Hamlet: An Opera – Background

In 2004, Toronto-born composer Mark Richards began work on his largest and most ambitious artistic project to date—a full-length opera on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Adapting the libretto himself from the Bard’s classic play, Richards spent the five summers from 2004-2008 writing both a piano and chamber orchestra version of the opera, which spans four acts and runs two and a half hours in length. During its composition, he presented a variety of excerpts in concerts in Toronto and Stratford and received an enthusiastic audience response each time. The orchestral version of the opera was given a workshop and public reading in Stratford in summer 2008.

Writing the Opera:
The Music

In setting Shakespeare’s masterful play Hamlet as an opera, Richards had three main goals in mind. First, he aimed to set the text to music that would express a wide range of emotions in a universally comprehensible way. With themes of murder, revenge, love, and hate, emotions run high in the play, and it is Richards’ belief that, in order to achieve any degree of success with the opera, the music must resonate with the audience. The composer therefore makes use of a melodious and lush sound that has scarcely been heard since the nineteenth century, as, for example, in the first act’s Trio “Believe thee not Lord Hamlet’s vows” or the final act’s Quintet “O how I loved Ophelia.” Even so, Richards has attempted to keep the melodies and streams of chords in this work sounding fresh and interestingly new. With this synthesis of new and old, Richards has aims at creating a style of classical music appropriate to the twenty-first century.

The Text

Richards’ second aim for the opera was to retain as much of the original text as possible. But as Shakespeare’s longest play with over 4000 lines, fashioning a suitable libretto was no small task. And since words generally take longer to sing than they do to speak, cuts to the text are a necessity. Taking a cue from Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film version of Hamlet, Richards shortened the play by omitting the Players’ scenes as well as the characters of Fortinbras, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Nevertheless, many familiar lines remain intact such as Marcellus’ “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” or Polonius’ “To thine own self be true,” and sections that Shakespeare intended to be sung needed no alterations at all, as in Ophelia’s mad songs or the Gravedigger’s song.

"To be or not to be..."


But when it comes to that granddaddy of all soliloquies, Hamlet’s “To be or not to be,” there are a number of problems a composer faces. If one alters the text for musical purposes, many would cry foul—for how can one change what is quite possibly the greatest speech ever written? On the other hand, singing every word of the speech would draw it out far too long. And one cannot simply leave it out, since it is the most familiar part of the play. Richards’ solution? To retain every word of the original text, but have it spoken to musical accompaniment. And to ensure that the singer’s performance of the speech is synchronized with the music, Richards has meticulously written out the exact speech rhythms for him to perform. This unique approach to the problem highlights the soliloquy in a way that no melody ever could.

Ensemble Numbers

As a third goal for the opera, Richards wanted to include enough “ensemble” numbers (those that combine two or more voices) to give it variety. Since much of Hamlet the play is given to lonely soliloquizing, finding places for ensembles must give composers pause. Some scenes provide obvious opportunities, as when the King and Laertes plot Hamlet’s death, which becomes a fiery duet in the opera. But in others, Richards has allowed himself some creative licence. For example, in the play, the scene in which Polonius shows the King Hamlet’s love letters to Ophelia becomes a flashback scene in the opera and the words of the letters become a melodious love duet between Hamlet and Ophelia. With these goals in mind, Richards has attempted to produce an operatic work that will be of lasting value to both the public and musicians alike.

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