the admirers of William Shakspeare” [graphic] / William Heath. Folger ART File S528o1 no.84 (size M)

Rossini’s Otello and Verdi’s Shakespeare trio

The earliest Shakespeare opera to become a core part of the operatic repertoire today is Rossini’s Otello (1816). With a few key diversions from the play (notably that it all takes place in Venice, rather than Cyprus) the opera packs a powerful emotional punch and is quite a brilliant shock for those purely used to Rossini’s delightful comic operas, such as Cenerentola or Barber of Seville.

Otello traveled the world, in no small part leading the way for the flurry of Shakespeare operas that would appear in Italy, Germany, and France over the coming decades – notable mentions for Bellini’s Capulets and Montagues (1830), Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet (1867), and even a moment of levity from Richard Wagner, whose Das Liebesverbot (based on Measure for Measure) is rarely performed, but which contains one of the best overtures in all of opera.

Romeo and Juliet - a Shakespeare opera
Gounod’s Romeo & Juliette. 1900. Drawing by Samuel Begg. Folger ART Box B416 no.7 (size L)

There’s one figure who looms over Shakespeare and opera, and that is the great Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi. His Shakespeare trio – Otello, Macbeth and Falstaff – forms part of the core repertoire for most major opera houses today, and they are three of the most popular Shakespeare operas in general. Helped by his evolving and more flexible musical and dramatic style, Verdi was more free to adapt Shakespeare’s plays for the operatic stage – enabling him to embrace a greater number of characters, for example, and to move more seamlessly between aria, duet, and ensemble (most earlier opera follows a much more stringent musical pattern – think how after each musical number in a Mozart opera, for example, you then have extended recitative / sung speech, before then moving into another set musical number).

In Otello and Macbeth, Verdi found prime dramatic material that chimes well with many of his other dramatic operas – Il Trovatore, Masked Ball, or Rigoletto, for example – and in Falstaff, a wonderfully stylized character who could quench Verdi’s thirst at the age of 80 to at last write a mature comic opera. As a side note, it’s interesting that both Verdi and Wagner – whom we think of as great dramatic writers – both looked to Shakespeare for their comic operas. There’s perhaps more drama to these comedies than we sometimes imagine!

English-language Shakespeare opera

What then of English-language Shakespeare opera? It’s not surprising that the upturn in English opera in the late 19th century saw an embrace by librettists and composers of Shakespeare. For the first time, we see a barrage of Shakespeare operas that are not only based on the original texts, but that also often use much of Shakespeare’s language for the final libretto.

My personal favorite (though, even I probably couldn’t argue technically the best!) is Charles Villiers Stanford’s Much Ado About Nothing. Adapted by Julian Sturgis, the opera is largely faithful to the play, though with a notably increased role for Claudio (with lovely accompanying tenor arias). It’s wonderfully attuned to the comedy of the play (comedy, in general, not always being something that opera deals with very well) with brilliant vocal writing for the characters.

We have works by luminaries such as Ralph Vaughan-Williams (Sir John in Love) and Gustav Holst (At the Boar’s Head), and, most notably, Benjamin Britten (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). That last is the only English language Shakespeare opera regularly performed today.

Scene from a Shakespeare opera
Charles Villiers Stanford’s Much Ado About Nothing, Northern Opera Group, 2016.

Shakespeare opera today

The reasons for the diminishing output of new operas on stages would require another article to even begin to address, but even here, we still see composers fascinated by Shakespeare, with two of the most notable recent new operas based on Shakespeare plays – Thomas Ades’ The Tempest (2004) and Brett Dean’s Hamlet (2017).

In a few weeks’ time my company – Northern Opera Group – will open our annual Leeds Opera Festival with a program inspired by Shakespeare operas. Alongside performances of Stanford’s Much Ado, we’re staging a concert of works from Falstaff operas (by Nicolai, Balfe, and Salieri – but no Verdi!); exploring the life and career of Henry Rowley Bishop, who composed many of the popular variety-style Shakespeare operas of the early 19th century; and producing a new piece called Musical Confusion.

For this new piece, I’ve set the director, Elizabeth Freestone, and conductor, Helen Harrison, the task of bringing together Shakespeare’s plays and the operas inspired by them to explore how the plays and operas work together, and what sets them apart: How do they deliver equally satisfying emotional reactions, but in very different ways? All I can say is that I’m very much looking forward to it, and very pleased that it’s they who are attempting to distill 39 plays and over 300 operas into an hour’s entertainment, and not me.

The Leeds Opera Festival takes place between 23 and 27 August 2019 –

Enjoy a Spotify playlist with music from the operas featured in this article.

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