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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

HUMPHREY SEARLE'S 'HAMLET'

The composer talks to Martin Kingsbury (1968)

M.K. There are widely divergent views today on the state of contemporary opera. Auden has claimed that it is the only repository of the grand style; for Boulez opera-writing is dead. How do you react to these views?

H.S. One starts with the fact that there is a great public for opera. This is true in this country and America, and of course especially in Germany, where the 80 or so West German opera houses are presenting not only classic and romantic favourites but also modern works to full audiences every night. No, opera-writing is not dead, except perhaps for those composers who create for themselves compositional difficulties that are virtually insuperable. There are still many valid ways of articulating drama through music - for example, music theatre stemming from Brecht and Weill, and what Alexander Goehr and Harrison Birtwistle are trying to do which is operatic but not at all 'grand'. The essence is that music, by heightening the action and the atmosphere, can add a different dimension to theatrical drama. This is as true today as it has been in the past.

M.K. It is obviously no easy matter to match and extend the insights of a Shakespeare play. Had you been considering 'Hamlet' for an opera before the Hamburg commission?

H.S. I had first thought of Antony and Cleopatra - that was before I heard of Barber's plans. Certain scenes here, particularly those between Antony and Cleopatra, offer marvellous operatic possibilities. But all the politics - messengers rushing in saying things like 'By Pompey is Great Labienus ta'en' - is very confusing to an audience who might not understand the words anyway. On the other hand, in Hamlet practically all the action happens on stage, and there is a continuously strong plot which unfolds before your eyes and which, indeed, you can believe in. In fact, in my opera I have shown on stage two scenes which are only reported in the play - the scene where Hamlet takes Ophelia's hand and looks at her for a long time and, later on, Hamlet's switching of the letters carried by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The one important event I had to have reported was the death of Ophelia, though I had toyed with the idea of film projections.

M.K. When you were shaping the libretto did familiarity with the great Shakespearean operas help you at all in coming to terms with the demands of language and plot?

H.S. Yes. I was particularly impressed by the poetical atmosphere of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. He showed that it was possible to set Shakespeare's own words. Foreign composers, such as Verdi in Otello have had an advantage in the sense that working in translation they have not been obliged to follow the original so closely.

M.K. Both Britten and Verdi found it necessary to refashion the action of the original plays fairly extensively.

H.S. The very strength of the plot in Hamlet allowed me to follow Shakespeare's sequence very closely. A few scenes that do not specially forward the central action had to be cut. I also replaced the ghost scene, which acts as a prelude at the beginning of the play, by an atmospheric orchestral prelude. For the rest, it was a question of paring down Shakespeare's lines. He does often repeat the same idea to get it over to the audience. With the direct impact of music and because of its more deliberate time-scale, these repetitions are less desirable. The music of the three acts lasts, in fact, for about 24 hours, which is not excessively long.

M.K. At Hamburg I found the dramatic flow extremely gripping particularly in the last act culminating in that magnificent funeral march. But the psychological pace was correspondingly fast and I felt this was due very much to the way in which you had portrayed Hamlet himself.

H.S. Yes, I don't see him as an introspective dreamer, but much more as a man of action. I think the political aspect of the drama is very important, which is why I have kept Fortinbras in the opera and made quite a lot of him.

M.K. The political aspect? Is this connected with the theme in your two previous operas of an individual pitted against a hostile society?

H.S. Well, the theme of the individual and society I have followed out in many of my works - in Gold Coast Customs, for example, as well as in the operas. The diary of a madman shows a man who goes insane because he thinks that society is against him. On the other hand Berenger, in The photo of the Colonel, is the common man trying to get to the bottom of the evil that is around him. Hamlet, again, is at odds with his surroundings and feels that he has been denied his rights - a highly contemporary theme. This is why younger people today are in particular sympathy with Hamlet. I noticed that the large audiences at the David Warner performance at the Aldwych a few years ago were composed of mainly younger people - I believe the same is now happening with Nicol Williamson at the Round House.

M.K. Hamlet's monologues, being the still centres round which the action revolves, must have been far harder to set than the more overtly dramatic sequences such as his encounters with his mother and Ophelia, or the duel.

