Adapting Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ for opera

Amina Edris as Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra
Amina Edris as Cleopatra in John Adams’ Antony and Cleopatra
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra is a story chronicled over centuries, and each generation – each staged production – must wrestle with the question of how the play casts light upon the unique cultural and historical contradictions of its time. What is it about the representation of Cleopatra, the love story of Antony and Cleopatra, and the political transformation of the Roman Republic to an Empire, that is relevant for today’s audiences?

These questions are a guiding force behind the new opera adaptation of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, composed by John Adams, that just had its world premiere at the San Francisco Opera on September 10, directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer. Created especially for San Francisco Opera’s 100th season, the opera is an international co-commission and co-production with the Metropolitan Opera in NYC and Barcelona’s Liceu Opera.

In 2018, I met with Adams and Pulitzer to begin the adaptation and libretto-development process of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra for opera. We decided to hone in on the play’s three primary characters – Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavian – and showcase the ways their intimate relationships are bound to the political paradigm shifts of their time and the existential transition of an old guard to a new one embodied by Antony and Octavian. These themes, while particular to their historical moment, parallel realities in which we live today, particularly fears of rising reactionary politics, authoritarianism, and imperialism across the U.S. and the globe.

Antony and Cleopatra opera stage
Paul Appleby as Caesar with the San Francisco Opera Chorus in John Adams’ Antony and Cleopatra.
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra consists of five acts, 42 scenes, and 40 characters. It spans the ancient world from Rome to Athens to Egypt and back again from roughly 40-30 BC. Acts I through III are densely political, detailing the historic period in which the Roman Republic transitioned to become the Roman Empire, i.e., the changing triumvirates, civil wars, and imperial expansions. In contrast, Acts IV and V are more stationary, interior, and poetically rich.

Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra was completed between 1606-07 (after Macbeth and before Coriolanus) when Shakespeare was in his early forties and had been writing for nearly two decades. It has been classified as a tragedy, a history, and a problem play. In The Year of Lear, James Shapiro notes that Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra all in the same year, during the closure of Elizabethan theaters due to the plague—a noteworthy coincidence given our recent theater and opera house closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The play is a dramatization of the popularized love affair and downfall of Marcus Antonius, aka Mark Antony, and Cleopatra VII. Shakespeare’s primary source material for the play was the first-century CE Greek Plutarch, whose Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans (translated by Thomas North in 1579) includes a lengthy biography on Antony. Plutarch’s Lives was sponsored by Octavian (aka Caesar Augustus, first Emperor of Rome) to legitimize his ascension, valorizing the Golden Age of the Roman Empire and “othering” Cleopatra (qua Egypt, qua the “East”). Augustus also commissioned writing by Horace and Virgil on these same subjects. History is indeed written by the victors, and it is the work of these poets upon which a template was formed and drawn upon over the centuries, burning into our collective consciousness.

In addition to referencing the literary sources of his time, Shakespeare emphasized the mythological archetypes that the real-life Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavian identified with as a political strategy, including Antony as Hercules and Dionysus, Cleopatra as Isis and Aphrodite, and Octavian as Apollo. The political unfolding of Shakespeare’s drama is tightly knitted together with Antony and Cleopatra’s tragic love story, intensifying them both and dramatizing the tensions between public and private life, between myth and reality.

Opera, with its emotive combination of words and music, absorbs time in a very different way than theater. Going into our adaptation process, we knew we would have to contract Shakespeare’s play down to two acts (no more than 3 hours) and that the opera’s Antony and Cleopatra would therefore unfold with a dramatic swiftness towards its tragic climax. To get started, we printed and physically cut-and-pasted the play on butcher paper, highlighting each scene that included the primary characters and those scenes’ driving actions.

Working on the Antony and Cleopatra libretto
Photo courtesy of John Adams

As a result, we reduced the nooks and crannies of civil strife that make up Shakespeare’s first few acts and, for example, in the opera we hear only peripherally of Pompey’s threats. Similarly, we downsized the shifting power dynamics among the second triumvirate, including Lepidus’ role. Familiar scenes such as Act II, scene 7, when the triumvirate are drinking aboard Pompey’s galley, we thus excluded and the copious quarrels between Antony and Cleopatra peppered throughout the play were consolidated, as were Cleopatra’s tantrums. Yet in making these crucial dramaturgical decisions we of course wished to preserve and illustrate the dynamics of Antony’s and Cleopatra’s personalities, their spirited relationship, and the steely qualities of the “scarce-bearded Caesar” (Octavian), as distinct from the aging and vulnerable Antony. And as such, we often brought key Shakespearean text back from the cutting room floor, so to speak – even if at different timestamps in the story – to bolster the narrative and characters’ emotionalities. We searched for supplementary text from alternative Shakespeare plays such as Taming of the Shrew, Henry V, and Richard II as well as Virgil’s Aenied (using John Dryden translation for its inherent musicality) in order to round out character psychologies and dramatic arcs, and provide the necessary heft to particular dialogues and arias.

The creative team conceived production concepts in conjunction with the development of the libretto and score to help further affect the opera’s dramaturgical intent. We set the famous love story of these figures from antiquity, already iconic in their own time, within 1930s Hollywood glamor with allusions to fascist Italy. And the use of newsreel footage enabled our team to enhance the characters’ larger-than-life public personas, highlighting the machines of propaganda, while also conveying crucial information to the audience about place and time in this fast-moving adaptation.

As Shakespeare famously wrote, “all the world’s a stage,” and Antony and Cleopatra is rich with Shakespeare’s inherent understanding of theatricality and playful winks to the audience. “World,” for example, is a word that appears regularly throughout the play and transforms in meaning: it is the intimate world between two lovers, the World of Empire, the celestial world of gods/heaven, and also the world of the stage. Leaning into such non-Aristotelian theatrical devices as the newsreel allowed for another layer in which to engage audiences and emphasize Shakespeare’s manipulation of artifice in his varied representations of “world” throughout the play.

Through its pulsing musicality and multiple levels of storytelling, the opera of Antony and Cleopatra animates the theater of politics – the fabrication of public leaders and mass-media morality plays – even as it lays bare the humanity of Octavian, Antony, and Cleopatra in profound contrast to their iconographic (nearly holographic) public personas.


Antony and Cleopatra is onstage at San Francisco Opera from September 10–October 5, 2022. The Sunday, September 18, performance will be livestreamed at 2pm Pacific, and on-demand for 48 hours beginning Monday, September 19, 2022 at 10am Pacific / 1pm Eastern time.