Peculiar protagonist, that Danish prince.
“He’s an unlikely beast,” concurs Brisbane-born, Berlin-based composer Brett Dean of the tragic son of Old Hamlet and Gertrude, a man haunted by the ghost of his late father much like opera creators are spooked by indelible quotations.
To be or not to be … To thine own self be true … Brevity is the soul of wit … To sleep, perchance to dream. Perhaps this over-familiarity of the lines in arguably the Bard’s greatest play is why some three dozen composers – Mendelssohn, Bizet and Verdi among them – failed to make a Hamlet opera stick in the repertoire.
“No other Shakespeare play, not even King Lear, matches Hamlet for famous lines,” muses Dean over a cup of tea near his temporary digs in Sydney’s wharf-side Woolloomooloo, the day after wielding his conductor’s baton for a Sydney Symphony Orchestra Rachmaninoff concert at the Opera House. “We were stumped for quite a while about the famous soliloquy thing.”
Only French composer Ambroise Thomas’ 1868 effort gets revived in contemporary times, with a peculiar disregard for Shakespeare’s dramatic template: “It’s got a ballet and a happy end and it’s all very, very odd,” Dean chuckles.
Dean’s own take on Hamlet is the Australian composer’s second opera, after Bliss in 2010. It premiered to acclaim at Glyndebourne in June 2017. “Dean’s music offers great brilliance,” wrote Rupert Christiansen of Hamlet in the UK Telegraph.
With a libretto by Canadian Matthew Jocelyn and directed by Neil Armfield, the production has its Australian premiere at the Adelaide Festival in March.
Dysfunctional families and intrigue make Hamlet a highly contemporary story, while love and betrayal, madness and grief are all classic opera themes. “But it’s a very internal story, it’s about what’s going on in someone’s mind, so you don’t see a lot of the action,” says Dean. “I saw that as a strength, from an operatic point of view.”
Reading the standard text takes more than five hours, so Shakespeare’s pithy, strange, so-called ‘bad’ first quarto – as well as later scripts – was consulted, unlocking this new operatic Hamlet. “We bypassed the burden of expectation you have with overly famous lines,” says Dean. “It was familiar but different; a lot shorter.”
In a prelude to this Hamlet, last December Dean was awarded the $15,000 Paul Lowin prize for his String Quartet No 2 (‘And once I played Ophelia’). Dean makes the case that the young Danish noblewoman and Hamlet’s potential wife, who meets a tragic end, is feistier than the tragic character of literary lore.
“We’ve taken some words from other characters and given them to Ophelia, and fleshed her out,” says Dean. “Their relationship is uncannily contemporary. There’s a lot of debate over whether they’re sexually active as a couple, but I do see something incredibly contemporary, particularly in Hamlet’s asides to her – Lady, shall I lie in your lap? … Do you think I meant country matters? – that’s quite dirty talk.
“He’s using comedy, but there’s a message in there. ‘I know you,’ he’s saying.”
Dean says it is important for feminist and musical reasons that the female roles are maximised. “When you’ve got eight male leads, and only two women, which in Shakespeare’s day were played by men as well, it’s really important from a sonic perspective to introduce the women’s voices.”
Dean’s wife, artist Heather Betts, has been critical in inspiring this new Hamlet. Over five years, she created a cycle of paintings inspired by the story, which will be exhibited in Adelaide while the opera is staged.
Betts was working almost like a librettist, gleaning information from single lines from the text, even suggesting the opera should depict Horatio as a dog, such is his subservience to Hamlet. In the end, naturalism won the day, and the idea was abandoned.
“Our relationship together is very cross-fertilising, cross-pollinating,” says Dean. “It was more than anything else Heather’s chutzpah, her going-for-it attitude at a point where I was going, ‘Oh, Hamlet, that’s big’, it struck me as too big for me, she said, ‘Oh rubbish, what would William himself say? He’d say, Go for it’. And go for it, she did.”
The couple met in 1981, when they were both playing in the viola section of the Australian Youth Orchestra, and fell in love in Japan when they were both chosen to take part in a pan-Pacific music camp. Their eldest daughter Lottie Betts-Dean, 27, is a mezzo-soprano. Kiki Betts-Dean, 25, works for a non-government organisation. Both live in London.
“It’s been an incredibly wonderful and fruitful relationship in all sorts of ways: artistically, but also two wonderful girls and all these years we’ve had together,” says Dean. “I feel blessed.”