H.S. Yes, Hamlet's monologues are, of course, central to the action. But they are all different in character, which was helpful for me. The two in Act 1 show anger, directed in the first against the King and Queen, in the second against himself for his inactivity - taking the form of a triple crescendo as he spurs himself to action. Then within the space of a day there is a complete reversal of mood with his contemplation of suicide in 'To be or not to be'- my setting naturally is quiet for the most part. And finally there is a more military flavour to 'How all occasions', inspired as it is by the sight of Fortinbras's army and their fight for a piece of ground not worth two ducats, while Hamlet himself has something real to fight for but cannot bring himself to do so.

M.K. The free arioso style in which you have set the words throughout serves to produce great clarity and intelligibility, but were you ever tempted to create more clear-cut aria forms?

H.S. No; the old-fashioned aria really is rather dead. Even in Lulu you only get the one set-piece, Lulu's aria in the second act; otherwise it is all arioso setting which I feel is valid for a modern opera. Janacek does the same. In setting such a marvellous text, I have kept to the natural rhythms of speech to make the words as audible as possible. For the same reason I have kept the orchestral writing generally rather restrained, but with as many contrasts of colour as possible. The lyric sections of course, I have set in a different way. Ophelia's songs in the mad scene, and for that matter the parodistic gravedigger's songs, are kinds of un-tonal folksongs.

M.K. Though composed in a strict serial idiom, most of the music seemed to me very tonal and even romantic in feeling.

H.S. I used serialism more for coherence than anything else. Obviously an opera of this length cannot be sustained without a number of themes. So I adopted a Leitmotiv technique in which all the themes derive from a single note-row, based, incidentally, on the setting of 'To be or not to be'. There is also, of course, direct parody of romantic music, notably in the Player's speech and in the play scene. This is justified as a dramatic device, I think, in that the text here is in an idiom archaic in Shakespeare's time: it is full of classical allusions, all the lines rhyme, and so on. So I have paralleled this by writing the music in the late romantic style of 60 years ago. Similarly, the florid style of speech in the scene with Osric is matched by melismatic vocal lines, and when Hamlet addresses Yorick's skull we hear rather ghostly music representing the parties he remembers from his childhood.

M.K. To return to your use of themes: I found their interaction very effective in portraying the response of individual characters to the elements of the action, particularly with their associated instrumental tone-colours.

H.S. Yes, I tried to keep the themes associated with the different characters as varied as possible. Fortinbras, being a military character, obviously gets a certain amount of brass which one hears several times in advance of his appearance in the last act. Hamlet has at least two themes, varying with his moods of action or inaction, as well as a figure in the brass which appears during his fits of rage, in the 'Nunnery' scene, for example, and the scene where he struggles with Laertes in Ophelia's grave. Ophelia's theme, which appears mainly on the oboe, is frequently underpinned by forceful orchestral figures, showing her to be not at all the wilting creature of some productions. The King I see as rather a smooth man - he either becomes rather oily on the bass clarinet, or else gives a superficial impression of warmth on strings and flutes. The Queen has two themes - an innocent version representing her as she sees herself, and an inverted form as Hamlet sees her. This second theme, or the easily recognisable King's theme, appears as a comment on the ideas in Hamlet's mind when he speaks of lechery or incest or anything of the sort.

M.K. You mentioned film projection earlier. Did you consider employing any other of the more spectacular effects of which the modern theatre is capable?

H.S. Well, I have used electronics in my two previous operas, and I did consider them for the ghost. Electronics, though, are apt to sound too much like electronics. I felt the effect I wanted could be made just as well with normal orchestral sounds, though I have suggested amplification for the profundo voice of the ghost. My concern in general for clear dramatic expression in the music - without any gimmicks - should, I feel, be matched by a fairly direct presentation on stage.

M.K. 'Hamlet' has been widely admired - some have seen it as your finest work to date. Does it hold any clues for future works?

H.S. It may do. I enjoyed writing it, certainly - and one by-product is the setting of Rimbaud's poem Ophélie for soprano and piano that I have just completed.

NOTE: Hamlet was composed between June 1963 and January 1968 and received five performances at the Royal Opera House on 18, 22, 26, 29 April and 2 May 1969.


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