To Be Or Not To Be: Dean's Hamlet
“To be or not to be, that is the question.” It’s hard to think of a more famous line from a more famous play. In this iconic speech from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the troubled Danish prince asks whether this whole life thing is even worth it. But “to be or not to be'' is not the only question we’re asking this week.
When everyone knows this line so well, how do you make it fresh again? How does adapting Shakespeare’s play into an opera change our understanding of the text? In this episode, host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore one of the most famous speeches in literature, its transformation into opera, and why Hamlet’s brooding soliloquy continues to intrigue artists and audiences four centuries later.
Tenor Allan Clayton created the role of Hamlet in Brett Dean’s opera at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2017. Dean wrote this vocally and dramatically challenging part specifically for Clayton: he would have him read monologues from Shakespeare’s original in order to get a sense of his voice and once even emailed him changes during an intermission.
Opera dramaturg Cori Ellison worked closely with composer Brett Dean and librettist Matthew Jocelyn throughout the development of Hamlet. She was the staff dramaturg at the Glyndebourne Festival from 2012 through 2017, where Hamlet premiered, and has worked with opera companies around the world, including as a staff dramaturg at New York City Opera and Santa Fe Opera.
Actor and director Samuel West has worked across theater, film, television, and radio, but he was obsessed with Shakespeare's Hamlet. He starred as the Danish prince (whom he describes as “a floppy-shirted noodle”) for one year and three days with the Royal Shakespeare Company. But who’s counting?!
Jeffrey R. Wilson is a faculty member in the Writing Program at Harvard, where he teaches a course called “Why Shakespeare?” He feels that Shakespeare is still so popular because of the deep and varied problems his plays present: textual, theatrical, thematic, and ethical problems. He is the author of three books, including Shakespeare and Trump and Shakespeare and Game of Thrones.